Cincinnati proves college football playoff worthy, plus more winners and losers from Week 5


How will the College Football Playoff selection committee treat Cincinnati now?

The Bearcats beat Notre Dame 24-13 on the road for a program-defining victory on Saturday in a top-10 showdown. Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell earned a signature victory, too. He knows what comes next. 

“We may have to fend off people talking about the playoff,” Fickell said. “That’s a great thing.”

BENDER: Playoff picture gets interesting after Georgia, Alabama

With this victory, Cincinnati should be held to the same standard as Notre Dame when it comes to College Football Playoff talk — a team outside a Power 5 conference. Forget about that Group of 5 label in the American Athletic Conference. Use the eye test, which shows Cincinnati has surpassed Notre Dame on the field.

The Bearcats led 17-0 at halftime at Notre Dame Stadium as a favorite and closed out the Irish with a TD run by Desmond Ridder. Remember, Cincinnati was the favorite in this game. Notre Dame is no longer unbeaten, and the Bearcats are the reason.

Let’s run down the other Power 5 conferences not named the SEC, which has the inside track on two CFP spots with Alabama and Georgia (more on that in a bit).

The ACC’s lone unbeaten team left is Wake Forest. The Bearcats would be favored if they played the Demon Deacons.

The Pac-12 doesn’t have an unbeaten team left after Oregon’s loss to Stanford. USC, the conference’s most-prestigious program, is looking for a new head coach and has two losses. Fickell shot down speculation that he is that guy.

MORE: Questionable call opens door for Stanford’s upset of Oregon

The Big Ten could be an issue. It has four unbeaten teams in Penn State, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State. One-loss Ohio State is still the team to beat in the conference, too, and the harsh reality is a one-loss Big Ten champion still bumps an unbeaten Cincinnati.

So that leaves an interesting scenario. Cincinnati needs its future conference to tank. The Big 12 features Oklahoma, a team that also stays ahead of the Bearcats because of its unbeaten record. The Sooners also have won four one-score games against FBS opponents this season. A one-loss Oklahoma team would not deserve a bid over undefeated Cincinnati.

That’s assuming the CFP committee will treat Cincinnati right.

The Bearcats may have a percieved easy path to the playoff, but this path hasn’t been easy. It’s taken trips to UCLA, Michigan, Ohio State and a Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl appearance against Georgia for Cincinnati to build its program toward this season. All it can do is keep winning in a season where ranked teams continue to fall at a record pace.

“If we do that and we go undefeated and we play 12 or 11 perfect games, whatever it is, as good as we can, and they still don’t put us in there, that’s not our call,” Ridder said. “We don’t have the call to make the playoff.”

That is the bad thing. It is about how the CFP committee treats the Bearcats from here on out. In our mind, it is an easy call if those scenarios unfold.

It is time to treat Cincinnati like a playoff team.

Here are some more winners and losers from Week 5.

MORE: AP, Coaches polls see shakeups

Winners

JIM HARBAUGH

Harbaugh, the coach we used to love to tweet about, led Michigan to its first win at Wisconsin since 2001 in a 38-17 blowout. It was the Wolverines’ first victory as an underdog since he took over as head coach in 2015.

Can you take Michigan (5-0) seriously without bringing up Ohio State? You’re going to have to because there is a long way to go before the season-ending referendum against the Buckeyes.

Michigan still has road games at Nebraska, Michigan State and Penn State before it can get to the Buckeyes. The Wolverines also appear headed for an increased time-share at quarterback between Cade McNamara and freshman J.J. McCarthy, who accounted for two TDs in the second half.

But this is Michigan’s first 5-0 start since 2016, a season in which the Wolverines lost to Ohio State on “The Spot.” This looks like Michigan’s best team since then, too.

TWO SEC TEAMS PLAYOFF TALK

More specifically, Alabama and Georgia CFP playoff talk.

Through five weeks, the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs have established a considerable gap between themselves and the rest of the FBS competition. Among all Power 5 schools, they are the only two to have scored more than 200 points and allowed less than 100 points through five games.

MORE: Inside the numbers of Georgia’s two-week run of defensive dominance

Georgia is working on back-to-back shutouts after throttling Arkansas 37-0 in a top-10 showdown they won without starting quarterback JT Daniels. The Bulldogs have allowed just 23 points, and this looks like Kirby Smart’s best team yet. The Bulldogs would be ranked No. 1 if the CFP rankings were released Tuesday.

Of course, Alabama is working on an FBS-best 19-game winning streak and disposed of Ole Miss 42-21. Bryce Young continues to play like a Heisman Trophy contender, and the running game picked up against the Rebels.

If both teams get to Atlanta with an unbeaten record, then it’s a fair assumption both would get into the CFP. Anybody who has watched these teams play so far would be hard-pressed to argue against that.

KENTUCKY

Is there room for a third SEC playoff team?

Right now, that would be Kentucky. The Wildcats scored a home victory against Florida for the first time since 1986.

Trevin Wallace’s 76-yard blocked field goal return for a TD was the unexpected spark, and a goal-line stand sealed a 20-13 upset.

Kentucky (5-0) is the third unbeaten in the SEC, and the Wildcats have managed to win ugly the last two weeks. Quarterback Will Levis has cooled off, but running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. has rushed for 441 yards on 6.1 yards per carry in three SEC victories.

Mark Stoops continues to do a phenomenal job, but the next two weeks there is more history to overcome. Kentucky hasn’t beat LSU since 2007 or Georgia since 2009.

IOWA

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Every six years the Hawkeyes produce a team capable of winning a Big Ten championship under Kirk Ferentz. The 2009 and 2015 teams had that feel, and this year’s team has that look after an impressive 51-14 blowout against Maryland.

Iowa’s defense has produced 16 turnovers and a +12 turnover ratio, and Spencer Petras played his best game of the year against the Terps. This is a veteran team, but Penn State has won the last three meetings at Kinnick Stadium.

The last two have been by a combined total of seven points. Ferentz is 11-22 against top-10 opponents with Iowa, but that includes a 7-8 record at home.

A win here, and the Hawkeyes are a great bet to be 11-1 with a chance to win the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis.

KENNY PICKETT

It’s not often a Pitt quarterback gets put in the same sentence as Dan Marino, but Kenny Pickett pulled that off in a 52-21 victory against Georgia Tech.

Pickett now averages 346.2 passing yards per game with 19 TDs and one interception through four games, and the Panthers are as sound a bet as anybody to win the muddled ACC Coastal Division.

Pickett, a super senior, can build on that fringe Heisman campaign when Pitt returns from its bye week. The next two games (at Virginia Tech, vs. Clemson) will be against plus defenses, and it could generate some buzz from NFL scouts.

Losers

LANE KIFFIN

Kiffin, the coach we love to tweet about now, invoked “get your popcorn ready” mic drop before taking on No. 1 Alabama.
 

Kiffin was no doubt entertaining in the first half, and the Rebels trailed 28-0.

Ole Miss opted to go on fourth down five times —  twice in its own territory — and missed three times. Alabama won by three TDs in a 42-21 blowout as a result.

How much can you second-guess the calls?  On the opening drive, Ole Miss converted two before Jerrion Ealy was stuffed on fourth-and-1 at the 6-yard line. Any coach will go for those. No big deal.

Kiffin tried again on fourth-and-2 from his own 47 yard line, but Braylon Sanders was pushed out of bounds before he could catch a pass. Kiffin went one more time from his own 31 yard line on fourth-and-1, but Ealy was stuffed again.

Perhaps Nick Saban was in Kiffin’s head instead of the other way around.

Matt Corral finished with 213 passing yards and missed out on a Heisman Trophy signature moment. Ole Miss could finish 11-1 and hope for CFP help, but that’s what Texas A&M did last year. A New Year’s Day Six bowl likely is the best-case scenario now.

Saban is now 24-0 against former assistants. Social media wanted Kiffin to call his shot so bad, but once again Twitter isn’t reality. About that popcorn …
 

PAC-12 PLAYOFF HOPES

What happened to Oregon? The Ducks had the disaster scenario unfold against Stanford. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead missed the game with a non-COVID related illness. CJ Verdell left with a leg injury. Kavyon Thibodeaux was ejected for targeting on the final drive in regulation. There were questionable calls, too.

The Cardinal then tied the game on the final play in regulation with a touchdown and won in overtime in a 31-24 shocker that put the Pac-12 in the same-old situation. Oregon’s Week 2 victory at Ohio State on Sept. 11 seems like a distant memory.

The Pac-12, a conference that hasn’t had a CFP team since 2016, has just three teams left with one loss or less. That’s Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona State, which knocked off UCLA 42-23 on Saturday. The Ducks could still run the table and use that victory against Ohio State as collateral, but that’s a dangerous proposition knowing how many top-10 showdowns the Big Ten has on the calendar starting with Penn State-Iowa in Week 6.

TEXAS A&M’S OFFENSE

It’s been a brutal two-week stretch for the Aggies in losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State.

Texas A&M averaged 16 points per game in those losses, and quarterback Zach Calzada averaged 143 passing yards with one TD and two interceptions in those losses.

It’s not all on Calzada. The Aggies have allowed six sacks and have converted just 32 percent of their third-down opportunities in those losses. Quarterback Haynes King’s leg injury in Week 2 also was a factor.

Still, a 9-3 or 8-4 season wasn’t the expectation. Jimbo Fisher has yet to have a three-game losing streak since taking over at Texas A&M, but that prospect is real with No. 1 Alabama coming to Kyle Field in Week 6.

The schedule clears out afterward in theory, but if Texas A&M cannot beat Arkansas and Mississippi State, then can any game in the SEC West be considered a gimmie?

WISCONSIN

The Badgers are in a rare tailspin after a 38-17 loss to Michigan. Wisconsin is 1-3 for the first time since Barry Alvarez’s first season in 1990; a year in which it finished 1-11 before the program turn-around began. The Badgers lack a Heisman Trophy-caliber running back, and quarterback Graham Mertz left with an injury in the third quarter. Other teams are using “Jump Around” to get fired up in the fourth quarter now. 

Take it back to last season, and the Badgers 5-6 in their last 11 games under Paul Chryst. Is there any good news to be had in Madison?

Well, the rough start is a product of a brutal crossover schedule that included Penn State and Michigan and the neutral-site loss against Notre Dame at Soldier Field. The good news? The Badgers can still compete for the Big Ten West championship, and that road begins against Illinois and former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema next week.

The Badgers absolutely cannot afford to lose that one.

 





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