Can Cincinnati Reach the College Football Playoff Again?

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Cincinnati Bearcats mascot leads a cheer. Joe Robbins/Getty Images/AFP

The Cincinnati Bearcats program reached new heights in 2021. Head coach Luke Fickell rode his veteran roster to an unprecedented 13-1 record and College Football Playoff appearance. Although the Bearcats lost to the Alabama Crimson Tide 27-6, their achievement was an eye-opening statement to the country about their legitimacy.

New Heights

The two previous Group of Five teams to be so successful that they broke into the top-five of the polls were Boise State and UCF. Both programs have sustained a high level of achievement since their breakouts, but neither had back-to-back seasons actually in the national title race. Can Cincinnati reach the College Football Playoff again in 2022?

Although most sportsbooks have the Bearcats at +25000 to win the title next year, there’s some good news for a program replacing significant pieces on both sides of the ball. Fickell being back in charge is in itself a minor miracle. Some insiders around the program believe Ohio State is one of few programs Fickell would even entertain departing for if an NFL team doesn’t call first.

The bar for attaining another undefeated regular-season record is high. Last year’s Bearcats steamrolled foes 516-236 in total points, ranking 11th in points scored per game and fifth in defensive scoring. Most impressive was how their defense allowed just a 4.5 yards-per-play total.

ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s patented SP+ projection model also looks favorably upon the Bearcats. Their total strength is projected to finish 11th between Wisconsin and Mississippi State. Both their offense and defense appear to be top-20 units.

While that’s not enough to make the playoff compared to their 2021 standings, it would be an excellent outcome for the team. The Bearcats, on paper, are replacing as much impact talent as any team in the country. This is why I don’t believe the program has any chance to repeat their College Football Playoff appearance.

Hello NFL, Bye Bearcats

Each of the Bearcats’ three most important offensive playmakers is entering the NFL. Quarterback Desmond Ridder and receiver Alec Pierce graduated as seniors. Rusher Jerome Ford bypassed his senior season to enter early. The production between these three can’t be understated. A rare four-year starter, Ridder is particularly tough to replace.

The veteran amassed a 64.9% completion rate for 3,334 yards, 30 touchdowns, and eight interceptions with an excellent 158.7 passer rating in 2021. Ford also had monstrous numbers that cannot be replicated by any incumbent scholarship player. He carried the offense with his 6.1 per-carry average, 19 rushing touchdowns, and 1,539 total yards.

The former Alabama tailback was a man amongst boys in the AAC and projects as a solid NFL depth piece. Pierce was a notably dangerous deep threat. The Bearcats’ leading receiver averaged 17 yards per catch, totaling 884 yards and eight scores. It’s clear he and Ridder shared a trust that only Tyler Scott ever seemed able to occasionally garner, but the receiving room is now a bit thin.

Remaining Offense

It’s expected redshirt sophomore Evan Prater will win the starting quarterback job, and the majority of the remaining offense behind Ford and Pierce will simply step into bigger roles. Former 3-star quarterback Ben Bryant is coming from Eastern Michigan and should compete for the starting gig. But it’s hard to find much optimism that they can elevate to last year’s level.

The defense will also take a considerable step back. Losing Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and virtually every other defensive starter is an impossible hand to be dealt. Linebackers Deshawn Pace and Ty Van Fossen will become leaders as two of the only three returning starters.

It’s hard to envision the Bearcats even winning the AAC with so much turnover. They’ll surely be a tough team to beat thanks to their elite coaching and pipeline of talent, but an 8-4 season would be a solid accomplishment considering the task ahead of this staff.