Cincinnati aims to prove it’s more than a Cinderella by breaking into exclusive College Football Playoff

College football has never embraced Cinderella. You know, the gutty, little underdog that takes on giants — that lifeforce that is, in basketball, the lifeblood of the NCAA Tournament.

Whatever you want to call it — tradition, snobbery, whatever — college football has been an exclusive gated community for a century and a half. Only the privileged have the password.

Why, though? This country loves its underdogs. This country was once an underdog. It just doesn’t love them as much in college football.

“That’s the $64 million question,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said this week. “You have to earn that respect, of course. I think there is a feeling somehow that we don’t play at a particular level. I’ve never bought that.”

It’s his No. 4 Cincinnati that will try to break through what has, to this point, been a cement ceiling when it plays in the AAC Championship Game against No. 21 Houston on Saturday. Beat the Cougars, and the undefeated Bearcats have an extremely good chance of getting into the College Football Playoff.

They may not know it, but they’ll be carrying on their backs the hopes and dreams of scores of programs that were deemed — through athletic discrimination or even TV ratings — to not be good enough. What were once perceptions are now well-established labels: Power Five and Group of Five. Those labels are mostly media shortcuts, but the definitions are well known to those who follow the game.

The Power Five are the legacy conferences: ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. The Group of Five are the less-resourced leagues: American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt.

“There’s a difference in funding,” Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said of the Group of Five. “There’s a difference in national coverage. There’s a difference in what the CFP views as good football and not-good football. I don’t know how to change that.”

That might change this week. Las Vegas and Cincinnati’s inclusion would be a window into what an expanded playoff would look like. In a 12-team bracket, at least one Group of Five team would be guaranteed each year with room for more.

A TV consultant once said ratings would sag with such programs in the four-team field. That would beat getting sued by the Group of Five over monopolistic practices for exclusion. That’s how high the barrier has been for the have-nots.

The history of this struggle once reached the floor of the U.S. Senate during hearings on the subject. Turns out even Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is a Cinderella guy.

“The basic message is, ‘If David wants to slay Goliath, he better do it during the basketball season,’” McConnell said. “College football has no place for Cinderella stories. College football has no room for the underdog.”

That was 25 years ago.

The struggle continues today. Cincinnati has outlasted the slings and arrows of being relegated as something less than deserving. The same team it played to a standstill in the Sugar Bowl, Georgia, is the nation’s only other undefeated team. How’s that for a measuring stick?

The Bearcats beat two Power Five teams on the road in back-to-back games. One of them was ranked in the top 10 (Notre Dame). Those who think Cincinnati is undeserving are running out of excuses. Coach Luke Fickell isn’t taking any chances rat poison leaks into the program.

“We’ve locked everybody within our facility,” he said. “We’re not letting them go home. We’re not letting them go out. We’ve shut out all internet access. We’ve created our own little bubble here so nobody can leave.”

He was (obviously) kidding. But you get the point.

In one famous exchange from 10 years ago, former WAC commissioner Karl Benson said his teams deserved access because they had “been to the big stage”.

Powerful Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany countered: “The problem is your big stage takes away opportunities for my teams to play on the stage they created in 1902.”

That was the year the Rose Bowl debuted with Michigan defeating Stanford, 49-0. Benson’s WAC started in 1962.

Oh, underdogs have been celebrated in the moment. Boise State with the Statue of Liberty against Oklahoma. TCU with a Rose Bowl win in 2011. But the unwashed have never gotten a chance to play for a national championship in a winner-take-all game or bracket. Ever.

That is about to change if Cincinnati takes care of business. If it does, the groupthink of the 13 humans on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee would almost certainly have to result in placing the Bearcats in the bracket.

They would be going against decades of the opposite groupthink. Labels apparently matter.

“If you’re a blue-blood, tradition-rich, recognizable program, you can slip up and recover,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said this week. “Some of the other schools, when you get to this point, if you slip up you’re going to fall out. Whether we like it or not, that’s what happens with human nature.”

Oklahoma State is the one team that could potentially knock Cincinnati out of the playoff if Georgia, Michigan and Alabama all make it in, according to CBS Sports bowls expert Jerry Palm. The Cowboys, despite taking a loss, would have three wins over top 15 teams in the CFP Rankings compared to one for the Bearcats.

It has been a gradual process to apply those “have not” labels. When Army was ruling the game in the 1940s, it was considered the equivalent of Alabama today — a major power.

When BYU won the national championship in 1984, the Power Five and Group of Five labels did not exist. BYU simply was one of the major football-playing schools. It beat Michigan, 6-5 at the time, in the Holiday Bowl that year. When there were no other undefeated teams, the Cougars (13-0) were the only option left to declare national champions.

Such a thing would never happen again for a program that is today is an independent considered outside the Power Five.

The game liked it back then. The ratings reflected it. We gathered around the TV each Thanksgiving for the likes of Oklahoma-Nebraska and Texas-Texas A&M. Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn are staples. But when Division I was subdivided in 1978, the move created second-class football.

The divisions — both real and perceived — have deepened. Cincinnati is already the highest-ranked Group of Five team of the playoff era. But if it doesn’t beat Houston, it almost certainly will fall out of the four-team field.

Twelve years later, after that 1984 BYU title when the money was bigger and the stakes were higher, the No. 5 Cougars in 1996, 13-1 at the time, were shut out of the prestigious Fiesta Bowl. The bowl instead took No. 20 Texas (8-4) to match against No. 7 Penn State.

That was a further sign there was a line being drawn between the haves and have-nots. BYU instead settled for a berth in the Cotton Bowl. The Cougars beat Kansas State, finished 14-1, and still ended up fifth in AP Top 25. Benson eventually took that slight and converted it into Senate hearings examining the game’s power brokers.

“BYU was kind of the first team that got shut out,” Benson recalled. “… I was around the big-boy table. I never had the same voting power as the others. Give Mike Aresco credit for rocking the boat and demanding the greater access. I probably went the other route. I was the one pounding my fist in front of the Senate.”

When the BCS debuted two years later in 1998, the championship game era started. In the 16 years of the BCS’s existence, what are now considered Group of Five teams finished among the top five of the AP Top 25 just four times with Utah in 2008 and TCU in 2010 finishing. None of them made it to the top two of the final BCS standings.

Oh, there have been brief spikes of excitement. Boise State may have beaten Oklahoma 15 years ago in the Fiesta Bowl, but that was a BCS bowl, not a championship game. UCF awarded itself a national title when it was ignored by the system after an undefeated season in 2017.

There is room for Cinderellas in a 68-team NCAA Tournament field. Room for error, if you will. The underdogs seem to be more or less eliminated by the Sweet 16. The same could happen in an expanded playoff, but that’s hardly the point. Just getting a shot seems fair.

In the seven-year history of the CFP, only 12 teams have played for the championship. That’s out of a total of 28 spots (four per year). The potential additions of Michigan, Cincinnati and Oklahoma State this season would tie for the greatest infusion of new blood from one year to the next.

While no one would call the Wolverines a Cinderella, the Bearcats and Cowboys are more in that category. No. 5 Oklahoma State has been ranked in the top five twice in program history.

“With college basketball, they play it off,” Gundy said. “Those teams that get in that are not that recognizable, when they get in the tournament, they get to play to see if they move on. The way we’re set up with the committee picking four teams, they don’t get to play to move on.”

There is a reckoning coming, then. In the penultimate CFP Rankings, there four teams in the top 13 from the future Big 12 (No. 4 Cincinnati, No. 5 Oklahoma State, No. 9 Baylor, No. 12 BYU). That’s one fewer than those in the future SEC (No. 1 Georgia, No. 3 Alabama, No. 8 Ole Miss).

As proposed, a 12-team playoff would give automatic berths to the top six conference champions. As mentioned, that would guarantee whatever the Group of Five looks like in a couple of years.

We’re that close to the Cinderella discussion being stifled if not ended.

“One basketball coach once said, ‘With a couple of guards, I can get to the Final Four. But football is a corporation,’” Aresco recalled. “When you do [break through], it’s even more remarkable.”


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