Sports

For Once, College Football’s Playoff Committee Might (Maybe, Accidentally) Do This Right

The best team outside the Power Five conferences is actually being treated fairly.

Ridder in helmet and pads on the field holding the football out to his left with his left hand, as if in celebration, while running with two Tulsa players and one Cincy teammate and fans in the stands in the background.
Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati scores a touchdown against Tulsa at Nippert Stadium on Nov. 6, in Cincinnati. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

We are in the eighth year of the four-team College Football Playoff. The selection committee that picks the teams hasn’t been consistent about everything over those years, but it’s been dogged about one thing: an eternal belief that teams from outside the Power Five conferences—the conferences that form the top half of the sport’s top division—are not worthy of serious consideration. That isn’t a new feature in college football, but a constant that’s transcended various postseason formats over decades. That only the rich schools get to play has been an unofficial postseason creed forever. The Playoff committee is an easier target than the computers that made up the old Bowl Championship series for two reasons: One is that it’s easier to yell at humans than machines. The other is that those humans have loudly insisted that all 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision are eligible for one of four spots, while never once taking one of those teams outside the Power Five.

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The wholesale exclusion of teams from the Group of Five conferences, FBS’ lower half, has become a cause célèbre among those of us who prefer college football to be at least a little fair to lower-budget, less prestigious programs than the 10 or 15 standard powers. The Playoff has picked 28 Power Five teams (including Notre Dame, which is independent in football, a few times) for 28 spots in seven years, but that’s not all. The Playoff’s governing board  has also made clear that it’s the big boys’ show in how it divides up the event’s TV money, with the powers getting many times more than everyone else. On the one hand, their big brands generate the money. On the other hand, other teams don’t get a shot to prove they can pull weight. From 2014 to 2020, the highest a Group of Five team ever reached in the Playoff rankings, at any point, was 2020’s Cincinnati getting to No. 7 briefly before finishing undefeated and going backward to No. 8. That’s the same spot where UCF topped out in 2018 at the tail end of its second-straight unbeaten season.

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2021 feels like a new world. When the first committee rankings came out Nov. 2, Cincinnati, then 8–0, was sixth—right on the precipice of the four-team field. Now the Bearcats are 10–0 and have inched up to fifth. Among fans and pundits, there’s been a bit of righteous anger that they’re not ranked higher, given that only one team ahead of them, No. 1 Georgia, has an unblemished record. But Cincinnati is in this thing, and has so far gotten a fair shake from the committee. The Wolf was nice to Little Red Riding Hood for a bit, too, but if there’s an outrage here, it hasn’t happened yet. Cincy has several different paths into the Playoff field, which will be revealed on Dec. 5.

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Something is odd about the Bearcats’ current place in the sport: They have the best chance a Group of Five team has ever had to make it, and they’re a banner-carrier for every team that got screwed before them. But they might not be a good vessel for this cause, because they’ve spent the past month (a third of the season in the ultimate small-sample-size sport) looking like something much less than one of the four best teams in the country. I’d like Cincinnati to get into the Playoff; it would be a small measure of justice for the whole Group of Five, and I would prefer watching the Bearcats than seeing Notre Dame or Oklahoma get blown out in another semifinal, as one or the other does annually. But for the moment, Cincinnati raises a weird question: Is it even possible for a team in its situation to miss the Playoff on the merits?

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It’s possible the conversation becomes moot before Selection Sunday. The Bearcats have to beat SMU, East Carolina, and Houston (in the American Athletic Conference Championship) to have a shot, and it’s not far-fetched to think  they’ll lose one of those games. They have one of the season’s best wins by anyone, a 24–13 win at Notre Dame in Week 5 that looked even more convincing than the score indicates. But recently they’ve been drab, struggling to various degrees in their past four games against AAC foes Navy, Tulane, Tulsa, and USF, four teams with a combined record of 9–30 and an average SP+ projection system ranking of 98.5 out of 130 teams. If Cincy keeps playing that way the next three weeks, the Bearcats will probably lose to someone. If they turn back into the destroyer they were early on this season, their case will look a lot better.

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Against that backdrop, to date, the committee has treated Cincinnati fairly. UC has been ranked ahead of the Big 12’s Oklahoma, which was undefeated until last weekend and, like Cincinnati, had a string of unimpressive wins against teams it should’ve beaten much more comfortably. The Bearcats are ranked sixth in SP+ and seventh in the Massey Composite, an aggregation of dozens of computer rankings. Computers shouldn’t pick the field, but it looks about right that the main adjustment humans have made is to have Cincinnati ahead of the Notre Dame team it beat. (In other cases this year, the committee has signaled it’s fine ranking teams ahead of opponents that beat them head-to-head. But it hasn’t happened to Cincinnati.) The biggest problem with the committee’s long-haul treatment of the Group of Five has been holding its top teams to something even more stringent than a double standard, where even going undefeated with some nice wins isn’t enough. Perversely, this year, the committee has not done that. Yet. (This analysis excuses that the committee currently ranks unbeaten UTSA 22nd, but such is life when the best team you’ve beaten is Western Kentucky. The Roadrunners are fun on their own terms.)

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Within a few years, the world will change in a way that will remove any Playoff doubt for Cincinnati—or for any team in Cincinnati’s position. The Bearcats will be in the Big 12 by 2024, one of the consequences of a Texas-and-Oklahoma–detonated realignment bomb that went off this summer. The Playoff is going to expand to either eight or 12 teams sooner or later. That will probably include an automatic spot for a Group of Five school, though haggling is already underway to make sure those schools retain second-class status even in a new system. But the Power Five will throw nonpowers some kind of bone, because the Power Five leaders who really control the Playoff know that, at some point, they need to provide some ammunition against arguments that the whole enterprise is a cartel designed to lock out the less fortunate, and they’ll make plenty of money on an expanded format anyway. A lot of people around the sport expect college football to eventually have a super league like the one European soccer’s elites flirted with in the spring, where the biggest schools can drop any pretense of sharing a playing field with nonpowers. We’re likely to see small steps in that direction in the near future. Until that process is complete, it benefits everyone to at least pay lip service to the concept that every FBS team has a chance to compete.

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All of this makes Cincinnati’s current season one of the most aberrant in recent history. The Bearcats are one of the best teams in the sport, and for a breath of fresh air, they’re being treated like it in a way that their predecessors were not. They exist in a transient moment, in the middle of wholesale change to the organization of college football. The people who hold the power here have ample reason to be concerned about public perception, given the myriad recent legislative and legal attacks on college sports’ economic model. For Power Five schools, not appearing to be colluding on anything seems like a useful goal right now, given the Supreme Court loss the NCAA took in a June case that was primarily about antitrust. It’s not the only dynamic at play, but I don’t think it’s overly tinfoil-hatted to see the Playoff selection committee’s newfound interest in a Group of Five team as somewhat responsive to these pressures, as unrelated as the Playoff field might seem to issues of athlete compensation and broader college sports governance. Several Playoff committee members, including chairman and Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, have Power Five administrative affiliations, which means they have to think about these issues in their day jobs. Now is a uniquely bad time for the biggest fish in this pond to look like they’re unfairly hoarding either competitive opportunities or cash, as they have done for a long while.

So here the Bearcats are, getting what looks like a real shot within a system that was arguably conceived and has absolutely functioned to keep out teams exactly like them. College football is a mind-bender in a lot of ways, but this might be its most distorting trick yet.

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