Predictably, the hot takes were flying before the two teams had even left the field.
Cincinnati didn’t belong. Group of Five schools shouldn’t be included in the College Football Playoff. This one-sided game proves it.
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
Yes, the Bearcats were overwhelmed. Yes, they were outclassed. Yes, they were thoroughly outplayed. This playoff semifinal really wasn’t in doubt once the fourth quarter arrived and Alabama was driving to go up three scores in its 27-6 Cotton Bowl victory.
But, guess what? Oklahoma has performed worse than this on multiple occasions. So has Notre Dame. Maybe they shouldn’t be included then, if that’s the case. Michigan, in fact, was far less competitive than Cincinnati against what may be a worse team. The Wolverines trailed Georgia by 14 points just over 10 minutes after the opening kickoff, and never were in the game.
Cincinnati — the first Group of Five program to be included in the playoff — didn’t get embarrassed. It didn’t get run over. It trailed by two scores at halftime and had a number of opportunities, thanks to its gritty defense, to get back in the game. It never happened, because Desmond Ridder and Co. never could get going. The Alabama front seven never let them. The Bearcats were too conservative. They kicked field goals instead of going for fourth downs. They didn’t attack Alabama’s suspect secondary nearly enough, in part due to the unforgiving Crimson Tide pass rush.
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But Luke Fickell’s team belonged. It earned it, courtesy of a perfect season that included the second best win during the regular season, an 11-point victory at No. 5 Notre Dame, that only took a backseat to Alabama’s SEC title game victory over Georgia. Cincinnati also had a commanding victory over No. 20 Houston, and built up equity by nearly knocking off Georgia in the Peach Bowl a year ago on top of a 9-0 regular season.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that they belonged in the playoff,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “They gave us all we could handle in this game tonight. If we don’t stop them on fourth down a couple times and stop [them] in the red zone, this game could have been a lot closer.”
Look at the teams ranked after Cincinnati by the playoff committee. Notre Dame lost at home to the Bearcats, disqualifying the Irish. Ohio State, Baylor, Ole Miss and Oklahoma State each had two losses. The strength-of-schedule argument might work if we’re talking about the difference between one loss, but not two.
Cincinnati was in the game for three quarters. Notre Dame couldn’t say that the two times it was selected. In Oklahoma’s three trips to the playoff, only one of those games was decided by a single possession.
Unfortunately, the playoff — and in particular the semifinals — has been mostly blowouts. The first 15 games have been decided by an average of 20.9 points. Parity doesn’t exist in this sport. Alabama manhandled Georgia, which by all accounts is the second-best team in the country. The last three championship games have been decided by 73 points.
If Alabama goes on to win it all, this would be its seventh championship since 2009, and sixth dating back to 2011. Few teams can hang with the Crimson Tide, and few have beaten them. Cincinnati joined that not-so-exclusive club on Friday.
That doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve to be in the game. In fact, the Bearcats’ representative performance said exactly the opposite.
This performance likely didn’t convince the committee it had been missing out by passing over similar teams in recent years. But it also didn’t say it made a mistake. If anything, Cincinnati’s showing made a statement that the next Group of Five school that comes around with a deserving résumé shouldn’t be cast aside, either.