IRVING, Texas — Cincinnati has broken college football’s glass ceiling.
The Bearcats will play Alabama in the Cotton Bowl and Michigan will face Georgia in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve after being selected to the College Football Playoff as a historic field of four was set Sunday. The winners will play for the national championship on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.
Fourth-seeded Cincinnati is the first team to reach the CFP from a non-Power Five conference. The Bearcats (13-0) won the American Athletic Conference and head into the postseason as the only unbeaten team in the country.
Previously, no team from a so-called Group of Five conference had ever even come close to making the playoff. Not two UCF teams that went unbeaten in the 2017 and ‘18 regular seasons nor Cincinnati last year, when undefeated was only good enough for a Peach Bowl bid against Georgia.
“All year we’ve tried to avoid saying we’re carrying the flag [for teams outside the Power Five],” Cincinnati coach coach Luke Fickell said on ESPN. “I think you can get lost in a lot things that are going on.”
The Bearcats made history with little debate. Playoff selection committee chairman Gary Barta said there was strong consensus for Cincinnati at No. 4 ahead of No. 5 Notre Dame, which had only one loss — at home against the Bearcats in early October. Ohio State finished sixth.
The Bearcats might not have been so comfortably in the field had things gone differently at the Big 12 championship game Saturday. Oklahoma State, which was No. 5 in the CFP rankings going into the game, came up inches short of scoring a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute against Baylor.
Baylor made the goal-line stand to win the Big 12 and, after Cincinnati took care of Houston in the AAC title game, 35-20, the Bearcats were in the clear.
It is the third time two teams from the same conference are in the CFP and second time it has happened with the SEC. In the 2017 playoff, the Alabama beat Georgia in overtime to win the national title.
As conferences leaders consider expanding the playoff from four to 12 teams as soon as 2024, only two Power Five leagues will be represented this season: the SEC and Big Ten. The Atlantic Coast Conference missed out for the first time. The Big 12 was shutout for the second straight season and the Pac-12 for the sixth time will not have a team in the playoff.
The other big bowl games were also set:
▪ Michigan State (10-2) vs. ACC champion Pitt (11-2) in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 30.
▪ Notre Dame (11-1) vs. Oklahoma State (11-2) in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1.
▪ Pac-12 champion Utah (10-3) vs. Ohio State (10-2) in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
▪ Mississippi (10-2) vs. Baylor (11-2) in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
Cincinnati’s reward for making history is a matchup with the defending national champions in the Cotton Bowl at the home of the Dallas Cowboys.
“We certainly think Cincinnati belongs in the playoff,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said on ESPN.
The Crimson Tide is in the playoff for the seventh time in the postseason format’s eight-year history after handing Georgia its first loss of the season in the Southeastern Conference title game Saturday.
Alabama (12-1) seemed to be a loss away from being eliminated from playoff contention heading into its game with Georgia. Instead, Bryce Young and the Tide lit up the Bulldogs’ vaunted defense to earn the top seed with a 41-24 victory in the SEC Championship game.
“Not only did Alabama beat Georgia, but the way they beat them — they controlled the game, pretty much from start to finish,” Barta said.
Barta said the committee gave no consideration to avoiding a rematch between the Tide and Bulldogs in the first round when seeding the teams.
Saban’s Alabama dynasty has won three playoff championships to go along with three BCS titles since 2009.
Georgia (12-1) managed to stay in the field as the third seed, becoming the second team to lose its conference title game and make the playoff. Notre Dame did the same thing last season, when it lost a rematch with Clemson in its lone season playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a move prompted by pandemic-altered schedules.
The Bulldogs will be making their second CFP appearance when they meet second-seeded Michigan (12-1) in the Orange Bowl. Coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines are in the playoff for the first time after winning the Big Ten for the first time since 2004. Michigan, which went 2-4 last season, is also the first team to make the playoff after being unranked in the preseason AP Top 25.
This will be the first matchup of the two historic programs — no team in college football history has won more games than Michigan — since 1965. The Bulldogs beat the Wolverines 15-7 in the Big House.