It was throwback Alabama. It was smash-mouth football. It was nonstop pressure. It was a flashback to how Nick Saban built this dynastic program.
Forget spreading the field and lighting up the scoreboard. This is how Alabama used to win national championships, and it was good enough to get it back to the final game of the season.
The Crimson Tide beat up previously undefeated Cincinnati up front. They ran through the Bearcats. They abused them in the trenches. They flexed their five-star muscles in a one-sided 27-6 Cotton Bowl victory at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Alabama will face the winner of Friday night’s Georgia-Michigan game on Jan. 10.
Cinderella didn’t get to stay at the dance very long. The first Group of Five school to reach the playoff was outclassed by the defending national champions who seem intent on repeating. The last team to achieve that feat was, yes, you guessed it, Alabama in 2011-12.
Without star wideout John Metchie III (torn ACL) and facing one of the premier secondaries in the country, Alabama turned senior running Brian Robinson Jr. loose against Cincinnati’s smallish front seven. He torched the Bearcats for a career-best 204 yards on 26 carries, making it a light day for quarterback Bryce Young.
Alabama’s stifling defense did the rest. It had its way with Cincinnati and star quarterback Desmond Ridder, sacking him six times, frequently pressuring him and frustrating the Bearcats, who managed just three plays of 10 or more yards over the first three quarters and failed to score a touchdown for the first time in 34 games. Their 76 first-half yards were the fewest in the College Football Playoff’s eighth-year history.
Alabama (13-1) set the tone with a physically dominant opening drive. Of the Crimson Tide’s 12 plays, 10 were runs, amassing 62 yards, and Young capped it with an 8-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Slade Bolden. It was a preview of the hours to come.
Cincinnati (13-1) did well to hang close for most of the first half despite meager production from its offense. It held Alabama to two field-goal attempts, one that was missed by Will Reichard from 44 yards out. But the dam broke late in the second quarter, after a JoJo Earle muffed punt backed up the Crimson Tide to their own 6-yard-line. Struggling up until that point, Young came alive. He converted a short third-down pass to Williams and found Brooks on a 44-yard touchdown strike down the left sideline with 1:36 left in the half, by far the biggest play in a slow-moving first 30 minutes.
A 40-yard kickoff return by Tyler Scott gave Cincinnati it’s best field position of the game. Points were desperately needed at this juncture. But the drive stalled, and the quarter ended in apt fashion: With consecutive Alabama sacks. The 17-3 score didn’t tell the story of the one-sided nature of the contest. Robinson became just the fourth 100-yard rusher against Cincinnati this season, and his 134 yards on the ground in the first half were the most allowed all season by the Bearcats.
It was 302-76 in total yards in favor of Alabama, 172-17 on the ground and 16-5 in first downs gained. Ridder completed just 8 of 17 passes, was sacked three times and had three attempts knocked down at the line of scrimmage. The only statistic that was even was turnovers — zero apiece.
Cincinnati started the second half better, driving for a short field goal. And it blanked Alabama in the third quarter, even forcing a Young interception, but the offense couldn’t do nearly enough. After the Bryan Cook interception, the Bearcats went the wrong way, losing 16 yards on their next drive. It missed eight consecutive third downs, unable to hold up against the Alabama front seven.
When Young connected with tight end Cameron Latu on a 9-yard touchdown pass, extending the lead to 24-6 with 13:52 left, the result was all but decided. Cincinnati had yet to reach the end zone, and had shown no signs of being able to rally.