The Post’s Zach Braziller breaks down the Cotton Bowl (Friday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN) between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Cincinnati at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
When Alabama has the ball
It’s the fourth-ranked scoring offense (Alabama) taking on the fourth-ranked scoring defense (Cincinnati). It’s the Heisman Trophy winner (Bryce Young) and one of the sport’s premier game-breaking receivers (Jameson Williams) against arguably the best cornerback tandem in the country (Jim Thorpe Award-winner Coby Bryant and projected first round selection Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner). It’s elite versus elite. Two dynamite units that usually dominate and are coming off fantastic performances. Alabama piled up 536 yards of offense in its one-sided SEC championship game win over Georgia and its No. 1 defense. Cincinnati handcuffed Houston and its explosive offense in the AAC title game.
When Cincinnati has the ball
This isn’t a classic Nick Saban defense. Arkansas shredded Alabama through the air. Florida gashed the Crimson Tide on the ground. Texas A&M put up 41 points. Cincinnati has an offense, led by senior dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder and a bevy of weapons, that is superior to those units. The Bearcats had their way with Notre Dame and Houston, defenses that are comparable to Alabama’s as far as numbers go, and they can neutralize the SEC juggernaut’s third-ranked pass rush with Ridder’s mobility and a stout ground game that features Alabama transfer Jerome Ford.
Alabama has by far the better kicker, experienced and accurate junior Will Reichard, while Cincinnati has used three different kickers, resulting in a dismal 7-for-17 showing that could be significant if the game is close late. Williams is a lethal weapon in the return game for the Crimson Tide — he has scored twice on nine kickoff returns — though they may not want to risk him back there after John Metchie III’s season-ending torn ACL. Keep an eye on the Bearcats coming up with a big block — they have gotten to three punts and six field goals this year.
Luke Fickell has already made history at Cincinnati, leading the Bearcats to their first 13-win season in his fifth season, turning a solid program into a Group of Five powerhouse that will soon be a member of the Big 12. That would not have happened without this coaching star on the rise. But now Fickell has to match wits with Nick Saban, arguably the greatest coach of all time, on the sport’s biggest stage. This is old hat for Saban, who is in the College Football Playoff for the seventh time in eight years and looking to win his record eighth national title. Experience matters this time of year.
Players who could decide the game (non-quarterbacks)
LB Will Anderson Jr., Alabama
He’s a game-wrecker, a demon on the edge who is tied for the FBS lead in sacks with 15.5 and is No. 1 by a wide margin in tackles for loss with an astounding 32.5. The Bronko Nagurski Trophy award winner — given to the best defensive player in the country — has an apt nickname: “The Terminator.”
RB Brian Robinson Jr., Alabama
It might be easy to overlook the senior since he plays on a team with the Heisman Trophy winner and two top-flight receivers, but his value shouldn’t be discounted. In the four games in which Robinson rushed for more than 100 yards, the Crimson Tide averaged 43.5 points per game. Metchie’s absence could lead to an expanded role for Robinson, who is a quality pass-catcher out of the backfield with 31 receptions for 268 yards and two touchdowns.
WR, Alec Pierce, Cincinnati
To beat Alabama, you have to make big plays down the field. The Crimson Tide, ranked 63rd in the nation in passing defense, are susceptible. Pierce, averaging 17.3 yards per catch on 50 receptions, is certainly capable. He was a monster in the big win at Notre Dame, with six catches for 144 yards. A performance along those lines will be needed for the Bearcats to pull off the stunner.
Cincinnati proves it belongs. The result isn’t decided until deep into the fourth quarter. The Bearcats’ secondary makes plays. Ridder and Pierce connect on a few deep balls. There is genuine doubt — until Young erases it. The Heisman Trophy winner leads the Crimson Tide on two long scoring drives in the final quarter — using both his feet and his right arm — and the Anderson-led pass rush heats up at the right time.
Alabama 35, Cincinnati 24