Cincinnati will have two weeks to think about the biggest game in program history.
After beating Indiana 38-24, the Bearcats turn toward a trip to Notre Dame on Oct. 2 that will determine where this team lands in the postseason and whether the Group of Five will play a role in determining the national championship.
As other Group of Five and Power Five contenders have stumbled, Cincinnati stands alone as the only team from the non-major conferences with the talent, coaching and reputation to crack into the College Football Playoff.
The Bearcats opened with two easy wins, against Miami (Ohio) and Murray State by a combined 70 points, before being pushed by an Indiana team with its own reputation on the line: Fresh off a wildly successful 2020 season but losers by 28 points to Iowa in the opener, another early loss dumped the Hoosiers into the crowd of Big Ten teams more likely to compete for six wins than a spot in the Top 25.
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder threw for 210 yards and ran for another 36 with two combined touchdowns, capped by the game-clinching scoring run with under three minutes left. The Bearcats now have won 12 straight regular-season games.
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The win comes as several Group of Five favorites in the American as elsewhere have failed to stay unbeaten through two or three games, putting the Bearcats well ahead of the pack in securing the automatic bid to the New Year's Six bowl lineup and in position to again challenge the established powers atop the Football Bowl Subdivision for a spot inside the top four.
Boise State lost to Central Florida. The Knights lost to Louisville. Appalachian State has lost. One of the most talked-about Group of Five teams this summer, Louisiana, has already lost twice. Meanwhile, the Bearcats have remained perfect with one Power Five win and the chance to add another.
That this start has come on the heels of last season's undefeated trip to the Peach Bowl breathes life into the idea that Cincinnati may have garnered enough goodwill with the playoff selection committee to be a legitimate factor in determining the makeup of the top four. The Bearcats rose to No. 8 in the playoff rankings a year ago, the highest ranking for any Group of Five team in the format's seven-year history.
Other factors outside of the Group of Five bolster the argument for the Bearcats' place in the playoff chase. Clemson lost to Georgia in the opener and has looked surprisingly beatable since, leaving open the possibility of no unbeaten or one-loss teams atop the ACC in early December. Big Ten favorite Ohio State lost to Oregon. Oklahoma has not resembled the complete team many expected in the preseason.
That's opened a door for the Bearcats. But they've got to beat Notre Dame.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Bearcats win sets up biggest game in school history