There has been a lot of discussion about the Group of Five’s involvement in the Playoffs, with UCF having won the American Athletic Conference each of the last two seasons with an undefeated record. Despite their success, they could not come close to cracking the top four.
2017 - finished 12th at the end of regular season, after starting the season unranked
2018 - finished 8th at the end of the regular season, after starting the season at #21
The first AP poll came out last week and Cincinnati starts in the “receiving votes” group at 38th overall, despite ending last season ranked #24, after going 11-2 with one of the nation’s youngest teams.
So....could Cincinnati make the playoffs in 2019? The easy answer would be “LOL NO”.
How can Cincinnati overcome the narrative against the Group of Five and fight through the barriers that stand in front of them?
I strongly believe there is a chance, even if its 1%, that Cincinnati can crash the party. But they need absolutely everything to go right in 2019.
Obviously for Cincinnati to have any chance, it starts with being undefeated. And what a story for the Bearcats to run the table during the 10 year anniversary season of their 12-0 Big East Championship team in 2009.
Yes, I know, UCF went undefeated too. But for the Bearcats, going undefeated means beating two big name Power 5 schools in UCLA and Ohio State. Right off the bat, the Buckeyes represent a significant upgrade in competition compared to who UCF has played each of the last two seasons out of conference. A win over Ohio State, following an opening season victory against a Bruins team that should be much improved, will get the attention of ESPN’s talking heads.
Strength of Schedule
This has consistently been the knock against UCF, that the non-conference portion of their schedule stinks and the AAC is nowhere near the caliber of one of the five major conferences.
Cincy hosts 2017 National Champions UCF at home. Knights have won 16 straight AAC games entering this season. They also face Houston and Memphis in divisional-crossover games, both on the road. Those are the top two teams in the conference so beating both and likely beating one again in the Conference title game would be a major strength of schedule boost.
To really benefit from a strength of schedule boost, Cincinnati would need the Buckeyes (after losing week 2) to dominate (but not too dominant), the Bruins to win the PAC-12 South (or at least come close), Marshall to win the Conference USA East (which they are projected by some to do) and Miami Ohio to win 7-8 games in the MAC.
Of course, this whole idea revolves around beating Ohio State and UCF. One seems hard enough, but both?
Cincinnati can control their own success. But they can go 13-0 and still not come close, like UCF. The only way to get close is for complete and absolute chaos to ensue.
“Chaos” starts with the simple idea that in 5 years of this Playoff format, no team has ever made it with more than 1 loss.
Here are the least far-fetched scenarios that could allow a 13-0 Cincinnati to claim one of the four spots.
The only realistic Playoff contender from the ACC is Clemson and there is no chance they lose more than 1 game (barring injuries). With four spots to fill, consider Clemson in.
Ohio State would enter Big Ten play with one loss already. So would it be crazy to think, two weeks later, they could lose at upstart Nebraska? Or end the season with a loss at Michigan?
Michigan hosts Ohio State, a team they have never beat under Jim Harbaugh. They also host Notre Dame, who beat them last year. They go to Wisconsin and to Penn State.
And if none of that works, there is always the Big Ten Championship Game. Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern, or Minnesota are unlikely to win the West with just 1-loss, so any of of those teams could beat Ohio State or Michigan to end the season.
Oklahoma opens the year against Houston, a team Cincinnati plays against. That would obviously be a best case scenario and really add some juice to this whole plan. There’s also the annual Texas game, which they lost last season and games at Baylor and Oklahoma State, two games with sneaky upset potential.
There is a good chance Texas plays Oklahoma twice, like they did last year meeting for a second time in the Big 12 Championship game. Longhorns host LSU week 2 and we will learn all that we need to early on. At Iowa State is a tough game and Tom Herman-coached teams have a history of letdowns, so a road loss somewhere in the Big 12 is far from crazy.
Alabama’s non-conference schedule is a cake walk. Their toughest game is probably at Texas A&M. There’s a really good chance they enter the SEC title game 12-0, and at that stage, even with a loss would likely be a lock for the Playoffs.
Beyond Alabama, Georgia has a good chance to compete for the Playoffs. Notre Dame comes to Athens and they play their annual Florida game. If they lose both of those, they are done. If they lose one and lose to Alabama in SEC title game, they are done.
LSU should be mentioned since them beating Texas is possible. But a loss to Alabama is likely and they have games against Texas A&M and Auburn.
Like last year, this conference may just cannibalize itself and knock itself out of Playoff contention. In addition to their annual divisional games, Oregon plays Auburn, USC plays Notre Dame, Washington and Utah meet in a rematch from 2018 PAC-12 title game, Stanford plays UCF, and Washington State plays Houston.
Irish made the playoffs last year after going unbeaten. They have three tricky road games at Georgia, Michigan and Stanford.
So to summarize, Cincinnati’s could make the playoffs if Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Notre Dame and every PAC-12 team lose two games. Plus they beat a UCF team that hasn’t lost an AAC game since 2016. Then, win on the road against a Houston team that was beaten them the last two meetings and a Memphis team that’s won three straight.
Oh and they have to win in Columbus and the Bearcats haven’t beaten Ohio State since 1897.
This should be easy!