It's always been a topic of debate, but one that never seems to sustain traction: can the AAC find a way into the College Football Playoff? Cincinnati continues to play at a high level, and the Bearcats even added a passing element into their dominance this weekend in their 49-10 win over Memphis. Throw in more struggles in the Big 12, and the possibility, though still slim, of getting into the playoff increases. So what has to happen for the Bearcats to make it? Let's take a look into the scenarios that have Cincinnati playing for a national championship.
First, it's obvious that the Bearcats must go undefeated for this to even be an option. That means winning the AAC Championship against either UCF, Tulsa, or SMU at this point. With how difficult it is for this conference to get into the playoff already, it has to be an undefeated Cincinnati team, especially since everyone else already has one or more losses. If they win out, they've given themselves a chance. From there, it all depends on a few things.
At this rate, Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State appear to be locks for the College Football Playoff. Not a surprise, but that means one final spot remains open. There are a handful of teams that Cincinnati would compete with for that spot, but there's a reason why the Bearcats should be considered better than them. If BYU and Boise State win out, neither should be considered better. BYU's a good team with Zach Wilson at the helm, but they wouldn't have a conference championship, something the Bearcats would have, and the Mountain West doesn't appear to be as strong as the AAC, which hurts Boise State. Coastal Carolina plays in one of the weakest conferences in the FBS, and the MAC champion also wouldn't have a strong enough schedule to compete with Cincinnati. Conference USA has just Marshall left, but strength of schedule would factor in there. Then, there's the Power 5 discussion.
While the Pac-12 hasn't started yet, there isn't a clear favorite to run away with the conference. Oregon and USC currently stand as the favorites in each division, but neither look dominant. They begin their season this weekend, but if it's anything like the Big 12, that conference would need a one-loss or less champion to snag the final spot.
Speaking of the Big 12, Oklahoma State technically hangs on as the conference's final hope for the playoff spot, but they just suffered their first loss to Texas and still has to face Oklahoma. They'd also most likely have to face one of those two teams or Iowa State again (who they only beat by three), so it seems unlikely that they'd escape with a conference championship and just the one loss. If Oklahoma, Texas, or Iowa State happen to win out, none deserve to be in the playoff over an undefeated Cincinnati team.
But what about the SEC, ACC, and Big Ten? Couldn't they get a second team in? Great question, and yes, this appears to be the Bearcats biggest obstacle in getting into the playoff. That and hoping the committee actually respects what they're doing (more on that later).
Alabama has a firm hold on the SEC (shocker), and it doesn't appear that anyone can really challenge them. Texas A&M is second in the West, but already lost to the Tide in a blowout loss. Even if they win out, a one loss and conference championship less Aggies team doesn't deserve to get in over Cincinnati. In the East, Georgia already has a loss to Alabama, but would get another shot if they win out and face the Tide in the conference championship. Florida is still a contender, with their rivalry with Georgia next week, and a conference championship game against Alabama if they win out. It seems like Georgia's the better team of the two, but still not good enough to beat Alabama. Which gives both two losses and would eliminate both from the fourth spot.
Clemson's the best team in the ACC, and only one scenario ruins things for Cincinnati. Trevor Lawrence is out this week when the Tigers face Notre Dame, an absence that weighs heavy on the game's potential outcome. Clemson needed a comeback to beat Boston College, but a loss to Notre Dame wouldn't hurt the Tigers in the eyes of the committee. With Lawrence back, a rematch in the ACC Championship Game seems inevitable with the Tigers most likely winning that. Two one loss ACC teams would get in the playoff, so Cincinnati needs to cheer for Clemson to win this weekend, and win the rematch. Miami technically is still a contender with one loss, but we saw how untrue that is when they faced Clemson.
Ohio State appears on the fast track, once again, to win the Big Ten. They just beat a now 0-2 Penn State team that was supposed to be their biggest competition, and Michigan just lost to Michigan State, who lost to Rutgers a week earlier. Indiana's undefeated, but it's a betting man would guess they'd finish the season with at least two losses. Purdue, Northwestern, and Wisconsin all remain undefeated through the first two weeks, but none have shown that they're on Ohio State's level. Two losses isn't unlikely for any of those teams either. Two losses is the key here, and I believe Cincinnati deserves the last spot over any of those teams. Should all of these scenarios happen, it just comes down to the committee's perception.
The College Football Playoff Committee's level of controversy hasn't exactly declined over the years, including its opinion on the AAC. In 2018, UCF, coming off of a national championship undefeated season and 21 game winning streak, was ranked 12th in the first CFP rankings, behind six one-loss teams and two, yes two, two loss teams. In 2017, the undefeated Knights were ranked 18th in the initial rankings. So history tells us to not get our hopes up, but it's clear that this year should be different.
If Desmond Ridder and the passing attack can continue at the rate they just displayed, this team demands playoff respect. Up front, the Bearcats have no problem competing with anyone, as their offensive line is a dominant and nasty group. Gerrid Doaks and Jerome Ford are great runners too. Defensively, the Bearcats are one of the best in the entire country. They've allowed just 12.0 points per game, fourth among teams that have played more than two games, and the talent level is elite across the board. Myjai Sanders continues to give everyone he faces a headache, and leads the team in tackles for loss (8.5) and sacks (5.0). Jarell White has taken over his new role as the leader at line backer and leads the team in tackles. The secondary is loaded with talent too, led by a rejuvenated and healthy James Wiggins. So if you're wondering if this team deserves a spot, the answer is yes.
At this rate, all Cincinnati needs to do is focus inward and win out. The rest of the country continues to struggle and take each other out of the running for a playoff spot. Even without playoff expansion, no two loss team deserves to be above Cincinnati this year. Will they be able to compete with the like of the 'Elite 3'? We won't know, but they deserve a shot. If there's ever a year the AAC's going to make it, it's this year. The year 2020 has already been a wild one, but seeing the Bearcats compete for a national championship would not only be fun, but make waves for a conference that's ready to shake up college football.