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For Cincinnati, first 2021 College Football Playoff rankings will speak volumes

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CINCINNATI – Tuesday is a referendum day in Ohio, and it offers a window into the priorities of Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell as his 8-0 team approaches the finishing kick of the college football season.

The College Football Playoff committee will offer the first empirical evidence of how it's going to treat Cincinnati, who is attempting to become the first team from outside a power conference to crash the playoff.

The rankings will offer the first window into the degree of bias this version of the CFP committee shows against Cincinnati. The Bearcats are No. 2 in the country in the Associated Press poll, and the biggest question looming over the first rankings is how much lower the committee will rank them.

There’s also another referendum in Ohio on Tuesday, one that has Fickell much more occupied. Under a new NCAA rule, schools aren’t supposed to practice or play on Election Day as a way to stress the importance of voting. With three MAC teams playing Tuesday, Cincinnati applied for and received a waiver to practice. (Cincinnati players have transportation available to be sure they are able to vote.) 

Fickell is much more interested in his team improving over the final four games than where they’ll be ranked. He’s not going to make a scene if the Bearcats get ranked much lower in the initial CFP rankings than they are in the current polls. 

“We’re a better ‘doubt us’ crew than we are a favorite,” Fickell said in his office Sunday.

Fickell didn’t follow the CFP rankings closely last season. The undefeated Bearcats began the CFP rankings No. 7 and hit a glass ceiling without losing in the regular season.

“I didn’t know where we never got past,” Fickell said when asked about not getting past the No. 7 slot last season. “I don’t care.”

Oct 2, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell watches the clock expire as Cincinnati defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
It's going to be hard for Bearcats eyes not to be watching the College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday. (Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports)

Fickell said he didn’t know that Cincinnati never got higher than No. 7 last year, the spot the Bearcats began with in Week 13. The Bearcats fell to No. 8 after getting jumped by two-loss Iowa State in the third edition of the rankings. The next week, they fell to No. 9 after getting leapt by two-loss Georgia. They finished No. 8 behind three-loss Florida and two-loss Oklahoma in the final rankings.

ESPN’s "College GameDay" is coming to Cincinnati for the first time this weekend for the game against unranked Tulsa, which is great exposure for the school but another looming distraction for a coach. Fickell is more concerned with how his team, which has been built on relishing the underdog role, handles itself day-to-day. The Bearcats have looked solid but unspectacular in back-to-back road wins over Navy and Tulane, hence much more worry about holding a Tuesday practice.

“It’s weighed a little bit on us, I think,” Fickell said of the rankings. “It is what it is, and we’ll see. And we’re going to have to keep pushing either way. I don’t think we need more things to talk about.”

Where Cincinnati starts will certainly be the buzziest decision by the CFP committee Tuesday, as there’s no consensus for any of the teams after No. 1 Georgia.

It’s worth noting that there are seven new CFP committee members, which is more than half of the 13-member committee. So the bias outcries that accompanied Cincinnati dropping while winning in 2020 may not carry over. The seven new CFP committee members are Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, N.C. State AD Boo Corrigan, Kansas State AD Gene Taylor, Virginia Union AD Joe Taylor, Georgia State AD Charlie Cobb, NFL Hall of Famer Will Shields and former Notre Dame star Rod West.

That 13-member committee will be evaluating a Cincinnati team with a much better resume than the one that got stranded well outside the Top 4 last season. This version of the Bearcats went on the road to beat then-No. 9 Notre Dame, who has cobbled together a 7-1 record to be ranked No. 8. Cincinnati’s next best win came at Indiana, who began the season ranked but has sputtered to 2-6.

There’s an argument for Cincinnati that beating UCF (5-3) is a better win than Indiana, but after Notre Dame there’s not much meat on the bone of Cincinnati’s schedule.

That could change, as perhaps the most important aspect of Tuesday’s proceedings from Cincinnati’s perspective will be the placement of fellow American Athletic Conference members SMU and Houston. Cincinnati plays No. 23 SMU on Nov. 20 and could play No. 20 Houston in the AAC title game. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Cincinnati playing two more ranked teams in the eyes of the committee, as the Bearcats were held back by their lack of schedule strength last year. If Houston and SMU are snubbed initially here, it’s a way of freezing out Cincinnati by proxy.

Fickell wasn’t interested in debating the semantics of the rankings, but he made clear this version of the Bearcats is improved over last year. The Bearcats have star Desmond Ridder, who is 39-5 as a starting quarterback in college. They have a roster that scouts approximate could have at least eight players picked in the upcoming NFL draft, including projected first-round cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner.

“We’re a better team,” Fickell said. “We can do more. We really do need to continue to grow and get better as we continue to grow. We have the pieces, we have the quarterback and we have the skill. You’ve got a defense that you can play all three phases.

“If someone is going to beat us, they’re going to have to beat us. Like Georgia did.”

While last year’s results won’t be weighed by the CFP committee, the fact that Cincinnati led a majority of the Peach Bowl against Georgia last season is one of the stronger perception arguments for these Bearcats. Georgia kicked a go-ahead, 53-yard field goal in the final seconds of the Peach Bowl, capping a comeback from an 11-point halftime deficit.

The current edition of Georgia is the runaway No. 1 team in college football. “All those guys that are playing for them right now played in that game, and everybody says they're the best defense and best team,” Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock told Yahoo Sports earlier this year.

All of the comparisons and hypotheticals meant much less to Fickell than Tuesday’s practice – holding it, improving from it and not breaking routine. Especially with all the pomp and attention coming from "GameDay" this weekend.

“It’s great for the whole community,” Fickell said. “We have to do a better job of handling it. We’ve become a little bit of trying to be what other people think we should be. That’s hard. It’s hard. To sustain. It’s hard to enjoy. We’re the group that wants to be the underdog with the chip on their shoulder that no one respects.”

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