After defeating Tulsa 24-13 in week 8, the Cincinnati Bearcats are 6-1 which means they are bowl eligible for a second straight season, in Luke Fickell’s third year as head coach.
Here is the problem with being bowl eligible in the American Athletic Conference - the bowl tie-ins are terrible. The options include Military (just did that), Hawaii, Birmingham, Boca, Frisco, Cure, and the Bad Boy Lawn Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. Not one of these games gets you excited.
That’s why Cincinnati should just go with plan A - win the “Group of Five” access bowl bid. If you don’t know the situation, among the Group of Five conferences (AAC, Mountain West, C-USA, Sun Belt, MAC), the conference champion with the highest ranking in the final CFB Playoff rankings will receive an automatic bowl bid to one of the New Year’s Six bowls, which in 2019 is likely to be the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas (based on how the bowl games rotate their selections for at-large teams).
How can Cincinnati claim the Cotton Bowl bid?
Step 1 - Win AAC, by winning out
Let’s ignore the other factors now and the presence of other potential conference champions and focus on what Cincinnati can control. Bearcats have 5 games left - @ ECU, UConn, @ USF, Temple, @ Memphis. If Cincinnati wins all 5, they will win the AAC East division and play in the AAC Championship game. If they win that, and finish 12-1, with the lone loss being to Ohio State, there should be no doubt this team receives the highest ranking.
In 5 years of this system, the AAC has had the highest ranked G5 champion 3 times (Houston in 2015 and UCF in 2017, 2018). The other two years the bid went to the Mountain West (Boise St in 2014) and MAC (Western Michigan (2016).
It’s also possible if Cincinnati slips once, they could still potentially be in the mix. But the only way they can qualify is if they win the AAC Championship, so any slip ups cannot impact their overall standing in the East division.
Step 2 - Boise State and Appalachian State need to lose
Before week 8, Boise State was the clear front-runner for the Cotton Bowl. Say what you will about their soft schedule and the weak Mountain West in 2019, but an undefeated Boise State was not going to get passed over for a 1-loss Cincinnati or 1-loss AAC champion in general. On Saturday, Boise lost to BYU, a serious blow to their chances. It’s still possible Boise can go 12-1 and make an argument that their resume is better than 12-1 Cincinnati (resume would not realistically be stronger). It would help if they lose one more game, just to be safe. They host Wyoming on 11/9 and go to Utah State on 11/23. Those are the most likely losses at this point, before the MWC Championship, which would likely feature them against San Diego State or Fresno State.
Appalachian State is tricky. They are currently unbeaten with a win over UNC and a game against South Carolina coming up. Now, two wins over the “power 5” is certainly worthy of consideration, but those two teams may both finish around 6-6 and the rest of the Sun Belt is mediocre at best. I had a fun argument with fans on twitter about why an unbeaten App State would be left out. Among many reasons is the strength of schedule argument, but also the whole money argument. Is Appalachian State vs Notre Dame going to bring in more revenue than Cincinnati vs Notre Dame, or even SMU vs Notre Dame? I highly doubt it, especially when you consider SMU would be playing at “home” and Cincinnati has the Brian Kelly storyline. Remember, college football is all about money. Not fairness. Simply put, Appalachian State has three tough games remaining and a loss will eliminate them from the picture - @ South Carolina (11/9), @ Georgia State (11/16), @ Troy (11/29).
Step 3 - Just win
Did I say this already? Well, I’ll say it again - just keep winning. It’s fun to worry and think about this stuff. It’s fun to think about what a special season this could be. And there are certainly some barriers and other teams that can make things difficult for Cincinnati to achieve their goals, but the bottom line is if they win out through the AAC Championship, everything will work itself out and the Bearcats will be playing in Dallas on December 28.