There was far more lobbying being transacted in the stands at Nippert Stadium than on the field Saturday night. Spectators held signs aloft declaring the members of the College Football Playoff selection committee should be placed on Santa’s “naughty list” or promising them coal in their Christmas stockings. The Cincinnati Bearcats had a championship to win, and they got that done with no time to spare.
Their 27-24 victory over No. 23 Tulsa did not say: Put us in the Playoff. There might have been a moment or two when that opportunity presented itself to the No. 9 Bearcats, but they did not seize them. And, with how they’ve been treated by the committee and its ridiculous rankings in recent weeks, deep down they recognize it would not have mattered, anyway.
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Instead, this result confirmed Cincinnati (9-0) as champion of the American Athletic Conference and one of just five FBS programs to complete the regular season undefeated. The other four are Alabama, Ohio State, Coastal Carolina and San Jose State. This is just the Bearcats’ second perfect season in the 126 years since hiring their first head coach, and this time the man in charge — Luke Fickell — will stick around to work the sideline, unlike Brian Kelly, who bolted for Notre Dame before the Sugar Bowl in 2009.
“I hope they understand that this is a very good football team that plays in all three phases of the game,” Fickell told ABC Sports afterward as he made his closing argument to the committee. “We find a way to win, and I don’t know how they’re going to be denied.”
They’ll be denied because 1. They are the Cincinnati Bearcats; 2. They compete in the AAC, not the ACC; and 3. College football’s powers choose not to run an actual championship playoff in which teams could follow a defined path to qualify.
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If the committee wants to say Cincinnati isn’t hip enough for its little party, then so it goes. The movement we began here at Sporting News to identify the CFP as an “invitational” rather than a “playoff” has gained supporters and momentum in recent weeks. Perhaps it will be enough to engender change in the future, to assure most or all teams competing earn their playoff positions rather than being anointed, and to assure those from outside the most powerful conferences at least get a shot.
It won’t happen in time for these Bearcats. If you wonder if what happened Saturday mattered to them in the absence of a playoff promise, you only needed to see quarterback Desmond Ritter unable to watch as teammate Cole Smith lined up with three seconds remaining to attempt a game-winning field goal from 34 yards, or to see Ritter dissolve into tears as he glanced at the championship hat and T-shirt he’d been handed before he attempted to speak in an on-field postgame interview.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Ritter said. And it was true, literally, in this most unusual of seasons because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bearcats did not play their first game until Sept. 19. They played their most recent game Nov. 21, then were idle for 28 days waiting for Saturday’s 8:15 p.m. ET kickoff against the Golden Hurricane. Cincinnati had been scheduled to play Tulsa in the regular season on Oct. 17 and again Dec. 12, but both were called off because of COVID issues.
One can assume that would have been a terrific game, because Tulsa’s powerful offensive and defensives lines kept their team in this game. The O-line helped pave back Corey Taylor’s way to 102 rushing yards, and the defensive front made a goal-line stand on one Cincinnati red-zone penetration and forced a field goal try that was blocked on another. The Bearcats twice set up Tulsa scores with lost fumbles and committed 12 penalties, too many of them false starts that disrupted promising possessions.
“We had a couple — not a couple, a lot — a lot of mistakes that happened tonight,” Ridder said. “But we found a way to fight through. That’s what I love about this team.”
They are unloved elsewhere, by those in the public and media who prefer college football to be confined to the elite and by the members of the committee who see it as their duty to assure the sport’s showpiece event is restricted to a handful of programs.
On this otherwise dreary night at Nippert, though, with several thousand spectators choosing to ignore the constant rain and frigid temperatures, it was no time for concession. The Bearcats’ campaign will not be a loser, even if it ends unsuccessfully.