Through the first seven years of the College Football Playoff, 10 of the 11 schools that have made the playoff have been a member of the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC. Notre Dame, an FBS independent, is the lone exception.
Already, that creates an uphill battle for Cincinnati, which is attempting to become the first conference-affiliated school that's not a member of one of those five conferences to make the College Football Playoff.
Here's how Cincinnati could potentially make the College Football Playoff.
Here's where the Bearcats stand through Week 10
The good news for Cincinnati — and arguably the prerequisite for its playoff hopes — is that the Bearcats are among the four remaining undefeated teams in the FBS. They're 9-0 through Week 10, with just four more games — if you include the American Athletic Conference Championship for which Cincinnati is projected to qualify — remaining on the schedule before the playoff selection day.
Eleven of the 28 teams that have qualified for the playoff in the past seven years have been undefeated, which means having a perfect record is the second-most common characteristic of playoff teams, behind only being a conference champion (24 of the 28 total playoff teams).
However, as previously mentioned, no team that has been a member of a conference that's not named the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC has made the playoff, so Cincinnati arguably has a higher bar to clear to make the playoff, based on the CFP selection committee's past rankings and its current and previous committee chairs' public statements.
In the Week 11 CFP rankings, Cincinnati climbed one spot to No. 5, behind Ohio State and ahead of Michigan, and the Bearcats' current ranking represents the highest ranking for a team that isn't a member of one of those five aforementioned conferences, excluding Notre Dame.
A two-loss team has never made the College Football Playoff and since three of the four teams that are currently ranked ahead of Cincinnati have one loss, each team is potentially, if not likely, one loss from being removed from playoff contention.
While Cincinnati's own history of going undefeated and failing to make the CFP, as well as that of other conference-affiliated programs from outside the Autonomy 5, have shown that nothing is guaranteed to a school in Cincinnati's situation, the Bearcats' most likely path to the playoff requires them to win the rest of their games and be 13-0 on selection day. That's absolutely a requirement.
To some degree, their fate is out of their control and in the hands of other top-10 teams and the selection committee. But given that a two-loss team has never made the playoff (and yes, neither has a team from the AAC), Cincinnati would benefit from a second loss for Alabama, whether to rival Auburn or to Georgia in the SEC Championship, and the same for currently top-10 Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, who still have two remaining games against each other.
Of course, the Bearcats will be rooting for losses suffered by Oregon, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, but those are trickier to forecast given where each team is ranked in relation to both Cincinnati and their respective upcoming opponents.
Analyzing the teams ranked ahead of Cincinnati
As previously mentioned, there are four teams ranked ahead of Cincinnati entering Week 11: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 Ohio State. By the season's end, Cincinnati would need to be ranked ahead of at least one of those teams — plus all of the teams currently ranked behind the Bearcats — in order to qualify for the playoff.
The good news for the Bearcats is that the top two teams, Georgia and Alabama, are currently in first place in the SEC East and SEC West, respectively. That means they're currently projected to play each other in the SEC Championship. If Georgia, which is considered the best team in the country according to the AP and coaches poll, plus the CFP rankings, proves it's the better team on the field, then Alabama would have two losses and a two-loss team has yet to make the playoff.
A second loss for the Crimson Tide could potentially represent an opening for Cincinnati to climb into the top four.
Another opportunity for Cincinnati lies in the trio of Big Ten teams that are currently ranked in the top 10. No. 4 Ohio State must still play No. 6 Michigan and No. 7 Michigan State, and each team has one loss, which means at least one of the Buckeyes, Wolverines or Spartans is guaranteed a second regular-season loss. Potentially two of those three teams will have at least two losses, if Ohio State wins at least one of those matchups, and a second loss would likely end the playoff hopes for any of those teams, based on past CFP rankings.
Ohio State closes its regular season with three ranked opponents: No. 19 Purdue, No. 7 Michigan State and a road game at No. 6 Michigan, then it would likely need to beat a fourth consecutive ranked opponent if it makes the Big Ten Championship. Cincinnati fans should be hoping the Buckeye squad has another slip-up against a ranked opponent, considering they are 0-1 against currently ranked opponents (Oregon); although, Ohio State beat a Minnesota team in Week 1 that was in the CFP rankings in Week 10 and a Penn State team that was ranked in the AP poll at the time.
However, keep an eye on Oklahoma (State)
As detailed above, in order for Cincinnati to make the playoff, it wouldn't only have to leapfrog at least one of the four teams that are currently ranked ahead of the Bearcats, but they must also stay ranked ahead of every other team that's currently ranked behind them (e.g. if Ohio State falls in the CFP rankings due to a theoretical loss to Michigan State, Cincinnati couldn't afford for Michigan State to then jump Cincinnati in the rankings).
As previously mentioned, there are four remaining undefeated teams in the country: No. 1 Georgia, No. 5 Cincinnati, No. 8 Oklahoma and No. 23 UTSA. The Sooners could potentially represent a pitfall for Cincinnati.
While the selection committee clearly has its reservations about both teams, given that both are undefeated, yet both are ranked outside of the top four, behind numerous one-loss teams, the Sooners' upcoming schedule provides them with more opportunities for top 25 wins than the Bearcats' schedule. Cincinnati closes the regular season with a road game at South Florida, a home date with SMU and another road game at East Carolina.
Houston, which is 8-1 and in first place in the conference with a 6-0 record in AAC play, isn't currently ranked in the CFP rankings, so even Cincinnati's projected opponent in a potential AAC Championship matchup wouldn't necessarily provide the Bearcats a top 25 win.
Oklahoma still has to play No. 10 Oklahoma State, No. 13 Baylor and Iowa State, the latter of which, while not ranked, is already bowl-eligible. Those teams are also sitting in second through fourth place in the conference, so if Oklahoma can make it through that stretch unscathed, then beat one of those teams in a rematch in the Big 12 Championship, then it would have more top 25 wins that Cincinnati, which beat No. 9 Notre Dame on the road.
Oklahoma State, which is in second place in the Big 12, is the conference's only one-loss team and it still has to play No. 8 Oklahoma, so if the Cowboys ran the table to win the conference championship with a 12-1 record, then it could potentially present the same threat to Cincinnati as Oklahoma.
Cincinnati's College Football Playoff rankings history
Through Week 11 of the 2021 College Football Playoff rankings, Cincinnati has been ranked in 14 of the 44 editions of the CFP rankings, which is tied for 31st nationally.
Here's where Cincinnati has finished in the CFP rankings during the playoff era:
- 2014: NR
- 2015: NR
- 2016: NR
- 2017: NR
- 2018: NR
- 2019: No. 21
- 2020: No. 9