Cincinnati earned this shot at No. 1 Alabama for Group of 5 teams, no matter what final score says

Is it too easy to typecast No. 4 Cincinnati in the role of David in the College Football Playoff?

Of course, that means No. 1 Alabama is Goliath heading into Friday’s semifinal at the Cotton Bowl Classic in Arlington, Tex.

“It’s just too simple to phrase it that way,” ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge said on a conference call Tuesday. “Cincinnati is a really good football team. They deserve to be in the playoff. They proved that.” 

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Cincinnati, whether they like it or not, will take on a larger role in the college football landscape in this game. They aren’t just carrying a banner for the Group of 5 or the American Athletic Conference. This game represents the eight G5 (formerly non-AQ) schools that finished the bowl season unbeaten but never got a legitimate shot to play for the national championship since the Bowl Championship Series began in 1998. Here is a refresher list of those teams: 

1998 Tulane 12-0 Beat BYU 41-27 (Liberty)
1999 Marshall 13-0 Beat BYU 21-3 (Motor City)
2004 Utah 12-0 Beat Pitt 35-7 (Fiesta)
2006 Boise State 13-0 Beat Oklahoma 43-42 (Fiesta)
2008 Utah 13-0 Beat Alabama 31-17 (Sugar)
2009 Boise State 14-0 Beat TCU 17-10 (Fiesta)
2010 TCU 13-0 Beat Wisconsin 21-19 (Rose)
2017 UCF 13-0 Beat Auburn 34-27 (Peach)

In that sense, Cincinnati is getting the shot that Tulane, Marshall, Boise State, Utah, TCU and UCF didn’t get. Tulane fans still talk about not getting a shot at Tennessee in 1998, much like UCF wanted Alabama in 2017. Still, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit does not see this as a referendum for all of those past Group of 5 busters.

“I’m not saying Cincinnati is carrying the flag for the Group of 5,” Herbstreit said. “But you know how the world works. There will be that perception if they lay an egg and get blown out there will be many that will say, ‘See, I told you so.’ You know my colleague Lee Corso; he doesn’t think Cincinnati should even be in the discussion.'”

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That discussion is over. Cincinnati made the CFP, and it gets their chance at Alabama, which has won six national championships under Nick Saban and is looking to make the CFP championship game for the sixth time in eight seasons.

The question becomes: Can Cincinnati compete against the Crimson Tide?

Blackledge, who will be on the call at the game with Sean McDonough and sideline reporters Molly McGrath and Laura Rutledge, likes the matchups Cincinnati can create with quarterback Desmond Ridder and the tight ends on offense and All-American cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant on defense.

“The question I have is, ‘Do they have the depth and strength up front on both sides of the line to go toe-to-toe with a team like Alabama that we’ve seen in this arena for 60 minutes?'” Blackledge said. “That’s the big question I have.” 

The other question: How much will the result matter?

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The impact might not be as seismic as some think unless the Bearcats win. That’s an upset on the level of Villanova beating Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA men’s basketball national championship game.

If the Bearcats cover the 14-point spread, then it will be treated as just another Alabama victory and might not mean much for the Group of 5 in the long run. After all, like TCU and Utah, Cincinnati graduating to Power 5 status soon. The Bearcats will be joining the Big 12 with UCF.

What would a blowout loss do? That’s going to allow analysts like Corso to tee off on the selection. Is that fair? After all, Alabama has won its last five CFP semifinals by an average of 20.2 points per game, and they have beaten a school from every other Power 5 conference and independent Notre Dame in those games. 

2015 No. 2 Alabama 38 No. 3 Michigan State 0
2016 No. 1 Alabama 24 No. 4 Washington 7
2017 No. 4 Alabama 24 No. 1 Clemson 6
2018 No. 1 Alabama 45 No. 4 Oklahoma 34
2020 No. 1 Alabama 31 No. 4 Notre Dame 14

So, what is the difference if Alabama does the same to Cincinnati?

“I don’t think there should be that much pressure to put on Cincinnati to carry the banner for non-Power 5 schools,” Blackledge said. “There have been plenty of Power 5 schools who have not fared well and have gotten blown out. I don’t think you can just put that on Cincinnati; that this is their moment to make a statement. They deserve to be there.”

As for the role of David? Well, Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. said Monday the Crimson Tide is taking the underdog mentality into this matchup.

Cincinnati cannot even claim that role without a dispute.

That said, that angle will have college football fans watching. Herbsteit said it’s best to stay away from those low-hanging fruits. Cincinnati showed last year in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl that it could compete with Georgia. The Bearcats led 21-10 in the fourth quarter before the Bulldogs earned the win in the final seconds with a 53-yard field goal.

Can they take another SEC team to the wire?

“People will jump to conclusions,” Herbstreit said. “I don’t see them getting blown out. I think they match up fairly well.”