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Cincinnati got screwed, and they aren’t the first ones

The Group of Five conferences are supposed to have a path to the College Football Playoff. But when they can’t even get a sniff when they’re undefeated... what’s the point here?

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell holds up the AAC Championship trophy with his players after the AAC Championship game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane and the Cincinnati Bearcats on December 19, 2020, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The University of Cincinnati finished the 2020 college football season at 9-0. They defeated a ranked Tulsa team in the American Conference Championship Game, and their league had plenty of quality wins on their schedule. And yet they didn’t even get a sniff of the College Football Playoff.

This isn’t a surprise, as what tends to happen is that one single team from a non-power conference has a great season, gets screwed out of an opportunity to play for a national championship, and then beats up on a power conference school in a bowl game. And it’s happened for over two decades now.

The Bowl Championship Series was created in 1998, and a change in the rules allowed more non-power-conference teams to participate in 2004. Since that tweak, here is every game where a team that was on the outside of a power conference (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, Big East) faced a power conference team in a major bowl game, including the College Football Playoff that began in 2014.

2004: #6 Utah (beat Pittsburgh 35-7 in Fiesta Bowl)
2006: #8 Boise State (beat Oklahoma 43-42 in Fiesta Bowl)
2007: #10 Hawaii (lost to Georgia 41-10 in Sugar Bowl)
2008: #6 Utah (beat Alabama 31-17 in Sugar Bowl)
2010: #3 TCU (beat Wisconsin 21-19 in Rose Bowl)
2012: #15 Northern Illinois (lost to FSU 31-10 in Orange Bowl)
2013: #15 UCF (beat Baylor 52-42 in Fiesta Bowl)
2014: #20 Boise State (beat Arizona 38-30 in Fiesta Bowl)
2015: #10 Houston (beat FSU 38-24 in Peach Bowl)
2016: #15 Western Michigan (lost to FSU 24-16 in Cotton Bowl)
2017: #12 UCF (beat Auburn 34-27 in Peach Bowl)
2018: #8 UCF (lost to LSU 40-32 in Fiesta Bowl)
2019: #17 Memphis (lost 53-39 to Penn State in Cotton Bowl)

The non-power conference teams are 8-5 so far, and 3-3 since the creation of the College Football Playoff. Yet in three of the last six years, the only reason they got a chance in the first place is because a single spot in the New Year’s Six is reserved for one of the G5 conference champions. Otherwise, they’d have been left on their couch or in some far-flung locale like Shreveport or Boca Raton to finish up the season.

And by the logic of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, in the last six seasons not a single other team from any of these conferences deserves to be one of the Top 12 teams in America? Like there can never be two Group of Five teams that are good at the same time?

With the exception of the 2016 Houston Cougars, who had luckily scheduled eventual Big 12 Champion Oklahoma and ACC co-division champion Louisville years in advance, there has been absolutely no path for any Group of Five team no matter what they’ve done. If that Houston team had run the table, they possibly would have made it.

But the Coogs lost at Navy (because in that era literally everyone lost at Navy), and the wheels came off later in the season.

But how could they know Oklahoma and Louisville would be big enough power wins years and years earlier? And with their quality wins, with another conference branding behind them they might have been able to survive a single loss... but that was off the table as soon as they lost by one score on the road to a team that lost one home game for more than five seasons.

The reality is if you’re playing in the Group of Five, you have no realistic path towards playing for a national championship. Which is such a shame when the fix is so easy:

  1. Make the Playoff eight teams
  2. Five conference champions, one spot for Group of Five team guaranteed, two at-large bids
  3. Profit

Everyone makes more money because there’s more playoff games on TV, you don’t devalue the regular season since conference championships now matter and at-large privileges are so exclusive no one feels guaranteed of getting one, and the Group of Five doesn’t go to court and sue you for monopolizing the product.

Win, win, win. You know, just like the G5 does most of the time when they play a power conference school when it matters.