The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cincinnati needed a perfect storm to make the CFP. The clouds are gathering.

Desmond Ridder and Cincinnati's win over Notre Dame in October has the Bearcats on the verge of a College Football Playoff spot. (Darron Cummings/AP)
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Mark your calendars. Synchronize your watches.

It is very possible that, shortly after noon on Dec. 5 — whenever the ESPN talking heads mercifully stop talking — hell will freeze over. The apocalypse might arrive.

Or both.

That’s because it is now entirely possible that when the four College Football Playoff teams are “unveiled” at that hour, the University of Cincinnati will be among the chosen four.

If the Bearcats win their next two games — on the road against a solid East Carolina team Friday and then against 10-1 Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship game — the CFP committee, a.k.a. the Genius 13, will have no choice but to include them in the playoff.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that it would take a court order — at least — to get a team from the Group of Five conferences a slot in the four-team playoff. That’s one of the reasons I’ve pushed for years for an eight- or even 12-team playoff: to give the non-powers the kind of opportunity they get in the NCAA basketball tournament. The magic of that event isn’t the Final Four, it’s the first weekend, when Oral Roberts beats Ohio State, Ohio University beats Virginia and Abilene Christian beats Texas. Those are all upsets that took place this past March.

It turns out that I was wrong. All it has taken is a perfect storm to get Cincinnati into position where it will be impossible for the Genius 13 not to admit the Bearcats to the previously closed club of power schools (28 bids in seven seasons, 28 spots to power schools). A year ago, the Bearcats were 9-0 and the G-13 ranked them eighth in their final poll, sending them to play Georgia in the Peach Bowl. The Bulldogs rallied late to win, 24-21. That is Cincy’s only loss among 20 wins over the past two seasons.

So, how did we get to the point where the members of the G-13 must feel as if they are strapped into a dentist’s chair, having a root canal without Novocain?

Cincinnati makes history by joining Ohio State in the CFP’s top four

It started when Cincinnati went to Notre Dame Stadium, where the Irish had won 26 straight games, and handily beat them, 24-13, never trailing.

The G-13 love Notre Dame because it always provides big TV ratings, especially when it is good or even reasonably good. Ask NBC. But the loss to Cincinnati, at home, meant it was impossible to jump the Irish over Cincinnati unless the Bearcats were to lose. And so, to prove it wasn’t completely ignoring the Group of Five, the G-13 placed Cincinnati sixth in its initial poll. Three one-loss teams — Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State — were ranked ahead of the Bearcats. It was the classic CFP committee pat-on-the-head: We love you, little guy, now keep winning so you can get the one New Year’s Six bowl bid we’re required to hand out.

Cincinnati kept winning. But then unbeaten Michigan State (ranked No. 3 in the initial poll) lost — twice, once to Purdue and then to Ohio State by a mere 56-7. So long, Spartans. Still, unbeaten Georgia was a clear-cut No. 1 and the committee loves Alabama almost as much as it loves Notre Dame, so the Crimson Tide stayed No. 2 and Oregon — thanks in large part to its win at Ohio State — was No. 3, despite losing to a bad Stanford team.

Cincinnati was No. 5 — still safe for the G-13 because Georgia’s getting in even if it loses to Alabama in the SEC title game; the Tide might still get picked even if it loses to Georgia; Oregon wasn’t likely to lose to anyone in the Pac-12 and the Ohio State-Michigan winner would almost surely win the Big Ten title and be, at worst, the fourth playoff team.

All good. Until Oregon went and got crushed Saturday by a three-loss Utah team. Now, the G-13 are trapped. They still can’t jump Notre Dame over Cincinnati, much as they would love to do so. If Michigan beats Ohio State for the first time since Bo Schembechler was the coach — calm down, Michigan fans, I’m joking — then the Wolverines would replace a two-loss Ohio State team in the top four.

Meep, meep. Here come the UTSA Roadrunners, college football’s other unbeaten team.

The winner of Oklahoma-Oklahoma State on Saturday is going to campaign for a spot in the top four. That’s not happening. The Sooners have zero wins against currently ranked teams, and they struggled, for crying out loud, against Kansas. The Cowboys have one win against a ranked opponent — Baylor at home — and were lucky to beat Tulsa, which is a gaudy 5-6.

Nope, no help there.

The only hope for the G-13 is that Cincinnati loses to either East Carolina or Houston. This isn’t out of the question: The Pirates, especially at home, are a good team, and Houston is an excellent team period. The Cougars lost their opener to Texas Tech and have won 10 straight since then, a streak that will certainly reach 11 Saturday when they play pathetic Connecticut.

One would think that Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati team has its eye on the prize right now. The Bearcats routed a good SMU team, 48-14, on Saturday and appear to have put their midseason malaise, which led to a couple of close games, behind them.

The G-13’s best hope right now might be for Georgia to beat Alabama and knock the Tide out of contention. It could move Cincinnati to third and its beloved Irish to fourth — assuming a Notre Dame win Saturday over 3-8 Stanford. The G-13 could then match Georgia against Notre Dame in one semifinal and, if Ohio State wins out, have a battle for Ohio between the Buckeyes and Bearcats in the other semifinal.

At least that might numb their pain.

Of course, the solution to spilling all these words would be to expand the playoff to at least eight teams. This year you could add to the top quartet, from the current rankings: Notre Dame, the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State winner, another Power Five school like 9-2 Mississippi and San Diego State or Brigham Young. There would still be arguments, but it would no longer take a perfect storm for the G-13, kicking and screaming, to take a non-Power Five school.

There are still games to be played. And a Cincinnati loss would take all the fun out of this. But if the Fightin’ Fickells can win twice more, Dec. 5 should be a historic day.

Heck, G-13 committee chairman Gary Barta might even say something worth hearing. Hang on, that’s really too much to hope for. Let’s settle for an unbeaten Cincinnati getting in the playoff — or a successful landing on Mars.

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