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CFP Takeaways: Bearcats belong; Tide proves doubters wrong

Cincinnati's Ryan Royer, center, celebrates with fans after winning the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game against Houston Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

By RALPH D. RUSSO AP College Football Writer

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Cincinnati proved it belonged and Alabama showed it should never be doubted.

The College Football Playoff picture fell into place Saturday as the Bearcats stayed unbeaten and poised to become the first team from outside the Power Five conferences to make the four-team field.

“If it’s meant to be, it will be. I don’t think these guys can be denied,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell told reporters.

Meanwhile, in a season highlighted by upsets, who would have guessed the Crimson Tide would get in on the act? Underdog Alabama beat No. 1 Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game to likely ensure both SEC teams make the CFP.

All that stood between the selection committee and a stress-free night before Sunday’s CFP unveiling was the Big Ten championship game. No. 2 Michigan faced Iowa, and a victory for the Wolverines would lock up their first playoff appearance.

With an American Athletic Conference championship on its home field, there was nothing left to debate about Cincinnati. The Bearcats (13-0) buried Houston with a third-quarter surge.

“We just want to play football,” Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder told reporters. “That’s all we care about. Doesn’t matter who, where, when — just put the ball down. We want to play.”

The Bearcats even got a little help before taking the field: Baylor used a late, goal-line stand to upset Oklahoma State in the Big 12 title game and end the Cowboys’ playoff hopes.

“These things are difficult to swallow. But we’ll be back,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.

Cincinnati entered the day fourth in the CFP rankings. No Group of Five conference team had ever even been close to a playoff spot heading into championship weekend. Oklahoma State was lurking at No. 5, trying to finish off its season 12-1 with consecutive victories against ranked teams.

A Cowboys’ victory could have set off a playoff debate featuring a Big 12 team and a future Big 12 team in Cincinnati.

“It’s interesting that a lot of the conversation is around Oklahoma State at five and Cincinnati at four,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said before the title game at AT&T Stadium. “How ironic is that?”

Well, it was.

Baylor’s victory gave Cincinnati some breathing room and boosted Notre Dame’s slim hopes of getting into the playoff for the second straight seasons. There has never been a two-loss team in the playoff, but if Michigan were to lose, Baylor (11-2) even with two losses might be able to make a case against the Fighting Irish.

Mild-mannered Bears coach Dave Aranda passed on a chance to stump for his team, instead lamenting those two losses.

“That’s my fault,” he said. As for the playoff: “I’m sure it will work out the way it’s supposed to.”

Notre Dame (11-1) is sitting at home, sixth in the playoff rankings with a new head coach. Marcus Freeman was officially promoted from defensive coordinator Friday, three days after Brian Kelly left Notre Dame to become LSU’s head coach.

While Baylor’s victory helped the Fighting Irish, Alabama’s convincing win against Georgia surely locked up two spots: One for the Tide and one for Georgia. The Bulldogs (12-1) had rolled through the season with a defense that was allowing less than a touchdown per game. Georgia has been atop every CFP ranking so far.

Underdogs for the first time in six seasons, Alabama dropped 41 on the Bulldogs.

“What these guys wanted to gain was more respect,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. “Not just the fact they were underdogs, but you guys gave us a lot of really positive rat poison. The rat poison you usually give us is fatal. This rat poison you gave us this week was yummy.”

Alabama is probably in line for a No. 1 seed.

The Heisman Trophy was likely settled at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, too. Alabama’s Bryce Young passed for an SEC title game record 421 yards against the nation’s best defense. Finalists who will be invited to New York next week for the Heisman presentation will be announced Monday.

A conference has put two teams in the CFP twice before, and in 2017 it was Alabama and Georgia, which ended up playing for the national title won by the Tide in overtime. It certainly looks like the Tide and Bulldogs could be headed for another championship game matchup.

At worst, Baylor earned a spot in the Sugar Bowl with its first Big 12 championship game victory. If so, it would be the second time in the last three seasons the Bears will play in the Sugar Bowl.

Wake Forest (10-2) and Pittsburgh (10-2) played Saturday night in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, with the winner locking up spot in a New Year’s Six game, likely the Peach Bowl.

On Friday night, Utah earned its first trip to the Rose Bowl by beating Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25

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