The most intriguing storyline when the first set of College Football Playoff rankings are released Tuesday involves two teams on the outside trying to crack the four-team field.
Where will the committee place Cincinnati and BYU?
The Bearcats improved to 8-0 in the American Athletic Conference after knocking off UCF 36-33 on Saturday. Cincinnati fell behind 14-3 early, but quarterback Desmond Ridder rallied the Bearcats to another conference victory.
BYU scored a 66-14 victory against North Alabama, improving to 9-0 while navigating an independent schedule with the help of Heisman contender Zach Wilson.
The placement of those teams will offer clues as to what each team would need to slip into the College Football Playoff. Here is a step-by-step look at what each team needs to make that possible:
Win out, stand out
The first part is self-explanatory. The Bearcats have road trips against Temple and No. 25 Tulsa left on the schedule, and they might have to play the Golden Hurricane in back-to-back weeks given the one-division setup of the American Athletic Conference this season.
Cincinnati has outscored opponents 327-120 (plus-207) this season. The Bearcats have two wins against ranked teams and can add a third against Tulsa. The only other teams with multiple victories against ranked teams are Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and North Carolina.
BYU has a 428-125 (plus-303) point differential, but the Cougars have just one victory against a ranked team. The lone game left on the schedule is against San Diego State.
Both teams have an open date on Dec. 5. While a head-to-head matchup is unlikely, it would increase the profile for both teams. Right now, however, Cincinnati has the inside track between the two teams.
Root for other G5 and independents to lose
It would help to clear out some of the other unbeaten teams among the Group of 5 and independent ranks, namely Liberty (8-0), Coastal Carolina (8-0) and Marshall (7-0). The MAC and Mountain West have multiple unbeaten teams, but they have played fewer games.
None of these teams would jump the Bearcats or Cougars based on their schedules, but the appearance of more unbeaten independent and Group of 5 teams would make it easier for the committee to devalue the accomplishment of an unbeaten regular season from those ranks.
Root for UNC over Notre Dame …
Cincinnati and BYU need Notre Dame to lose to North Carolina on Black Friday. That’s the Irish’s best chance to lose in the regular season, and it would guarantee that a potential Clemson-Notre Dame rematch would be a battle of one-loss teams.
Would the committee take a two-loss Clemson or Notre Dame team over an undefeated BYU or Cincinnati team? Given no two-loss team has made the College Football Playoff, it would be an argument that favors BYU and Cincinnati.
… Or root for Notre Dame to go unbeaten
That would mean the Irish beat Clemson in the rematch. The Tigers would have two losses at that point, and it would be tough to justify putting them in over an unbeaten team.
Notre Dame would also keep Miami out of the Playoff picture at that point. It can’t be too hard for Bearcats fans to root for former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly. BYU would benefit from this scenario, too: Typically, Notre Dame would be the lead independent. It’s better that the Irish would be crowned ACC champions.
Root for Pac-12 losses
The Pac-12 entered the weekend with two unbeaten ranked teams in Oregon and USC, two unbeaten unranked teams in Colorado and Washington and a team that has not played all season in Utah.
The Ducks beat UCLA 38-35 in a shootout, and the Trojans and Utes were set up for a late-night matchup that will knock one from the undefeated ranks.
Cincinnati and BYU need all those teams to lose at least once. Given the conference’s abbreviated schedule, it’s possible for the Bearcats and Cougars to bypass those teams in the final rankings.
Root for usual Bama and OSU
These teams want Alabama and Ohio State to stay unbeaten. That would weed out other potential contenders from the SEC (Texas A&M, Florida) and Big Ten (Northwestern). The conference championships could take care of the Gators and Wildcats, respectively, and a second Texas A&M loss would be huge.
Can it happen?
That initial ranking will be interesting. UCF had the highest initial ranking for a Group of 5 team at No. 12 in 2018. The Bearcats and Cougars should be ranked higher than that Tuesday, and there are fewer obstacles than usual for the unexpected to happen in this year’s Playoff.
The 2020 schedule, which has been widely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, promises to have a few more turns down the stretch run. The CFP, however, has maintained there will not be an expansion. The semifinals are on as scheduled on Jan. 1. If Cincinnati or BYU cracks that field, then it would quiet talk of expansion and put to rest the idea that a Group of 5 or independent team not named Notre Dame can’t make the Playoff.
A heavyweight like Alabama or Ohio State likely would be waiting, too.
In 2020, this absolutely can happen.