Can Cincinnati make a real College Football Playoff run?

Cincinnati's College Football Playoff chances might be slim, but the Bearcats have high hopes for the 2021 season. Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire

An undefeated Cincinnati was cast aside by the College Football Playoff selection committee a year ago. As the Bearcats head into a crucial two-game road stretch at Indiana and at Notre Dame, it has us wondering: Do they have a shot, this year, to be the first Group of 5 team to work its way into the playoff?

The short answer is the Allstate Playoff Predictor says ... it's very unlikely (sorry Bearcats fans). Just a 3% chance. But there's a long answer here, too, with maybe a little more hope for Desmond Ridder die-hards if they squint at the schedule just right. Because a large part of Playoff Predictor's skepticism here has to do with the fact that it just doesn't think the Bearcats are very likely to win out.

Cincinnati is good, sure -- but 21st-best-team-in-the-country good, according to FPI. That's not exactly playoff-caliber on the surface. And while the Bearcats' schedule isn't particularly rough, it does contain three games against top-40 FPI teams (Notre Dame, Indiana, UCF) and four against top-50 teams (Tulane). The chance that Cincinnati wins out is, well, 3%. Due to rounding it looks the same as its chance to reach the playoff, but it is not: If the Bearcats do win out, and do win their conference championship, they would have a 61% chance to reach the playoff. That's actually not bad!

To get there, the Bearcats need to either get very lucky the rest of the way, or turn out to be better than we think they are. But in worlds where they end up 13-0, they probably are better than we think they are.

Ultimately, to be frank, we're talking about the longest of shots. The Bearcats could buck the trend, but the odds favor them ending up like every other Group of 5 playoff hopeful: on the outside looking in.

What if Cincinnati were in the Big 12 right now?

Yeah, what if? Is it the AAC that's holding Cincinnati back? Or Cincinnati itself? To try to answer this question we flipped Cincinnati and Texas Tech (sorry, Red Raiders) and simulated the season -- giving each team the other's schedule.

We simulated as if it were the preseason but used current FPI ratings -- critical, because Cincinnati has increased its standing in FPI's mind thus far -- and compared the results of Cincinnati if it were in the Big 12 and the AAC.

The Bearcats had a 3% preseason chance to reach the playoffs in the AAC, and just a 0.9% chance in the Big 12. The reality is the Big 12 schedule they would get is dramatically more difficult than the current schedule they face.

How would the realigned Big 12 compare?

Cincinnati soon will be in the Big 12. But how will that Big 12 conference stack up? It's a little hard to get a clear view into the crystal ball that far in advance, but we took a stab: We moved UCF, Cincinnati, BYU and Houston to the Big 12 and shifted Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC, and then compared FPI ratings for the "new conferences."

In here there's some good news for the Big 12: Even without OU and Texas, it would be the fourth-best conference right now in terms of average FPI rating behind the SEC, Big Ten and ACC but crucially ahead of the Pac-12. The American would remain the sixth-best conference.

Of course, one year doesn't always tell the full story, so we looked back at the previous three seasons. The new-look Big 12 would've ranked fifth in average FPI rating among the conferences, fourth in 2019 and even third in 2020 (ahead of the ACC and Pac-12).

Lauren Poe contributed to this article.