It’s the immovable object against the unstoppable force. The Heisman Trophy winner on one side. Arguably the nation’s best cornerback tandem on the other.
Bryce Young and Alabama’s fifth-ranked passing offense and fourth-ranked scoring attack. Coby Bryant, Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Cincinnati’s No. 2 passing defense and No. 4 scoring defense.
This College Football Playoff semifinal will be strength on strength. Alabama (12-1) isn’t going to shy away from going after Bryant and Gardner despite their six combined interceptions and 15 passes defensed, as some teams have. Undefeated Cincinnati isn’t going to change how it plays, and suddenly get conservative. Both teams got here in part because of these three players, and their respective success.
“It doesn’t matter who lines up in front of us,” Bryant said. “We have to be ourselves and … just play our game and dominate the way we know how to dominate.”
Bryant won the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the country’s top defensive back, and he may not even be the best corner on his own team. Gardner is a projected first-round NFL draft pick — he is rated No. 2 among cornerbacks by ESPN, behind only LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. — a lockdown defensive back who has never allowed a touchdown in his college career, spanning more than 1,000 coverage snaps. According to Pro Football Focus, the 6-foot-3 standout gave up only 117 total receiving yards all year and allowed zero catches in the red zone.
He will have his hands full Friday against Young and speed merchant Jameson Williams, one of the nation’s top playmakers. Williams averages 21.3 yards per catch, the fifth-highest mark in the sport, and is coming off a seven-catch, 184-yard, two-touchdown destruction of Georgia’s top-ranked defense.
“I think the challenge here this week is going to be incredible for him because they’re not going to go away from him,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “There’s going to be opportunities that he’s going to have one of the best receivers in college football matched up one-on-one, and he’s going to be challenged.”
A similar sentiment can be expressed about Young, who will get more downfield opportunities than he’s accustomed to. Cincinnati plays press coverage. It frequently leaves its cornerbacks on an island — defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said it’s the key to the Bearcats’ success, since it frees the defense up to blitz and pressure opposing quarterbacks. That will give Young opportunities to go up top.
He’s passed every test so far, thriving immediately after spending his freshman year watching Mac Jones lead Alabama to the national championship. In his first start, Young threw for 344 yards and four touchdowns in a rout of Miami. Over the last seven games, he’s thrown for 23 scores and been picked off just once, running away with the Heisman Trophy. He rallied Alabama from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit at Auburn with a playoff spot in the balance and never blinked against Georgia, even after losing top-target John Metchie III in the first half to a torn ACL.
There were heavy expectations on Young, the former No. 2-overall recruit in the country who also had locked up numerous Name, Image and Likeness deals before his first start. He has somehow lived up to the hype, if he hasn’t surpassed it.
“I can’t emphasize enough the special qualities that Bryce has,” Alabama offensive coordinator and former NFL head coach Bill O’Brien said.
There will be several players with special qualities on the AT&T Stadium Field on Friday night, future Sunday stars with sky-high ceilings. How Young, Bryant and Gardner perform may determine the team that moves on to the national championship game.
Both sides complimented the other. Young raved about Gardner and Bryant’s consistency and play-making abilities. They talked up Young’s instincts, poise and high football IQ. But there wasn’t over-the-top deference, either.
“I’m just going to do everything that y’all see me do on film,” Gardner said. “And that’s going to help me get the job done.”