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Could Cincinnati Shake Up the College Football Playoff Field?

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Alabama and Ohio State have lost. Clemson has lost twice. Georgia is in pole position for a first national title in more than 40 years. But in a college football year of the unexpected, perhaps the most startling news is this: Cincinnati is the No. 2 team in the country.

With a record of 6-0, the Bearcats are now in line to be the first non-Power 5 team to make the four-team College Football Playoff. (Notre Dame is an independent in football, but its storied history, huge fan base and big budget mean it is considered the equivalent of a Power 5 team.)

But will Cincinnati make it? And how did this happen in a sport in which a handful of elite teams always seem to be at the top?

Where did Cincinnati come from?

Cincinnati does not have a storied football history. It has never won a major bowl game — the Bearcats have an 8-9 record in bowls — and was 4-8 as recently as 2017, Coach Luke Fickell’s first season. But under Fickell the team has since vaulted up the college football hierarchy with just two, three and one losses the last three seasons.

Last year, Cincinnati was undefeated in the regular season but was overlooked for the playoff and lost to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. The team was ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press Top 25 going into this season, a sign that it was at least on the radar of fans and the news media.

Are the Bearcats going to make the playoff?

Just about everyone agrees that Cincinnati must finish the regular season undefeated to make the playoff.

The Bearcats have finished their nonconference schedule and now must play only fellow American Athletic Conference teams. Most of those teams are not especially strong: Cincinnati is favored by 28 points at Navy this weekend, for example.

The biggest danger in the six games left on Cincinnati’s regular season schedule is Southern Methodist, which is 6-0 and the only other ranked team in the American at No. 21. The game is in Cincinnati, however, and the Bearcats could easily be two-touchdown favorites. After the season, Cincinnati must play in the conference championship game, quite possibly against S.M.U. again. If the Bearcats do win the regular season crown, they will host this game as well.

There is another wrinkle to Cincinnati’s playoff hopes beyond the results of games. When the first official playoff rankings come out on Nov. 2, there is no guarantee that Cincinnati’s spot will match its position in the A.P. poll, because the playoff committee is a different group of voters. In the past, the playoff committee has shown a reluctance to rank teams from smaller conferences very highly.

Fickell acknowledges that bigger teams, even with a loss, might be preferred: “Now, can Georgia get in with one loss? We’ve seen it. Alabama? Darn right. Ohio State? We’ve already seen it,” he said. “It is what it is. I think those teams do get the benefit because of what they’ve done. And I’m not saying they don’t deserve it, because they do.”

Are they really the second best team in the country?

Plenty of Power 5 believers are skeptical that any team from another conference could legitimately be ranked No. 2. Cincinnati played several weak teams to start the season, and their conference opponents are far below the quality found in, say, the Southeastern Conference.

But the team has one huge plus, a 24-13 victory over Notre Dame in South Bend. Notre Dame is otherwise 5-0, is ranked No. 13 and has defeated Wisconsin. Before the Cincinnati loss, Notre Dame was widely being propped up as a possible playoff participant.

Still, computer rankings, which take into account margin of victory and strength of schedule, tend to rate Cincinnati a bit lower. Jeff Sagarin ranks the Bearcats fifth, and Kenneth Massey only ninth. Fivethirtyeight’s model gives them a 37 percent chance of making the playoff, fourth highest behind Georgia, Oklahoma and Alabama.

And as Cincinnati continues to play within the A.A.C., its strength of schedule may fall some in comparison to major-conference teams.

Look deeper into the stats and Cincinnati has some good numbers: It is scoring 43.5 points a game, sixth best in the nation, and surrendering just 13.7, third best. Jerome Ford’s 12 rushing touchdowns rank him second in the country.

How unusual is this?

No team from a conference outside the Power 5 — the Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 Conferences — has ever made the playoff, and none has even come particularly close.

The inaugural playoff selections in the 2014 season set the tone: No non-Power 5 team was higher than Boise State, all the way down at No. 20.

Central Florida was the first team to really make an impact in the playoff rankings, finishing 12th in 2017 and eighth in 2018. And it took undefeated seasons to be ranked that high, still well removed from the top four spots.

Then last year, Cincinnati was 9-0 in the abbreviated regular season and matched Central Florida’s eighth-place finish. Still, it seemed as if even an undefeated team from one of the smaller conferences would never make the playoffs.

How could an expanded playoffs in the future change things?

The N.C.A.A. is expected to expand the playoffs in the future to 12 or eight teams. While most of the extra slots could go to Power 5 also-rans, there also could be more room for smaller conference schools having outstanding seasons.

But not a lot of spots. In the seven years of the playoff rankings, only four non-Power 5 schools have made the top 12. The proposals for expanded playoffs suggest reserving one spot at a minimum for smaller conference schools. As things stand, it seems unlikely that two or more will regularly get in.

Cincinnati won’t really be bothered though. By 2024, it will move to the Big 12.

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