Denying the legitimacy of Luke Fickell’s 2020 No. 8 overall Bearcats football team is undeniable at this point, even for Power Five diehards. However, the bigger picture paints a silver lining to UC’s impressive representation of the American Athletic Conference.
UC made it to one of the six most prestigious bowl games of the season and lost to the University of Georgia on a field goal, but is their fight really over? I argue not.
In the last decade, an AAC team has participated in a New Year’s Six Bowl seven out of the ten seasons. The trend; The AAC is continuously coming up inches short of the college football playoffs. This year undefeated representative; the Bearcats.
Georgia’s defense allowed an average of 69.3 yards per game (YDS/G), which ranked No. 1 in college football, Cincinnati rushed for 99 YDS in the Peach Bowl. Georgia was predicted to win by seven points, and they won by three in the final 60 seconds.
Likewise, UGA averaged 32.3 total points per game on the season but was held to 24 by UC. The Bulldogs also only rushed for 45 yards, well short of their 174.2 average rushing YDS/G and 145 rushing yards against Alabama, the college football champion.
Georgia completed seven third downs and 20 first downs against Alabama, and only one and 19 against the Bearcats, respectively.
Cincinnati’s defense, the “Blackcats,” also forced Georgia to turn the ball over twice, while the Bearcats offense only coughed up the ball once. Nonetheless, Cincinnati showed up to play against Georgia, proudly representing the AAC, as have their conference counterparts in the past.
The University of Central Florida finished the 2017 season representing the AAC at No. 6 overall, only to be demoted to No. 21 overall in the 2018 pre-season rankings, despite beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
UCF was undefeated and placed in the 2017 Peach Bowl at No. 12 overall, meaning they were the highest-ranked non-Power Five school. All the Power Five schools ahead of them had at least one loss, six of them with two or more losses.
Similarly, UCF didn’t even crack the 2017 preseason AP poll, ultimately upsetting doubters when they finished No. 6 overall that year. Likewise, The University of Houston was the 2015 AAC champion and finished No. 8 overall, only to be ranked No. 15 in the 2016 AP preseason poll. The AP poll didn’t even have Houston in the Top-25 in 2015’s pre-season rankings.
Time and time again, AAC schools have to build too big of a resume to be taken seriously, which needs to change.
Cincinnati again showed the AAC can compete with the “big boys” of the Power Five by ranking highest in passing yards allowed per game (192.3) of any final Top 10 contender. Only one Top 10 team ranked higher than UC in rushing YDS/G allowed, and that was the Ohio State University, who competed in the national championship.
The pandemic struck 2020 football season blatantly exposed the College Football Playoff Committee’s bias of Power Five schools, to a point overseen by some previously. In the 2020 playoff rankings, four teams with two or more losses held positions in the Top 10, all of whom belonged to a Power Five conference.
Not only were undefeated teams like Cincinnati (9-0) and Coastal Carolina (11-0) seen as undeserving of a playoff-contending spot, teams like OSU (5-0) had their conference rules changed to grant them playoff-contending access. There’s a point where, “why play?” is a valid question for a group of five schools, considering their worthiness is thrown aside for the expected success of historically good programs.
In the last eight seasons, the AAC champion has only been included in the final Top 10, 50% of the time. After back-to-back 11-win seasons, Fickell’s Bearcats were only ranked No. 20 in the preseason polls of 2020.
When the 2021 preseason rankings come out, Bearcat fans will see if the college football committee has had their overdue reality check.