CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bearcats stand on the precipice of College Football Playoff history.
They did everything asked of them in a celebratory 35-20 win over Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship game Saturday to put themselves in position to become the first Group of 5 team to make the playoff.
The CFP selection committee will release its final rankings on Sunday. The résumé speaks for itself: Cincinnati finished 13-0 with a marquee win over No. 6 Notre Dame, and put together an impressive conference championship performance that should answer any questions the committee might have had headed into the day. Notre Dame might well move up from No. 6 by Sunday, further strengthening the Bearcats’ win in South Bend, Indiana.
Cincinnati has been ranked No. 4 over the past two weeks. With No. 5 Oklahoma State losing its Big 12 championship game to Baylor, it would be hard for the committee to justify dropping the Bearcats from that No. 4 perch.
Coach Luke Fickell has not wanted to discuss the playoff implications, but without question his team has been in the national spotlight and handled the increasing questions and pressure as if they did not exist. Perhaps that is because the Bearcats were here a year ago.
“I don’t know what to say. Those seniors did an unbelievable job,” Fickell said in his postgame on-field interview on ABC. “They said, this is on us, and they went out and did it.”
But the key difference is the playoff door opened wide for the Bearcats this year in a way that was denied to them in 2020: Last year the Bearcats went undefeated and won the American conference title, too, but finished No. 8 in the final CFP rankings.
“They’ve done everything they’ve been asked to do,” Fickell said. “I told them to take care of everything that happens on the field, and they did. They deserve everything that’s coming to them.”
They had momentum going for them headed into the year with a preseason No. 8 ranking thanks to a veteran-laden team that returned some of its best players: quarterback Desmond Ridder, cornerback Ahmad Gardner and defensive end Myjai Sanders.
The 24-13 win at Notre Dame changed the calculation. For years, the committee has emphasized the need for Group of 5 teams to win marquee road games against nonconference opponents. Cincinnati did just that, and did not squeak out a win, either. It deserved to win that game.
But it is not just Cincinnati that has gone undefeated in the Group of 5. In 2017 and 2018, UCF also completed undefeated seasons in the American Athletic Conference, but never got close to the top four. After beating Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, UCF self-declared itself national champions as the only undefeated team that year — and as a way to express its frustration with never gaining any playoff consideration.
It is on the backs of those seasons, and their own in 2020, that Cincinnati has arrived at this moment. It has not been easy, of course. Several sluggish performances against teams like Navy, Tulane and Tulsa this season raised questions about whether the Bearcats deserved a top-four spot. But their past month has been spectacular, and they left no doubt against Houston.
Cincinnati broke the game open in the second half after taking a 14-13 lead into the break. The Bearcats scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter — benefitting from a pass interference call on fourth down to keep the drive alive. Ridder threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Leonard Taylor to increase the lead.
“This is why I came back,” Ridder said in his postgame on-field interview on ABC. “For this [win], and for these people right here. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
On the next Houston possession, Joel Dublanko intercepted a Clayton Tune pass thrown right to him down the middle of the field, and Cincinnati converted it into another score on a beautiful 21-yard pass to Alec Pierce in the corner of the end zone. But the Bearcats weren’t done. On their next offensive possession, Jerome Ford rushed for 42 yards to increase the lead to 35-13 and send the Nippert Stadium crowd into a frenzy.
They knew like everybody else: History was nearly theirs.
“Now, we’re on to another one,” Ridder said. “We take it one game at a time here, and now we can go try to win a national championship.”