Cincinnati exposes Notre Dame’s weaknesses, but get ready for all the haters heading into the College Football Playoff – USA TODAY

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Notre Dame escaped September unbeaten against Florida State, Toledo, Purdue and Wisconsin before running into a legitimate opponent capable of pulling back the curtain and exposing a team with an abundance of flaws.

In controlling Notre Dame’s offense and leaning on senior quarterback Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati pulled off one of the biggest wins in program history and set up a debate that will churn through the final two months of the regular season.

While far from a perfect performance, especially in the hiccups on special teams and an inability to capitalize inside the red zone, the 24-13 victory sends the Bearcats into American play without a loss and with the team’s postseason goals intact.

Ahead 17-0 at halftime, the Bearcats allowed Notre Dame to draw within 17-13 before a 75-yard drive capped by a Ridder touchdown run locked up the win. The senior finished with 323 yards of total offense and three combined scores, breathing life into a Heisman Trophy candidacy that had yet to register on a national scale. Notre Dame cycled through three quarterbacks and averaged 4.6 yards per play with three turnovers.

Only one team in South Bend looked worthy of College Football Playoff consideration, and it wasn’t the Fighting Irish. But the Bearcats’ win will be treated as a testament to Notre Dame issues instead of evidence of Cincinnati’s playoff credentials.

The haters are about to come out of the Power Five woodwork in an attempt to smear Cincinnati’s playoff case, which centers on a pretty fair argument: That after rising higher in the rankings than any team in Group of Five history a season ago, this year’s group is even better — and the Bearcats can now tout two Power Five wins as proof.

These wins, against Indiana and the Irish, come as several of the top preseason contenders for the playoff have lost, including Clemson, Ohio State and Texas A&M. That’s already created enough uncertainty to make almost anything possible in terms of which teams round out the top four, even if half of the semifinals seem reserved for the two best teams from the SEC.

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The road wins against Power Five opponents ranked in the preseason USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll weren’t necessarily dominant — the 38-24 win against Indiana wasn’t settled until three minutes left in the fourth quarter — but neither feels cheap, as if Cincinnati drew the Hoosiers or Irish on an off day and took advantage. 

In particular, what the win at Notre Dame does is set up an uncomfortable question for the selection committee: Is unbeaten Cincinnati deserving of being placed ahead of multiple Power Five conference champions?

The argument from major-conference commissioners and coaches says the Bearcats’ schedule simply doesn’t match up, that rolling through the American is not in any way equivalent to steering through a Power Five schedule. And Cincinnati’s remaining schedule isn’t imposing: Temple, Central Florida, Tulsa and SMU come at home, and Navy, Tulane, South Florida and East Carolina on the road.

But what can Cincinnati do? The Bearcats scheduled two Power Five opponents and took care of business. The Aggies barely beat Colorado and lost to Arkansas. Ohio State barely beat Minnesota and lost at home to Oregon. Why should those two teams remain in the playoff mix but Cincinnati still be seen as an interloper despite handling non-conference play and erasing any doubt that this team is good enough to be included in the conversation?

Get ready to hear all about it. Whether you like it or not, Cincinnati’s going to play a major role in determining this year’s national championship. Let the debate begin.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg