Cincinnati debuted at No. 6 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday night, while SEC powers Georgia and Alabama top the rundown at No. 1 and No. 2, followed by No. 3 Michigan State and No. 4 Oregon.
The Bearcats landed the highest-ever ranking for a Group of 5 team, one spot ahead of the No. 7 designation they held during an undefeated regular season in 2020. But Cincinnati (8-0), which ranks No. 2 in both the AP and Coaches polls, had aimed to become the first Group of 5 team ever to appear in the CFP selection committee’s top four.
Cincinnati’s profile is boosted by an Oct. 2 road win over No. 10 Notre Dame, which ended the Fighting Irish’s 26-game home win streak. But Cincinnati also is the only American Athletic Conference team ranked by the selection committee, as neither SMU (7-1) nor Houston (7-1) appear.
“The committee has great respect for Cincinnati. The win at Notre Dame was a really impressive win,” committee chairman Gary Barta said on the ESPN rankings show. “But who else did they beat? Looking at the big picture, we feel six is the right spot for Cincinnati.”
A Group of 5 team has never appeared in the CFP, which launched during the 2014 season.
“We don’t talk about a ceiling [for teams]. We look at what’s happened so far,” Barta said. “And we see Cincinnati as undefeated now, with a big win at Notre Dame. I’m not sure there’s a ceiling there.”
The news didn’t sit well with the Bearcats’ conference and commissioner Mike Aresco.
“These rankings, the more you look at them, they’re indefensible,” Aresco told ESPN. “It’s clearly a [Power] 5 Invitational. We’ll see what happens the rest of the year. Let’s hope that something changes in the way this thing is being viewed.”
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell had his weekly radio show on Tuesday night, and tried to have some fun with the news. When informed where the Bearcats landed, he asked a few questions of the host, Dan Hoard, on WLW-AM 700.
“Who is the committee chairman?” Fickell asked, with Hoard responding: “Gary Barta.”
“Did he play football?” Fickell asked.
Later Tuesday, as a guest on ESPN Radio, Barta did offer a response to Fickell.
“Here’s what I do know. I did play football. And I do know how hard it is to win any game. I don’t care who you’re playing. It’s hard to win. But if you compare, you’re talking about an undefeated team against another undefeated team or a team with one loss, that’s the context in which that comment is made,” he said on Freddie & Fitzsimmons. “Cincinnati is a great team. [Quarterback] Desmond Ridder is a terrific leader and leading that team solidly. The comment I’m talking about is the overall strength compared to some of the other teams we were evaluating.”
The committee, however, did not engage into a back and forth with Aresco.
“I have not seen Mike’s comments, so I’ll refrain from commenting on those,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said.
Ohio State is No. 5, one spot behind an Oregon team it lost to on Sept. 11 at Ohio Stadium. Oregon is the Pac-12’s lone representative in the initial CFP top 25, buoyed by the Ohio State win (top defender Kayvon Thibodeaux did not play) and not harmed by an Oct. 2 road loss to Stanford (offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead did not call plays because of a health issue).
Oklahoma appears at No. 8 despite being the nation’s only 9-0 team. The Sooners have zero wins against opponents ranked by the selection committee, and struggled to beat Kansas, Tulane, Nebraska and others. Oklahoma, which has missed the CFP just twice in its history, faces No. 12 Baylor next week and No. 11 Oklahoma State on Nov. 27.
The ACC’s playoff hopes rest with Wake Forest, which debuts at No. 9 in the CFP rankings, two days after its first-ever top-10 appearance in the AP poll. Only two other ACC teams — No. 19 NC State and No. 25 Pitt — appear in the rankings.
Georgia not surprisingly landed the top spot, but 1-loss Alabama comes in just behind the Bulldogs, ahead of three undefeated Power 5 teams. The Tide lost Oct. 9 at Texas A&M, which is No. 14 in the initial rankings despite defeats to unranked Arkansas and No. 17 Mississippi State. Mike Leach’s Bulldogs are only 5-3 with close losses to two unranked teams (Memphis and LSU), but rank ahead of two teams they have beaten, No. 18 Kentucky and No. 19 NC State.
“Right away, Georgia was a clear No. 1, but there was a fair amount of conversation about Alabama,” Barta said. “There was a lot of consensus for Alabama to be second.”
Michigan State, which made its lone playoff appearance in 2015, debuts at No. 3 following a come-from-behind home win over No. 7 Michigan over the weekend. The Spartans still have games against Ohio State (Nov. 20) and Penn State (Nov. 27), which is not ranked after dropping its last three games.
“Michigan State, they are still undefeated,” Barta said. “They have a big win against Michigan, they were behind [in that game], they didn’t panic, and that’s how they ended up at No. 3.”
Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, speaking on the ESPN telecast, concurred.
“Our motto is ‘Keep chopping all the time,’ and it’s unique with us to never stop fighting,” he said. “And that’s what helped us to get that victory.”
The SEC and Big Ten dominate the committee’s initial rankings, accounting for five of the top seven spots and 13 of the 25 spots. The SEC has seven of the top-18 teams, as Auburn appears at No. 13, one spot ahead of a Texas A&M team it visits Saturday. Two FBS independents appear in Notre Dame and No. 15 BYU, while the Mountain West lands two entries in No. 23 Fresno State and No. 24 San Diego State, which both own wins against Pac-12 opponents.
Despite an 8-0 start, Texas-San Antonio does not appear in the initial CFP rankings.
But at least for now, Cincinnati is leading the conversation among the undefeated.
“I’m disappointed that Cincinnati wasn’t ranked higher,” Aresco said. “Some of the teams ahead of them don’t appear to deserve to be ahead of them. The goal posts always seem to move. They have high quality nonconference wins, and they’ve won their games. Every team that plays Cincinnati, it’s their Super Bowl. But we’ll see what happens.”
ESPN Senior Writers Andrea Adelson and Heather Dinich contributed to this report.