If you’ve been a fan of UCF the last two years, then you should be rooting hard for Cincinnati this fall.
Not a UCF fan in the sense that you’re a UCF alum who’s looking forward to your next class reunion back in Orlando but a fan of what UCF has represented – in an almost March Madness Cinderella sense where you support an underdog crashing the party.
Because while it’s incredibly unlikely a Group of Five school crashes the College Football Playoff in its current four-team format, Cincinnati arguably represents the best chance this season.
After UCLA started the Chip Kelly era with a home loss to Cincinnati last year, the Bruins made the return trip east for their second consecutive season-opening loss to the Bearcats – the latest a 24-14 defeat at the hands of Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder’s 242 passing yards and two touchdowns and running back Michael Warren II’s two total touchdowns.
UCLA went 3-9 last season and its next three games this season are against San Diego State, No. 4 Oklahoma and at No. 23 Washington State so this is unlikely to be a breakthrough season in Westwood.
But at the very least, the Bruins should middling-Power-Five-sized notch in Cincinnati’s belt.
Next week represents a much bigger – in fact, the biggest – test for the Bearcats, the one that’s an absolute must-win for them if you’re a college football fan who’s sick of the College Football Playoff regulars and you want a new face in the mix from outside the Power Five or Notre Dame.
That’s because Cincinnati will travel north to the Horseshoe to face No. 5 Ohio State.
It’s a potential quality win unlike any that UCF had available on its regular season schedule in the last two seasons or any that Western Michigan had the year before that, when it started 13-0.
The Bearcats last faced the big brother Buckeyes in 2014, when both teams were good. Cincinnati was 9-3-in-the-regular-season-good with two of those losses coming at Ohio State and at Miami (FL).
However, Ohio State was national title-good, winning the inaugural College Football Playoff that season.
If there was ever a time for the Buckeyes, who went 86-9 under Urban Meyer, to not be the program that’s averaged nearly 11 wins per season this century, it might be this season with a first-time, full-time head coach and a first-time starting quarterback (who has little proven depth behind him), coming off of a season in which the Buckeyes had one of the worst defenses, statistically, in program history.
For what it’s worth, Ohio State’s Week 1 injury report listed 12 players as unavailable and three others as a game-time decision, including 10 defensive players (six defensive linemen, notably captain Jonathon Cooper).
To be clear, Week 1 is barely underway and that’s probably way too soon to begin to seriously discuss the College Football Playoff candidacy for any team outside of those that have earned it – Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State are the only schools that have qualified for it multiple times.
But a 2-0 Cincinnati team would be worth any hot air it would take up in a sport whose games are only played once a week, 12 times every fall, so this is your chance to get in on the ground floor on the Bearcats.
To be clear, this isn’t Cincinnati-specific. This is just Cincinnati-this-year-specific – a Group of Five program coming off of an 11-2 season with a schedule that would demand respect from the selection committee if navigated flawlessly.
(For what it’s worth, Nebraska, which went 4-8 last season before being widely viewed as a preseason top-25 team this year, finished just one spot ahead of Cincinnati in last season’s S&P+ ratings.)
A theoretical road win at Ohio State could potentially be the single best win in college football in the regular season. At the very least, it’d be on the short list.
Cincinnati finishes non-conference play at home against Miami (OH), then with a trip to Marshall.
Then No. 17 UCF comes to town in the Bearcats’ conference-opener.
Road trips to Houston and Memphis, plus a home date with Temple, could potentially catch the selection committee’s eye.
If you’re willing to play along, the long-shot, hypothetical hope for CFP-bound Cincinnati is that Ohio State finishes the season as a top-five team, UCF stays prominently ranked, UCLA manages to win eight or nine games, and one or two other AAC opponents manage to crack the committee’s final rankings.
It’s a Group of Five schedule that in some way resembles Houston’s in 2016, when the Cougars beat then-No. 3 Oklahoma to open the season and later then-No. 5 Louisville. The only problem was that they lost to three unranked teams and finished the regular season 9-3.
It would likely take an undefeated record with multiple wins over top-15 opponents for a Group of Five team to have a serious case to make the playoff, which is a long-shot this season, just like it is every season.
But if you’re a fan of chaos that would shake up the four-team playoff field and potentially the future of the playoff system, your best chance in a Group of Five school doing so arguably lies with Cincinnati.
This story was updated to include Ohio State’s Week 1 injury report, which was published Friday.