If the Cincinnati Bearcats are going to crack the College Football Playoff, they are going to need a little help from their friends.
Thoroughly undervalued by the CFP selection committee, the Bearcats landed at No. 6 in the initial poll of the only ranking that matters. The indisputable truth, based on a near-decade of evidence, is a Group of Five program does not control a path to the playoff. It's a maddening reality for an excellent team.
But in Week 10, the Purdue Boilermakers and North Carolina Tar Heels both pushed other teams out of the road.
Purdue earned its second upset of the season over a Top Five team and defeated the No. 3 Michigan State Spartans 40-29, while UNC outlasted the No. 9 Wake Forest Demon Deacons 58-55. As a result, the Georgia Bulldogs and Oklahoma Sooners are the only remaining unbeaten teams from a Power Five conference.
Most importantly, the number of potential excuses for holding Cincinnati out of the Top Four is dwindling.
Look, the Bearcats might ultimately do that on their own.
Cincinnati needed a chaotic goal-line stand to survive Tulsa on Saturday. It's the third straight underwhelming showing from the Bearcats, who still have 7-2 SMU and (most likely) the AAC Championship Game on the schedule. One loss renders this conversation meaningless, and they've flirted with danger lately.
For now, though, Cincinnati keeps winning while others lose, and that attrition is key to its CFP pursuit.
Michigan State could leap the Bearcats again, but that would require a victory over Ohio State. While I never assume anything with the selection committee anymore, it's hard to believe Cincinnati would fall behind a two-loss version of this Ohio State team. And if MSU falls to Ohio State, the Spartans are out.
On the other hand, Wake Forest shouldn't be a factor.
Although the Demon Deacons' remaining slate is reasonably challenging, they trailed the Bearcats as an unbeaten team. Again, assume nothing, but the mental gymnastics to have a one-loss Wake leap Cincinnati is remarkable, even for the committee.
Throw in Baylor falling to TCU and Auburn losing to Texas A&M, and Cincinnati watched its number of CFP obstacles drop from 12 to nine on Saturday.
Those programs are Georgia, Alabama, Michigan State, Oregon, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. Notre Dame is a Top 10 team, but the committee—for all of its flaws—has largely prioritized head-to-head wins in the ranking. That stayed true in the initial Top 25 this season, too.
That collection of nine programs is a massive list. If the Bearcats don't regain their pre-Navy form and there aren't many losses in that group, projecting them to finish ahead of six is foolish based on seven-plus years of CFP history.
Now, you might be thinking: Tough. Cincinnati has struggled with a couple of mediocre teams, and a No. 6 ranking is the product of those issues. Don't like it? Start crushing people again.
To some degree, fair!
The problem is the committee doesn't judge the Bearcats on the same scale. On Tuesday night, you'll probably hear CFP committee chairman Gary Barta declare the 13-member group has "great respect" for Cincinnati before criticizing its run defense and a lackluster win over a 3-6 Tulsa squad.
What you won't? Any recognition that both 8-1 Oklahoma State and 8-1 Ohio State needed a strong fourth quarter to escape this exact same Tulsa roster in September.
Plus, it's not like Week 10 was a banner Saturday for everyone else. Beyond the MSU and Wake Forest losses, No. 5 Ohio State had a frustrating day in a 26-17 win at Nebraska. No. 2 Alabama—a 29-point favorite at home—needed to dodge a last-second play against LSU and mustered a 20-14 victory. No. 4 Oregon trailed Washington for most of the opening half and weaseled out a 26-16 win.
Perhaps this is all akin to "old man yells at clouds" or the classic "get off my lawn" commentary. Cincinnati's reality won't be changed because of my dissatisfied voice or yours.
Upsets, however, can have an enormous impact.
On a day when Cincinnati didn't have an incredible game, the Michigan State and Wake Forest losses offered a lifeline. The Bearcats need to win more convincingly down the stretch, but Week 10's chaos pushed them closer to the CFP anyway.