Controversy is good for the brand, and so are the brand names. (Don’t underestimate the invisible hand of ESPN — which has the broadcast rights to the playoff and the weekly reveal show over the next five weeks — in influencing the semifinal matchups.)

That may help explain why Alabama, with its championship pedigree and a loss at Texas A&M, was slotted at No. 2, leaving open the possibility that a respectable loss to Georgia could make the Crimson Tide the first team to reach the playoff with two defeats.

Barta said the Alabama decision was not difficult. “It was a strong consensus,” he said.

That Cincinnati was ranked No. 2 in the polls was immaterial, said Barta, who added that the Bearcats didn’t have any significant victories besides Notre Dame and that they had played lackluster football for the last two weeks in victories over two-win Navy and one-win Tulane.

That assessment is certainly true. But it’s also not a standard to which others are held.

The Bearcats don’t play in a conference with the weekly rigors of the SEC or the Big Ten. But they had beaten Indiana more decisively than Michigan State had (Michigan State needed to rally to win in the fourth quarter). Cincinnati also defeated Miami (Ohio) far more forcefully than Minnesota, which is leading the Big Ten’s West division. And that sluggish win at Tulane was far more comfortable than Oklahoma’s home win over the Green Wave, which wasn’t assured until a last-gasp quarterback scramble on fourth-and-13 came up a foot short.

All of this does lead one to wonder how much of a gap there really is between the A.A.C. and the best teams in the country. Memphis, a middling team in the American Athletic, beat Mississippi State, which is ranked 17th by the selection committee. Tulsa, another pedestrian A.A.C. team that visits Cincinnati on Saturday, was leading in the fourth quarter at Oklahoma State, which is ranked 11th. It was also within 27-20 and threatening in the fourth quarter at Ohio State before being turned back.

So, with Southern Methodist and Houston being unranked — both one-loss teams that could bolster Cincinnati’s ledger in the next month — the best chance for the Bearcats to climb into the top four without being leapfrogged themselves is to keep stacking up victories, look good doing it and hope for chaos all around them.

“What you sense is frustration,” said Aresco, a member of the College Football Playoff management committee, as he became increasingly exasperated over the phone. The committee is working through the potential expansion of the playoff field. “We kind of run into the same issues. I don’t think there’s enough nuance. I don’t think our best teams are given enough credit for how good they are. Cincinnati is a good team and proved it, just like Houston did and just like Central Florida did.”



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