Even if his team achieves perfection in the regular season, Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell might not receive an invitation to the four-team College Football Playoff, a system that serves as the sport’s exclusive country club. Only the elite need apply.
It’s obvious something is wrong with the system, and something needs to change.
“I’ve long, long been an advocate of expanding the playoff,” VSiN’s Brent Musburger said. “I think the little guys should get a chance.”
The Cincinnati kids could be the best of the little guys this season. The Bearcats return 14 starters, including star quarterback Desmond Ridder, from a team that was sitting at 9-0 last year when playoff invites were handed out to Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame. There was not a lot to debate because those four teams truly were the most deserving.
But it has been a similar story year after year. The four-team model is essentially rigged to prevent teams outside the Power Five conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 — from participating. Cincinnati competes in the American Athletic Conference, part of the Group of Five, a polite label for the lesser conferences.
The Westgate SuperBook lists Cincinnati’s national championship odds at 200-1, a fair price considering the Bearcats must clear several high hurdles just to get into the exclusionary playoff. If the improbable happens, it would be a Cinderella story.
Besides the usual favorites — Alabama (2-1), Clemson (9-2), Ohio State (5-1) and Oklahoma (5-1) — only a handful of teams are worth consideration on the college football futures board, where long shots and sleeper teams do not have realistic paths to the playoff.
“I think Iowa State could climb into the mix,” Musburger said. “How’s that for a shock? I’m a huge, huge fan of (coach) Matt Campbell, and I think the Cyclones could be the surprise of the college football season.”
Iowa State of the Big 12 is posted at 30-1 odds. Some other Power Five contenders worth a look are Georgia (10-1), Texas A&M (30-1), Texas (30-1), Notre Dame (50-1), Oregon (60-1), USC (60-1), Wisconsin (60-1) and North Carolina (80-1).
Paul Stone, a Texas-based college football handicapper and VSiN contributor, said he ranks Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia and Oklahoma as the top five teams in his power rankings. He also gives Iowa State, Texas A&M and perhaps the Pac-12 champion a shot at the four-team playoff.
“If you want to look down the board a little bit and buy a lottery ticket, then I’d take a small shot on Utah at 200-1,” Stone said. "The Utes will be greatly improved at quarterback with Baylor grad transfer Charlie Brewer. Plus they return a lot of experienced players on both sides of the ball and have one of the game’s most underrated coaches in Kyle Whittingham."
Utah has a favorable Pac-12 schedule. Aside from playing at USC, the Utes get home games against Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA.
The bottom line is the college football futures board is currently a boring option for the betting public. At least the long-shot teams have a shot in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Since the inception of the four-team playoff at the end of the 2014 season, 20 of the 28 spots have gone to four teams — Alabama (six), Clemson (six), Ohio State (four) and Oklahoma (four). The only other team with multiple appearances is Notre Dame (two). The other six spots went to Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Michigan State, Oregon and Washington.
A 12-team playoff will mean more spots for the superconferences of the future. It seems likely that a super-sized SEC with Oklahoma and Texas, plus a Big Ten that will soon get even bigger than 14 teams, will make up about half the playoff field. As the rich get richer and the power conferences get stronger, hopefully at least one spot will go to a little guy.
If Cincinnati breaks through this year, it would be the first Group of Five team to reach the playoff. Fickell scheduled road games against two Power Five opponents — Indiana on Sept. 18 and Notre Dame on Oct. 2 — and the Bearcats must win both plus run the table to have any playoff shot.
If there’s a time to crash the party, this could be it. All of last year’s playoff teams lost veteran quarterbacks to the NFL draft — Alabama (Mac Jones), Clemson (Trevor Lawrence), Ohio State (Justin Fields) and Notre Dame (Ian Book) — and could be vulnerable early in the season.
An expanded playoff should have happened many years ago and cannot come soon enough for most bettors and bookmakers. A 12-team plan, proposed in June, should eventually spark more interest in a stale college football product.
“The 12-team model obviously creates a level of inclusion that currently does not exist,” Stone said. “Most fans love the underdog and the David-vs.-Goliath stories, and the expanded playoff will give teams like Cincinnati and Boise State a shot at the Alabamas and Clemsons of the college football world.”
It won’t be a perfect world, but a 12-team playoff, still two to three years away, would open new possibilities for small-conference teams and trigger more diverse betting action on long shots.
“I think it’s pretty universal that we’re all looking forward to the playoff expanding,” said Vinny Magliulo, VSiN oddsmaker and veteran Las Vegas bookmaker. “There has not been as much play in the college football futures book. The NFL futures have taken more action.
“A bigger playoff will mean terrific business. When we get to the 12-team playoff, you have room to maneuver, and it will definitely increase the wagering handle for the college football futures.”
Musburger’s money is on a team from Ohio this season, but it’s not Cincinnati.
“If I had to pick one team right now to win it all, I would take the Buckeyes,” Musburger said. “Hey, ask (Michigan coach) Jim Harbaugh how hard it is to beat Ohio State.”