CFP committee shows dollars, brands control sport

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The biggest takeaway from the initial College Football Playoff ranking was all too predictable.

Cincinnati earned a No. 6 ranking, a gaping difference from the No. 2 ranking in the Associated Press poll. The Bearcats (8-0) began last season No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings and dipped as far as No. 9 despite remaining undefeated. There was a clear ceiling placed on them in 2020, and those same limitations are returning in 2021. 

Here are the biggest takeaways from the initial College Football Playoff rankings release, which start with the Bearcats. There are seven new members on the 13-member committee, and they’re delivering a different version of the same old predictable story.

Well … yeah, Cincinnati was shortchanged

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell told Yahoo Sports this week that he wanted his team to redevelop some of the underdog chip that has allowed his program to emerge as one of the best in the country.

So, in many ways, the shoulders of Fickell’s Bearcats should have more chips available than a Las Vegas poker room. Cincinnati has a tough slog from No. 6 to one of the four College Football Playoff spots.

The worst news for Cincinnati wasn’t the yawning gap between the Bearcats’ AP ranking and the CFP ranking. The worst news for Cincinnati is that it has little chance to move much higher, as it doesn’t have any games remaining with teams that are currently ranked. 

“After that [Notre Dame] win,” committee chair Gary Barta said, “look at who else they’ve beaten. Look at who else they’ve played.”

Cincinnati plays SMU (7-1) and could play Houston (7-1) in the AAC title game, but neither are ranked. (UTSA’s lack of a ranking despite a No. 16 ranking in the Associated Press poll and 8-0 record shows that the big-brand bias of the committee is real.)

That means it will require both perfection for the Bearcats and chaos in front of them.

“We don’t talk about a ceiling at all,” Barta said on ESPN after the committee predictably began to ostracize Cincinnati. “… I’m not ready to say there’s a ceiling.”

ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND - OCTOBER 23: Head coach Luke Fickell of the Cincinnati Bearcats motions from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen motions at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on October 23, 2021 in Annapolis, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Looks like Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati Bearcats have significant hurdles to make the College Football Playoff. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Alabama’s movement might cause more consternation

Brace yourself for more pro-SEC chatter. The placement of Alabama at No. 2, despite a loss at No. 14 Texas A&M, is going to fuel more chatter about SEC bias.

The Crimson Tide’s placement at No. 2 puts them in position for a different kind of history. It’s not inconceivable that if Alabama wins out and loses a close game to Georgia in the SEC title game that it becomes the first two-loss team to reach the College Football Playoff.

It would take some action behind them, but the Tide’s surprise inclusion at No. 2 puts them in a place where they could play well against runaway No. 1 Georgia in a loss and end up hanging on at No. 4 in the rankings.

What would help Alabama’s potential case is that it closes the season with a showcase game at No. 13 Auburn. That could solidify Alabama where there’d be an argument for it with two losses. This isn’t a guarantee, but it shouldn’t be disregarded as an impossibility.

Future may regulate past mistakes

Both the eye test and head-to-head matchups appear to matter to the committee.

The best example of the eye test came from No. 8 Oklahoma, who has brand power but has looked pedestrian in struggling with mediocre teams like Tulane, Kansas, West Virginia and Kansas State. 

“They are undefeated, they get a lot of credit for that,” Barta said. “… Defensive struggles throughout the year was discussed. …Those close calls are seen by the committee, just like everyone else.” (He added that the switch to Caleb Williams at quarterback has energized the program.)

Barta made it clear that head-to-head matchup was the clear line of delineation between No. 4 Oregon (7-1) and No. 5 Ohio State (7-1). The Ducks beat Ohio State in Columbus, 35-28, in September, which ultimately proved the difference. “It was close enough that head-to-head put Oregon ahead of Ohio State,” Barta said.

Barta also offered a road map for how Ohio State could pass the Ducks, saying Ohio State did not have a “signature win” yet. That could change when the Buckeyes play No. 3 Michigan State in Columbus on Nov. 20.