Cincinnati Bearcats complete College Football Playoff case, secure conference title with win

CINCINNATI -- As the final seconds ticked off the clock in another championship season, Cincinnati Bearcats coach Luke Fickell embraced his players on the sideline, the magnitude of the moment clear.

Then, pandemonium ensued as the raucous home fans went from chanting, "CFP! CFP!" to storming the field to celebrate not only a 35-20 win over the Houston Cougars in the American Athletic Conference title game Saturday ... but something much bigger.

The Bearcats stand on the precipice of College Football Playoff history, putting themselves in position to become the first Group of 5 team to make the playoff.

"I've told these guys to believe in what's happening, and if it's meant to be, it will be," Fickell said. "I don't think these guys can be denied. The way they've answered the bell, and everything they've done all year, it would be a shame for them to be denied."

The CFP selection committee will release its final rankings on Sunday. The résumé speaks for itself: Cincinnati finished 13-0 -- the only undefeated team in the country left standing -- with a marquee win over No. 6 Notre Dame.

Its impressive conference championship performance should answer any questions the committee might have had headed into the day. Notre Dame might well move up from No. 6 by Sunday, further strengthening the Bearcats' win in South Bend, Indiana.

Cincinnati has been ranked No. 4 over the past two weeks. With No. 5 Oklahoma State losing its Big 12 championship game to Baylor, it would be hard for the committee to justify dropping the Bearcats from that No. 4 perch.

"Are they going to call and ask me? I don't think so," Fickell said. "So, the resounding statement is what you just saw on the football field. If that's not good enough, we're going to take our ball and go someplace else I guess. I told them upstairs afterward they can say what they like to say, we let our play speak for us."

Despite the spotlight on Cincinnati week after week and the playoff questions only increasing with every win, the team handled the pressure as if it did not exist. Perhaps that is because the Bearcats were here a year ago.

But the key difference is the playoff door opened wide for the Bearcats this year in a way that was denied to them in 2020: Last season the Bearcats went undefeated and won the American conference title, too, but finished No. 8 in the final CFP rankings.

"We just want to play football," quarterback Desmond Ridder said. "That's all we care about. It doesn't matter who, where, when -- just put the ball down. Let us play."

The Bearcats had momentum going for them headed into the year with a preseason No. 8 ranking thanks to a veteran-laden team that returned some of its best players: Ridder, cornerback Ahmad Gardner and defensive end Myjai Sanders.

The 24-13 win at Notre Dame changed the calculation. For years, the committee has emphasized the need for Group of 5 teams to win marquee road games against nonconference opponents. Cincinnati did just that, and did not squeak out a win, either. It deserved to win that game.

Just like it deserved to win against Houston.

"I don't know how they keep [Cincinnati] out," Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said of the playoff committee. "They're 13-0. Their only loss in two years is to Georgia. They haven't lost here since 2017. That's four years. We took them toe-to-toe for as long as we could and kept fighting until the end."

Cincinnati is not the first undefeated team in Group of 5 history, of course. Just the first to get a legitimate chance.

In 2017 and 2018, UCF also completed undefeated seasons in the American Athletic Conference, but never got close to the top four. After beating Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, UCF self-declared itself national champions as the only undefeated team that year -- and as a way to express its frustration with never gaining any playoff consideration.

It is on the backs of those seasons, and their own in 2020, that Cincinnati has arrived at this moment.

"When you go out there, and you win every single one of your games, that means a lot and it's really, really hard to do, and these guys to come into the season with high expectations and then live up to those expectations every single week is pretty special," Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham said. "These student-athletes deserve an opportunity to play for the national championship because I think they can compete and they can do some amazing things yet this season."

It has not been easy, of course. Several sluggish performances against teams like Navy, Tulane and Tulsa this season raised questions about whether the Bearcats deserved a top-four spot. But their past month has been spectacular, and they left no doubt against Houston.

Cincinnati broke the game open in the second half after taking a 14-13 lead into the break. The Bearcats scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter -- benefitting from a pass interference call on fourth down to keep the drive alive. Ridder threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Leonard Taylor to increase the lead.

On the next Houston possession, Joel Dublanko intercepted a Clayton Tune pass thrown right to him down the middle of the field -- perhaps the biggest turning point in the game.

"I saw where the quarterback's eyes were looking, and he happened to throw it my way," Dublanko said. "Stuck my hands up, went in my hands, stayed in my hands and I was like, 'Crap I have the football right now.' So I ran and protected it and the rest is history."

Cincinnati converted the interception into another score on a beautiful 21-yard pass to Alec Pierce in the corner of the end zone. But the Bearcats weren't done. On their next offensive possession, Jerome Ford rushed for 42 yards to increase the lead to 35-13 and send the Nippert Stadium crowd into a frenzy.

But that was nothing compared to what happened when it became clear the fans intended to storm the field. As the stadium loudspeakers played, "We are the champions," fans streamed in from the stands, holding up their cell phones to capture the moment.

They hugged Cincinnati players. They posted for photos and selfies. One boy brought a sign onto the field and asked for autographs.

They knew like everybody else: History was nearly theirs.

"I definitely will remember this one. It was wild, and at the end of the game I'm like are they going to rush the field? I don't know," Ridder said. "I didn't know if the security guards were going to stop them, but as much as we credit the fans for everything we do, it was a blessing they could be able to celebrate it with us."

The field was so crowded with fans, players had a hard time getting to the postgame trophy presentation. When American commissioner Mike Aresco handed the conference championship trophy to Fickell, he announced, "This is a historic night in Cincinnati, and tomorrow we're all hoping it leads to a berth in the playoff."

In a quiet moment afterward, Aresco had more time to reflect.

"Just to see the fans, to see what's happened here as commissioner, this is a legacy that will always be there for the American and for Luke and for Cincinnati," he said. "I couldn't be prouder."