Is this the year for the Group of Five to crack the College Football Playoff code?

At least one thing has gone according to plan during an unpredictable and chaotic regular season: No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama are as good as expected and seemingly destined for a postseason renewal of the cross-conference rivalry.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten is already reeling after just one week of play. An outbreak of positive test results for COVID-19 forced No. 11 Wisconsin to cancel Saturday's game against Nebraska, highlighting how difficult it will be for the conference to cram a nine-game schedule into an unforgiving window.

The cancellation raises concerns over whether No. 3 Ohio State and the Big Ten's top contenders will end up playing enough games to factor into the postseason debate.

The Big 12 has imploded. Texas and No. 24 Oklahoma already have multiple losses, leading the league to pin its hopes on unbeaten No. 6 Oklahoma State and No. 16 Kansas State, which is perfect in conference play but has the blemish of a non-conference loss to Arkansas State.

And the Pac-12 hasn't even started. The last of five major conferences will begin Nov. 7 with a seven-game schedule that suddenly seems ambitious.

Clemson and Alabama are on the inside track for the College Football Playoff. Should the Big Ten find a way to avoid a string of cancellations and cobble together an adequate number of games, there's a spot in the national semifinals reserved for the conference champion, very likely the Buckeyes.

There's another team is lurking on the fringes of the playoff race: No. 7 Cincinnati. 

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) runs during the third quarter against South Florida at Nippert Stadium. (Photo: Joseph Maiorana,, USA TODAY Sports)

Long overlooked and ignored in terms of cracking the playoff code, the bedlam and confusion caused by this unique season has carved out a path for the best team from the Group of Five leagues to slot in as the fourth member of the postseason field.

"I do think that this year creates a unique opportunity, where if you win out and with the schedule that we play and the quality of the American (Athletic Conference), that we should be in consideration, for sure," Cincinnati athletics director John Cunningham told USA TODAY Sports.

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Cincinnati's presence in the playoff race is rooted in back-to-back 11-win seasons under fourth-year coach Luke Fickell, which has helped to establish a level of built-in name recognition. While no Group of Five team has been given a chance to play for the national championship since college football moved away from relying on several polling systems in the 1990s, those who have come closest, such as Boise State, did so only after years of developing national credibility.

No. 22 in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll, the Bearcats' standing has also benefited from the widespread elimination of non-conference play across the Bowl Subdivision, which has picked off several second-tier Power Five teams that would typically crowd the top half of the poll after the first month of the season, and from the removal of Big Ten and Pac-12 teams from the poll after the two leagues temporarily opted out of the season. (Those conferences were reinstated after opting back in.)

Cincinnati moved up three spots after last week's 42-13 win against then-No. 16 SMU, which ranked fourth nationally in total offense but was held to 290 yards, the program's lowest single-game output in more than two seasons.

History suggests the Coaches Poll won't dovetail with the playoff selection committee's debut rankings, which will be released Nov. 24 and provide a telling glimpse at the Bearcats' chances of finishing in the top four. A year ago, for example, Ohio State was No. 4 in the poll but No. 1 in the playoff rankings; Alabama, which was No. 1 in the poll, slotted in third.

But the poll does provide a blueprint: If arranged in a different order, the same nine teams topped the first playoff rankings of 2019 and that week's Coaches Poll. Should Cincinnati remain unbeaten, the Bearcats will enter this year's rankings closer to the top four than any Group of Five team in playoff history — the highest debut placement to date was Central Florida at No. 12 in 2018. The highest ranking by a Group of Five program at any point in the playoff rankings is No. 8, also by UCF in 2018.

The poll can also provide a road map. No. 4 Notre Dame will face Clemson at least once and possibly twice, should the Irish reach the ACC championship. The Tigers have won 27 consecutive ACC games, the third-longest streak in conference history.

No. 5 Georgia will have a rematch with Alabama to decide the SEC, should the Bulldogs beat No. 9 Florida next month to take control of the East division. The Crimson Tide beat Georgia 41-24 on Oct. 17. Oklahoma State's next three games come against Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma.

The chaos due to unfold across the Power Five landscape favors the Bearcats, who will likely be favored in every game through the end of the regular season. 

The team's overall strength of schedule will be an issue, however. While Cincinnati has two wins against teams in the current Top 25 — SMU and No. 25 Army — there is no guarantee of adding wins against ranked competition. Even if Memphis, Houston, UCF and Tulsa rank among the best Group of Five teams in the country, Cincinnati won't face a Power Five opponent during the regular season.

What the Bearcats do have is the possibility of more games and more wins, period, especially given the increased number of cancellations and the late starts by the Big Ten and Pac-12. By the final playoff rankings on Dec. 20, Cincinnati may have played 11 games to the Pac-12 champion's seven, for example.

"I do think the number of games you play does go into the overall equation," Cunningham said.

The Bearcats' case may rest on the answer to this question: Will Cincinnati have achieved more in 11 games than a contender from the Power Five achieved in six, seven or eight games, especially if the other teams in the mix for the fourth spot in the playoff failed to win their own conference? 

"I wouldn’t talk much about it other than to make sure our guys understand that we have a long way to go," Fickell said. "Like we say in camp, it’s not always where you start. It’s where you finish."

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