Paul Daugherty: College Football doesn't want the UC Bearcats of the world in its Playoff

Paul Daugherty
Cincinnati Enquirer

They are the barbarians at the Power Five gate. The University of Cincinnati Bearcats football team is climbing the transoms and threatening to burn down the blue-blood castle. They’re exposing the cushy existences of football no-accounts like Rutgers, who rake in Big Ten dollars while playing like Top-10 moochers. The Bearcats are the latest team to make us question the system of greed that binds the so-called Power Five while denying opportunities to everyone else.

The 7th-ranked Bearcats are the direct descendants of Boise State and Central Florida, whose ambitions and resumes are counted less than their perceived pedigrees. The Power Five fears them, so it makes it hard for them to exceed expectations.

Hard? More like impossible. No Group of Five school has made it to the four-team playoff in the five-year history of the tournament. Likely none will this year, either, barring some very unlikely gymnastics in the rankings. UC has the best chance. It is a snowflake’s chance in a forest fire.

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The University of Cincinnati Bearcats football team takes the field for the first quarter of their American Athletic Conference college football game against the University of Houston Cougars at Nippert Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.

Imagine how much easier it would be at UC if the College Football Playoff system were based on merit. Fans wouldn’t have the annual January, where’s-our-coach-going worry. The athletic director wouldn’t have to find money for yet another extension to keep the head coach and his staff. The head coach would have better selling points to in-state recruits than, "come here, play in the Belk Bowl."

And we aren’t even talking about the money disparity. UC is achieving filet results on a mac-and-cheese budget.

It’s worse than that. It’s undemocratic. You can win 11 games two years in a row (and likely three) and never sniff a playoff spot. You can be ranked 6th one week, beat a decent Houston team by 28 and drop to 7th. Meantime, schools that have played one game all year (Oregon, Wisconsin) are ranked around you, and a team with two losses (Georgia) is right there with them.                 

On Tuesday, I asked this of Luke Fickell:

"How much does greed interfere with opportunity in college football?"

The coach sidestepped the question. He knows that complaining about the system and/or bragging about his team doesn’t help his cause. “I want us to be greedy to want more," said Fickell. “Let it be a motivator. It creates a little bit of a chip on our shoulder."

When I asked him if he thought a playoff expanded to eight teams would be good for college football in general, Fickell was quick to agree. “It would give opportunities for not just the top two or 3%,’’ he said. He called those programs, “the guys that are notoriously always there."

"I think you would see some newcomers. I don’t mean just from our league."

Practically, if the Bearcats became frequent participants in an eight- or 16-team playoff, they’d out-recruit half the teams in the Big Ten. Are you telling me most city kids wouldn’t prefer Clifton to West Lafayette or Iowa City?

The Big 12 decided a couple of years ago that UC didn’t meet its lofty standards. At the moment, UC would be the highest-rated team in that conference, a lofty seven spots higher than the 12’s best team, No. 14 Oklahoma State. In the top-heavy ACC, UC would trail only Clemson and one-year interloper Notre Dame.

The Bearcats have shown they can compete on the field. In Perfect World, that would be enough. No one’s suggesting that Cincinnati occupies the rare air of Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State – only that the Bearcats be given a puncher’s chance at it.

The current caste system has deep ramifications for aspirational programs such as UC’s. No star coach with bright-lights ambitions is going to stay forever in Clifton. Mark Dantonio wanted to win bigger, Brian Kelly followed his lifelong dream. Butch Jones overestimated his coaching prowess. Might any of them have lingered longer if an eight-team playoff payoff were a possibility?

I call this the Xavier Syndrome, in recognition of the conga-line of very good basketball coaches who’ve left Victory Parkway to pursue Shining Moments. Thad Matta didn’t believe he could win it all at X. Sean Miller always saw Xavier as a temporary gig. Even the loyalties and affections of Chris Mack were no match for the lure of Louisville. But at least the Musketeers start every season knowing March will always give them a shot.

Meantime, the Bearcats keep scoring points for the little guys.

“When it comes down to it, they’ll figure out who the best four teams are, who’s playing the best at that time,’’ said Fickell. “If there’s bias, there’s bias. I know that me pounding my chest and saying a whole lot about it is probably going to do nothing other than distract me and some of our guys. We’ll try to stay humble, hungry and focused."

The barbarians are coming, though. The empire will burn. It’s only a matter of time.