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Cincinnati Stands On The Shoulders Of Past Mid-Major Giants

Cincinnati made history in just about every conceivable way this college football season. The Bearcats’ 13-0 record was the best in school history, and it was the first time the team went undefeated since going 3-0 back in 1918. Quarterback Desmond Ridder finished eighth in Heisman Trophy voting, the highest placement ever by a Cincinnati player,1 while cornerback Ahmad Gardner became the school’s first-ever non-specialist consensus All-American.

But most importantly, Cincinnati finally shattered the ceiling that had kept non-power conference teams from rising up the College Football Playoff committee’s rankings. After hanging around the periphery of the top four in the first three editions of this season’s list, the Bearcats in Week 13 became the first team from the Group of Five ever to barge its way into midseason playoff position. Then, three weeks (and two wins) later, Cincinnati completed its mission: becoming the first non-power conference team to make the playoff.

Cincinnati’s breakthrough is a big deal — worth celebrating even if its postseason reward is a semifinal date with top-ranked juggernaut Alabama. (Our model does give the Bearcats a 29 percent chance to pull the upset.) But Cincinnati also stood on the shoulders of other small-conference giants from seasons past when it finally beat college football’s top-heavy system — and in that sense, its triumph had been in the works for many, many years.

With apologies to Central Florida in 2017 (we’ll get to it later), the only mid-major team of college football’s modern era2 to win the national championship was Brigham Young, which went 13-0 in 1984 against a weak schedule and benefited from a chaotic year in the power conferences to earn a title shot. (Forget undefeated teams; only two major-conference schools — Florida and Washington — finished the season with fewer than two losses.) Led by Heisman finalist Robbie Bosco at QB, the Cougars took care of Michigan in the Holiday Bowl to seal up the No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 and secure the lone national title in BYU history.

After that crowning achievement, however, non-power conference teams faced an increasingly uphill climb for success — and respect. Independents earned plenty of trophies, sure, winning four of the next five national titles, but Miami, Notre Dame and Penn State were nobody’s idea of outsider programs. (The Hurricanes and Nittany Lions, along with Florida State and others, eventually joined power conferences by the 1990s; the Irish are still holding onto their independent status, but they are essentially treated like a major-conference team by the playoff committee.)3 Truly under-the-radar championship bids were few and far between over the remainder of the 1980s,4 and as the 1990s progressed, college football’s elites tightened their grip over the national landscape with the introductions of the Bowl Coalition, Bowl Alliance and Bowl Championship Series — each of which created predetermined links between top conferences and prestige bowl games.

A few non-power schools made quixotic endeavors into the title conversation during this period. BYU finished fifth in 1996’s final AP poll, going 14-1 and beating major-conference Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl (a non-Alliance bowl). QB Shaun King and Tulane went 12-0 in 1998, finishing 10th in the first year of the BCS rankings, and Chad Pennington’s 1999 Marshall squad finished 13-0, ranking 12th in the standings. However, none of these bids were taken all that seriously, underscoring the seemingly impossible task facing teams from outside the monolith that was (at the time) the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, ACC and Big East.5

But unheralded teams kept knocking on the door. Less than a decade after joining Division I-A, Boise State began making lots of noise in the WAC, going 36-3 across the 2002, 2003 and 2004 seasons. At the same time, Miami of Ohio — led by junior QB Ben Roethlisberger — finished 11th in the BCS’s 2003 ratings. And maybe the biggest jolt to the system since BYU in 1984 was delivered by Urban Meyer, Alex Smith and Utah in 2004. Undefeated and ranked No. 6 in the final BCS standings, the Utes were the first successful “BCS-buster” — i.e., a team from a non-automatic qualifying conference that made a BCS bowl. Their visit to the Fiesta Bowl was validated with a 35-7 victory over Pitt, signaling that teams from outside of power conferences were not to be ignored or underestimated.

The floodgates soon opened for BCS interlopers. Boise State got its chance after the 2006 season, upsetting Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on an iconic series of big plays. Pass-happy Hawaii in 2007 (led by the late Colt Brennan at QB) earned a trip to the Sugar Bowl, though the Warriors were demolished by Georgia in the game itself. And Utah was back at it in 2008, finishing a perfect 13-0 season by beating Nick Saban’s Alabama squad 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl.6 BCS-busting had gotten so popular by the late 2000s that TCU and Boise even staged an all-outsider Fiesta Bowl in 2009, with the Broncos winning to complete a 14-0 season. From 2004 through the BCS’s final season in 2013, a non-power conference team earned a BCS appearance nearly every year, even though none of them was picked for the championship game. (The closest was TCU, which finished just behind Oregon for a title-game berth in 2010.) If mid-majors’ momentum in this era meant anything, it seemed like a real shot at the national title was within reach.

But the sport’s next era largely halted any notion of fair access for non-power programs. Debuting in 2014, the College Football Playoff carried the promise of a more egalitarian method for choosing a champion, devoid of arcane formulas and featuring double the teams with a chance to prove themselves on the field. In reality, though, it proved even less friendly to upstarts than the BCS had been. Of the playoff’s first 28 entrants, precisely zero came from conferences outside the Power Five. Among those denied any semblance of a chance going into the bowls were 12-1 Houston in 2015, 13-0 Western Michigan in 2016, 12-0 Central Florida in both 2017 and 2018, 12-1 Memphis in 2019 and 9-0 Cincinnati and 11-0 Coastal Carolina in 2020. (A lockout in the last of those seasons was especially disappointing, since it seemed like the unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic could open a door for non-power schools.)

Although UCF claimed a backdoor national title in 2017 for finishing first in a somewhat obscure computer ranking, the path to the playoff itself looked so unnavigable for teams outside power conferences that none of them had even a 1-in-20 chance of making it in this year’s preseason betting odds, and only one (Cincinnati) was given better than a 1-in-70 shot. Whenever the opportunity arose to do it, the committee usually sent just one signal to non-power teams: Thanks for playing, but the playoff is for major programs only.

A Cincinnati fan with a message for the College Football Playoff selection committee during the Bearcats’ win over Houston in the American Conference title game.

Emilee Chinn / Getty Images

That appeared likely again this season, as Cincinnati was snubbed with a No. 6 ranking — despite sitting second in the AP poll — when the committee’s initial ranking came out. But just like BYU in 1984, which kept winning while other, more well-regarded programs ahead of them in the rankings dropped out of the race one by one, Cincinnati watched as Michigan State, Oregon and Ohio State all suffered losses that sent them tumbling down. Averting one last chance for chaos, the Bearcats handled Houston in their conference title game to finish undefeated heading into the bowls, their playoff chances bolstered even more by Oklahoma State’s loss to Baylor earlier in the day.7 All Cincinnati could do next was wait and see if the committee would reward its efforts — or find another way to deprive a non-power powerhouse. (“Nothing ceases to amaze me,” coach Luke Fickell said of the prospect that the committee might thwart his team despite all it had accomplished.)

But in the end, there was no stopping the Bearcats’ march to the playoff. The only question now is where they rank among the all-time mid-major greats. According to our college football Elo ratings, here are the best non-power conference teams in the modern era (again, since 1982):

Cincy’s place is secure among modern mid-major greats

Top pre-bowl Elo ratings for teams from non-power conferences, since 1982

Pre-Bowl game
Season Team Conference Wins Losses Elo Rating Won Bowl?
2010 TCU MWC 12 0 1961
2021 Cincinnati American 13 0 1956 ?
2009 TCU MWC 12 0 1937
2008 Utah MWC 12 0 1911
1984 BYU WAC 12 0 1910
2018 Central Florida American 12 0 1894
2020 Cincinnati American 9 0 1880
2004 Utah MWC 11 0 1863
1983 BYU WAC 10 1 1856
2019 Memphis American 12 1 1853
1985 Air Force WAC 11 1 1839
2017 Central Florida American 12 0 1837
2011 Boise State MWC 11 1 1836
2011 TCU MWC 10 2 1833
2004 Louisville C-USA 10 1 1823
1996 BYU WAC 13 1 1822
2003 Miami (OH) MAC 12 1 1817
2009 Boise State WAC 13 0 1816
2006 Boise State WAC 12 0 1804
2010 Boise State WAC 11 1 1804

“Non-power” designation excludes teams from the current Power Five, automatic qualifying conferences from the Bowl Alliance/Bowl Coalition/BCS era, and major independents (i.e., Notre Dame).

Source: Sports-Reference.com

On this list we see all the greatest hits, from BYU in 1984 through the BCS-busting era and into the present day. And by Elo, Cincinnati rates better than that championship-winning Cougars team, with a slightly tougher strength of schedule. It also ranks higher than Meyer’s 2004 Utes and both undefeated playoff-era UCF squads, any of which had a claim to being the gold standard among mid-major success stories. The only team to put together a more impressive Elo resume than the Bearcats this season was TCU in 2010, who very likely would have made the playoff if a four-team system had been in place at the time. (Although, when it comes to TCU and the playoff, nothing is a sure thing.)

Regardless of where you would rank it historically, Cincinnati now carries the banner for all of the non-power conference teams on the list above (and beyond). What’s next may include a loss to Alabama or a Cinderella run to the championship, but it’s clear that the Bearcats have already done something few imagined before the season. In the face of a college football power structure designed to lock teams like them out, they forced the committee to acknowledge them — and in the process, they may have forever smashed the barrier keeping great mid-major teams from having a legitimate shot at the national championship.

Footnotes

  1. Surpassing receiver Mardy Gilyard’s ninth-place finish in 2009.

  2. Which I usually define as starting in 1982, when the Ivy League dropped out of what was then known as Division I-A and television money began to dominate the sport to a previously unthinkable degree.

  3. And were just that in 2020, as Notre Dame joined the Atlantic Coast Conference for a season.

  4. Air Force in 1985 was the only non-independent team from a conference outside the current Power Five (or its precursor conferences) to finish in the top 10 of the final AP poll for the rest of the decade.

  5. That six-conference group was narrowed down to five by the mid-2010s after extensive conference realignment.

  6. You might know Alabama as the team that went on to win six of the next 12 national championships. Seriously, we don’t talk nearly enough about how a lopsided loss to Utah preceded all of that.

  7. A win for the one-loss Cowboys would have practically locked up their playoff spot.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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