Historic Playoff: Alabama-Cincinnati, Michigan-Georgia

The college football playoffs, from isolated bowls to the BCS to the present four-team playoff, has never genuinely embraced the underdog in the manner that the NCAA Tournament does.

From Tulane to Utah, Boise State to TCU, and then UCF, the upstarts had a chance to face a blue blood in a huge bowl game every now and then, but they never entered the postseason with a genuine chance to win a national title.

Cincinnati has shattered the glass ceiling in college football, becoming the league’s first Cinderella team.

Following their selection to the College Football Playoff on Sunday, the Bearcats will face Alabama in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Michigan will meet Georgia in the Orange Bowl semifinals on December 31, with the winner advancing to the national championship game on January 10 in Indianapolis.

Fourth-seeded In the eight-year history of this postseason structure, Cincinnati is the first team from a non-Power Five league to reach the CFP. The Bearcats (13-0) won the American Athletic Conference and are the only unbeaten team in the country heading into the tournament.

“Today is a momentous day.” It truly is. “This is historic in the realm of athletics,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco stated. “This is probably something that many, many people never expected to see.”

Previously, no club from the so-called Group of Five conference has ever made the playoffs.

“We don’t want to carry the banner for the non-big institutions, so to speak,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said.

Tulane went undefeated in Conference USA when the Bowl Championship Series debuted in 1998, but didn’t even win a bid to one of the flashy bowl games. Former Tulane President Scott Cowen was among the first to accuse the BCS of being an exclusive club.

Under then-coach Urban Meyer, Utah was unbeaten as a Mountain West member in 2004 and reached the Fiesta Bowl, but only got to face a mediocre Pittsburgh squad, meaning the Utes had no chance of finishing first.

During their stint in the Western Athletic Conference, Boise State built a reputation as a potential BCS buster, winning the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma in 2007. TCU was a member of the Mountain West when it defeated Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl in 2010.

Utah and TCU were eventually snatched up by Power Five leagues. If you can’t beat them, invite them to join you.

The playoff increased the number of teams with a chance to win the national championship from two to four in 2014, but it didn’t appear to aid the underdogs.

UCF won 25 consecutive games in 2017 and ’18 and was never ranked higher than ninth by the selection committee. The Knights went so far as to declare themselves national champions after being the only team in major college football to go undefeated in 2017.

Cincinnati laid the groundwork for this year’s run by being undefeated in the regular season before falling to Georgia on a late field goal in the Peach Bowl.

Aresco admitted that this run has been bittersweet for him at times. Cincinnati, along with UCF and Houston, will leave the American Conference for the Big 12.

With little argument, the Bearcats made history. According to Playoff selection committee chairman Gary Barta, there was significant consensus for Cincinnati to be ranked fourth, ahead of No. 5 Notre Dame, who had only one defeat – at home against the Bearcats in early October. Ohio State came in sixth place.

“In every manner, shape, and form, this will be a huge test for us,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Cincinnati's Bryon Threats (10) celebrates after defeating Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

If things had gone differently in the Big 12 championship game on Saturday, the Bearcats might not have been so comfortable in the field. Oklahoma State, ranked fifth in the CFP heading into the game, came up inches short of scoring the game-winning touchdown in the final minute of their defeat to Baylor.

Saban, who played at Kent State in the Mid-American Conference, said Cincinnati’s success is a good thing for the sport.

“I firmly believe that everyone who plays Division I college football should believe that they have a chance to make the playoffs,” Saban stated.

It marks the third time that two teams from the same conference have made the CFP, and the second time that the SEC has done so. Years ago, Alabama won the national championship after defeating Georgia in overtime.

As conference officials propose increasing the postseason from four to 12 teams as early as 2024, just the SEC and Big Ten will be represented this season. For the first time, the Atlantic Coast Conference did not qualify. The Big 12 was shut out for the second consecutive season, while the Pac-12 will not have a team in the playoffs for the sixth time in a row.

The following major bowl games were also scheduled:

On December 30, Michigan State (10-2) will face ACC champion Pitt (11-2) in the Peach Bowl.

On January 1, Notre Dame (11-1) will face Oklahoma State (11-2) in the Fiesta Bowl.

On January 1, Pac-12 champion Utah (10-3) will face Ohio State (10-2) in the Rose Bowl.

On January 1, Mississippi (10-2) will face Baylor (11-2) in the Sugar Bowl.

Cincinnati’s prize for making history is a meeting with the reigning national champions at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas.

The Crimson Tide advanced to the playoffs for the eighth time after defeating Georgia in the Southeastern Conference final game on Saturday.

Alabama (12-1) appeared to be one loss away from being out of the playoffs coming into their game against Georgia. Instead, Bryce Young and the Tide demolished the Bulldogs’ renowned defense to claim the top seed.

Since 2009, Saban’s Alabama dynasty has won three playoff championships as well as three BCS crowns.

Georgia (12-1) remained in the field as the third seed, becoming the second team in history to lose its conference championship game and still enter the playoffs. Last season, Notre Dame lost a rematch with Clemson in its lone season in the ACC, a move precipitated by pandemic-altered scheduling.

The Bulldogs will be making their second appearance in the College Football Playoff when they face second-seeded Michigan (12-1) in the Orange Bowl. Coach Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines have made the playoffs for the first time since 2004, after winning the Big Ten for the first time since 2004. Michigan, which finished 2-4 previous season, is also the first team to enter the playoffs after being unranked in the AP Top 25 heading into the season.

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