A College Football Debate Topic

            When Cincinnati beat Notre Dame – in South Bend no less – last Saturday, that outcome teed up a legitimate sports debate that can play itself out for one week or for the rest of the college football season and maybe even beyond that.  This topic is more interesting than the concocted shouting matches that ESPN and FOX Sports put out over the airwaves daily because this is one where intelligent and analytical minds can legitimately hold different views.  So, in proper debate format let me set out the proposition here:

  • Resolved: The year 2021 is the year when a college football team from a conference other than the so-called “Power 5” deserves to be in the CFP and that team is the University of Cincinnati.

Having put this topic on the table, let me try to frame the arguments on both sides.  In the end, each person will have to make the call for himself/herself regarding this proposition; what I will try to do here is to present both cases for your consideration.

Those who agree with the proposition as stated will point out very accurately that other than Alabama and Georgia – and maybe, maybe Iowa – there have not been consistently dominant teams on the field in college football in the early stages of 2021.

  • Ohio State has lost at home already.
  • Clemson has already lost twice.
  • Oklahoma is undefeated but has not dominated rather ordinary competition.
  • Notre Dame just lost at home to Cincinnati.
  • No PAC-12 team has been consistently noteworthy.
  • We will get a better sense of Iowa’s credentials when they play Penn State this weekend.

In prior years when the Selection Committee has overlooked unbeaten teams from outside the “Power 5”, one could make an argument that the undefeated status was built on a foundation of sand; the competition was sub-standard.  I am not going to try to pretend that this year’s Cincinnati schedule is the most difficult in the country; it is not.  However, it has several positive attributes:

  • About 3 weeks ago, the Bearcats went on the road to play Indiana and beat the Hoosiers on their home field.  Indiana was ranked in the Top 25 in pre-season polls and was ranked until Cincinnati handed them their second loss of the season.
  • Last week, the Bearcats went on the road to play Notre Dame and beat the Irish on their home field.  Notre Dame was ranked before the game and remains in the AP Top 25 even after the defeat.
  • Granted that Cincinnati has some softies in the schedule coming up, but they will also have to play SMU on November 20th.  As of this morning, the Mustangs are 5-0 and are ranked in the AP Top 25.

If the Bearcats finish the season undefeated, they will have wins over three teams that are ranked as of today and two of them will have been road wins.  This is their year to be in the CFP…

Next comes the response from those folks who are not “Bearcat Believers”…  It begins with the acknowledgement of two facts:

  1. Cincinnati has indeed beaten two ranked teams in the home stadiums of those two ranked teams.
  2. Cincinnati has bulked up its out-of-conference scheduling to take on those two ranked teams instead of feasting on cream puffs.

Now, having acknowledged those two facts – and even stipulating that another win over an SMU team that might be undefeated in late November when it plays at Cincinnati would be worthy of a hat tip – there is no certainty that Indiana is an important measuring stick given that the Hoosiers have three losses and are not ranked in the Top 25 this week.  Ironically, Cincinnati fans need to reverse their rooting interests very quickly and pull for Notre Dame to win out on the season making the Bearcats’ win last week appear even more impressive – – but Notre Dame had better not look too dominant in winning out lest its prestige status vault it over the Bearcats in terms of CFP selections.

Another factor working against Cincinnati as part of the CFP is – – television.  It is nice to imagine that the CFP is an athletic competition that is as pure as the driven snow and untainted by anything other than the athletic pursuits of the players and the coaches.  Here in the real world, that is not the case.  The CFP is a money-making machine that generates the money from television contracts, and the logical corollary to that indisputable fact is that television networks pay money to attract eyeballs to the screens.

With that in mind, consider that the Selection Committee must construct an attractive playoff bracket.  So, consider the University of Cincinnati in terms of its drawing power:

  • Cincinnati is a relatively large university with more than 40,000 students.  That means it has plenty of alums who will be attracted to their TV sets if not to the stadium itself.
  • However, just about every other school who might be slipped into the CFP instead of Cincinnati is also a large school whose alums will similarly pay attention to the game(s).
  • So, it is important to consider which teams would be more likely to attract viewers who do not have a “loyalty bond” to the teams on the field.

It is in that dimension of “football pedigree” and “football recognizability” among nationwide fans whose teams will not be playing in the CFP where Cincinnati falls a bit short.  If one looks at the Top 10 teams ranked this week by the AP and consider this recognizability factor, Cincinnati comes up short.  Here are those AP Top 10 teams:

  1. Alabama
  2. Georgia
  3. Iowa
  4. Penn State
  5. Cincinnati
  6. Oklahoma
  7. Ohio State
  8. Oregon
  9. Michigan
  10. BYU

Now comes the part where you weigh the evidence as presented and decide if you think this is the year for a team outside the Power 5 to be part of the CFP and if that team should be Cincinnati.

  • [Aside:  I will not entertain an argument that this is the year for a Group of 5 team to get into the CFP but that the correct selection therefrom is Coastal Carolina.  Yes, the Chanticleers are 5-0 but if you want to define a “cupcake schedule”, check out who those 5 opponents have been.]

Finally, today’s offering presents a basic question but no answers.  That brings to mind an observation by Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman:

“It is better to have questions you cannot answer than to have answers you cannot question.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



2 thoughts on “A College Football Debate Topic”

  1. Professor:
    Thank you for the Feynman quote. That guy’s quips never age. On to a new subject involving the team north of us; the Dodgers. There is a very interesting article in today’s L A Times Sports section, by Jorge Castillo about pitchers Klayton Kershaw and Kenly Johnson who have been friends and team mates since their time in the minors in Florida 15 years ago. The gist of the article is that both are free agents this off-season, and with Kershaw out with an elbow injury their Dodger entwined careers may be ending. My knowledge of baseball ended with my last Little League game in 1951so things such as WAR ratings are beyond my ken.

    1. Price:

      Agree that Feymnan’s observations about the world and how it works remain pertinent and entertaining over the years.

      I suspect that Kershaw’s career and Jansen’s career are both on downward arcs.

      Like you, I have not immersed myself in the math or the logic behind things like WAR and OPS+ and the like. I do think there is value in looking beyo9nd batting average for a hitter and that OPS – on-base percentage plus slugging percentage – is a useful metric. As to the other stuff, I leave that to the seamheads…

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