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Analysis: No. 3 Cincinnati navigating tough schedule with ease, but it won't matter come playoff time

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CINCINNATI - One autumn day a few decades ago, the late Beano Cook found himself inside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, home of the U.S. Naval Academy. Cook was a college football analyst at the time, moderately well known and a very funny man. He was in town to comment on a Navy football game.

Before Beano settled into his press box perch, he took a moment to admire the view. The façade beneath the second deck caught his eye. It was engraved with the names of world-changing battles fought by the Navy and Marines.

Wake, Coral Sea, Midway, Savo Island …

Beano scanned them all. “Helluva schedule,’’ he decided.

After the third-ranked Bearcats pushed back Navy 27-20 on Saturday, it's hard to see them as anything but heavy favorites the rest of the year. No. 19 SMU (6-0) might give the Bearcats a game. But the game is at Nippert and no one is putting the Mustangs in the same rare air as UC.

Helluva schedule?

UC has never been so close to the mountaintop or so close to falling off. The Bearcats are built for this moment: Elite defense, senior quarterback shoving his way into top draft pick status, wins at Indiana and Notre Dame. The Bearcats didn’t have to make the painstaking crawl to the Top 10. They’ve been there all year.

They’ve done everything right but be in the proper conference.

Maybe it’s in the by-laws. Does the NCAA manual say "any school that’s not a member of the Power 5 will forever be barred from competing for a national championship? That means you, eternally striving arriviste from your little ol’ Soup of 5 conference."

Bearcats tight end Josh Whyle (right) celebrates with  wide receiver Tre Tucker after scoring a first quarter touchdown against the Midshipmen.
Bearcats tight end Josh Whyle (right) celebrates with wide receiver Tre Tucker after scoring a first quarter touchdown against the Midshipmen.

This makes sense nowhere. Except in the British Royal Family and really, who’d want those people on this football team? It’s college athletics’ very own glass ceiling. The playoff system is a caste system in high definition. Who you associate with means more than who you are.

The Bearcats are on a crash course with history and with deciding what’s fair and what’s foregone. A poor man can grow up to be president, but a football team with all the proper credentials can’t win a national championship. Only in America.

This very likely will happen. A team playing its best football since it started playing football in 1885 will be told that’s not good enough. The obvious follow-up to that verdict will be, "then why are we playing?"

Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) walks onto the field before the NCAA football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.
Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) walks onto the field before the NCAA football game between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.

Don’t feed us something existential or philosophical that you read in a book. At the mountaintop, there is winning and there is nothing else. The best UC can do is be in the center of the 12-team playoff revolution to come. Which does the Bearcats no good now.

There are ways UC can do the impossible. They give me a headache. They boil down to this: UC finishes 13-0 and every other contender loses at least once. Except unbeaten No. 1 Georgia and, possibly, No. 2 and unbeaten Oklahoma. The Bulldogs and Sooners would have to lose twice.

Explain all the permutations, win fabulous prizes.

No Soup of 5 member has made the four-team playoffs in the seven years they’ve been held. No Soup of 5 member has done better than eighth in the playoff rankings. Only four have made the top 12. After its 13-0 season of 2017 that included a victory over No. 7 Auburn in the Peach Bowl, Central Florida proclaimed itself national champion. Nice try. The playoff committee ranked UCF 12th.

Meanwhile, 20 of the 28 playoff spots have gone to four teams: Alabama (six), Clemson (six), Ohio State (four) and Oklahoma (four). Someone hand Alabama the tiara and get it over with.

The point isn’t that Cincinnati has an excellent shot at a playoff spot or a national title. The point is Cincinnati has earned the right to compete for those spots. "An opportunity to pound the table," Bearcats coach Luke Fickell called it.

Is that too much to ask?

Well, yeah. It kinda is. At least for the time being. College football isn’t quite ready for its Midway Island.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Why Cincinnati's historic college football run won't win championship

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