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UCF coach Gus Malzahn expressed his surprise on Monday about Cincinnati’s No. 6 placement in the initial College Football Playoff rankings.
“I thought they’d be No. 2 or No. 3, which they should be,” Malzahn told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview.
Malzahn is uniquely qualified to gauge elite teams, as he served eight seasons as Auburn’s head coach and annually matched up against juggernauts from Alabama, LSU and Georgia.
“I’ve played Georgia and Alabama every year,” Malzahn said. “I know exactly what it looks like. [Cincinnati is] right there. They’re a team that can win the whole thing.”
Cincinnati has risen to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll after authoritative road victories at Indiana and Notre Dame and a home blowout of Malzahn’s UCF team. But on Tuesday night, the CFP Committee ranked the Bearcats No. 6 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. The gap between the human polls and the CFP ranking set off a new round of controversy.
Committee chair Gary Barta fumbled through the explanation of Cincinnati’s ranking, including noting that Tulane started a freshman quarterback in the Bearcats’ 19-point win and Cincinnati’s uneven road win at Navy.
But the argument that Malzahn kept coming back to on Monday was that a version of this Cincinnati team played a version of this Georgia team in last season's Peach Bowl. Cincinnati lost on a go-ahead 53-yard field goal with three seconds left after controlling much of the game. (Georgia got a safety on the game’s last play to win 24-21.) Cincinnati played that game without the most talented player on its roster, cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, and three other starters.
“What surprised me me more than anything is that Cincinnati played Georgia in the bowl game last year,” Malzahn said. “Georgia is the best team in college football. I don’t think that’s debatable. Both teams have pretty close to the same guys back. They played Georgia better than anyone. They should have won the game.”
While the Selection Committee focuses on the current season’s results, that argument by Malzahn is a tantalizing bar argument for those who think Alabama and UGA are miles ahead of the Bearcats.
What makes the Bearcats good? They are the only team in the country that is in the top 10 in scoring defense (No. 2 behind UGA at 14.2 ppg) and scoring offense (39.9 ppg). Starting quarterback Desmond Ridder is 39-5 as a starter, and it’s a safe estimate that at least seven Bearcats will be drafted and a handful of others will be free agents.
“They are complete,” Malzahn said. “Their defense is big-time. It’s a big-time defense. To have a chance to win the whole thing, you have to have an elite quarterback, which they do. They have an elite running back. They are very well coached. Their special teams are as good as I’ve seen in a while.”
Malzahn served as offensive coordinator on Auburn’s 2010 national championship team, was head coach for the team that lost in the BCS title game after the 2013 season and saw an assembly line of elite Alabama and Georgia teams during his eight years as Auburn’s head coach. He’s unsure why Cincinnati is considered so far behind them.
“It kind of blew my mind,” he said.