Nobody expected Oral Roberts to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament last March as a 15-seed. Nobody imagined 14th-seeded Abiline Christian upsetting Texas or No. 12 Oregon State making it all the way to the Elite Eight.
Those surprising runs are what make March Madness so popular — the underdog producing a seismic upset, making the most of its opportunity as David against Goliath.
Finally, college football has the opportunity to create one of those moments for itself. In the eighth year of the College Football Playoff, a non-power conference school was among the final four, Cincinnati selected as the fourth seed and given the unenviable task of meeting Nick Saban’s never-ending Alabama dynasty. Cinderella, at long last, was invited to the dance.
“A lot of people doubted [us],” coach Luke Fickell said. “That’s where the gratification comes.”
It took a perfect storm of events for it to happen, to the point that the College Football Playoff committee had no other choice. Oklahoma State’s last-second loss to Baylor in Saturday’s Big 12 Championship game, and traditionals powers Ohio State, Oregon, Oklahoma and Clemson suffering down years created this no-brainer of a decision. Cincinnati scheduled aggressively, playing Notre Dame and preseason No. 17 Indiana on the road. It manhandled the best teams in the AAC, defeating Houston, Central Florida and East Carolina by an average of 24 points.
The inclusion of Cincinnati comes at a time when expansion is uncertain. There are talks of expanding to 12 teams, but a format has yet to be agreed upon. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said on Saturday that an agreement has to be reached soon if the playoff is going to feature more teams before the contract is up after the 2025 season.
Ironically, Cincinnati won’t have to worry about being a smaller-conference school for much longer. It will be in the Big 12 no later than 2024, along with BYU, Houston and Central Florida. So, theoretically, this isn’t an issue the Bearcats will have to worry about for too much longer. Yet, a strong performance — or even an upset — would still be significant. It would give future programs in similar positions an argument, an example at which to point.
Alabama was immediately installed as a two-touchdown favorite, which is hardly a surprise. The Crimson Tide are the defending national champions. It has the likely Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Bryce Young and arguably the greatest college football coach of all time in Saban. It earned the No. 1 seed by overwhelming Georgia, 41-24, in Saturday’s SEC Championship game.
Cincinnati won’t be given much of a chance, despite owning as many top-25 wins (two) as Alabama. Despite its elite defense and balanced offense that is fourth in the country in points allowed (16.1) and ninth in points scored (38.8). Despite its remarkable consistency, winning 23 of the last 24 games, being led by NFL prospects at quarterback (Desmond Ridder) and cornerback (Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner). Despite the season-ending knee injury to Alabama star receiver John Metchie III, and the Crimson Tide’s recent struggles with Auburn, LSU and Arkansas.
That’s fine. That’s what was expected. Cincinnati wasn’t supposed to win at Notre Dame. It wasn’t projected to break through and reach the playoff. It has defied the odds, and gotten some breaks along the way.
Cincinnati gets the chance to prove it now. The Bearcats have the opportunity to step onto the AT&T Stadium field on New Year’s Eve and play their way into the national championship game. They play for themselves, they play for the small-conference school that has never had the chance before — the Central Floridas, Boise States, BYUs, Utahs and TCUs that never had this opportunity — and they play to give the non-power-conference school in the future a chance, too.
There are so many reasons to be excited for this year’s College Football Playoff, from the new faces to the presence of Jim Harbaugh and Michigan to the mystery that is now Georgia, and what coach Kirby Smart now does at quarterback. The four teams are littered with top NFL prospects. The playoff should include the Heisman Trophy winner.
But this year’s playoff is unique for one reason: Cincinnati. Cinderella will be at the dance. College football finally gets its own slice of March Madness.