Cincinnati has made history as the first Group of Five team to reach the College Football Playoff. As a reward, the Bearcats will meet the greatest dynasty in the history of the sport.
Fresh off a 41-24 win against Georgia to win the SEC championship, Alabama enters the semifinal in the Cotton Bowl as roughly a two-touchdown favorite. The Crimson Tide are looking to win a second straight championship and seventh overall under coach Nick Saban.
It’s against this run of dominance that Cincinnati tiptoes onto the biggest stage ever given to a team outside the five major conferences. But the Bearcats have been building to this point for several years under coach Luke Fickell and have the talent, experience and confidence to not back down from the challenge posed by the Crimson Tide.
Alabama was seen as one of the nation’s best teams but far from a dominant powerhouse for most of the regular season, especially after a loss to Texas A&M seemed to expose issues with what is typically a reliable defense.
Later in October and November, the Tide leaned almost entirely on Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young to carry them. Close wins against Arkansas, LSU and Auburn nearly derailed them. The win in Atlanta changed the entire dynamic of the semifinals and eventual championship game. Alabama isn’t just a heavy favorite against Cincinnati; it’s now the favorite to win the whole thing.
Cincinnati is the biggest Cinderella in modern college football history. The Bearcats, however, don’t struggle for star power. Fickell has become one of the rising stars in the profession. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is easily one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in Group of Five history. Defensive back Sauce Gardner is a multiple-time All-America pick.
Here is the bottom line on this game: Alabama is too strong, too skilled and too stubborn to let a team like Cincinnati, on any team for that matter, derail them from a second straight title game appearance. The Bearcats’ only hope is to render the Crimson Tide one-dimensional by getting a decent pass rush and allow its talented secondary to pick off four or five passes from Bryce Young’s talented right arm. Alabama 42, Cincinnati 30.
Cincinnati making the College Football Playoff should be celebrated for infusing some much-needed variety into a system that had grown a little stale. That being said, I don’t think the Bearcats have much of a chance here. Nick Saban’s process ensures his team will not overlook its opponent in a spot as big as this, as evidenced by the absurd idea floated by star linebacker Will Anderson that the Crimson Tide are underdogs. That mindset combined with overwhelming talent – including a caliber of quarterback in Bryce Young the Bearcats simply haven’t had to contend with – will send Alabama to the national title game once again. Alabama 41, Cincinnati 21.
Cincinnati had the secondary to run with Alabama’s receivers and slow down the Tide’s passing game. But the issue for the Bearcats could be how they matchup with the big bodies on Alabama’s offensive and defensive lines. On offense, the Tide are in good shape if they can keep Bryce Young clean. Alabama 34, Cincinnati 21.
Cincinnati making the College Football Playoff was a great story and a just reward for the Bearcats after their impressive season. But facing Alabama is a completely different assignment than beating Notre Dame or running through the American Athletic. Bryce Young and Jameson Williams will connect often and the Crimson Tide shut down Desmond Ridder to win going away. Alabama 34, Cincinnati 13.
Let me state this up front – Cincinnati could absolutely win this game. The Bearcats have the secondary to match up with the Tide’s shorthanded receiving unit, Desmond Ridder is a tremendous competitor, and Alabama can’t just take over with its ground game like some of its past teams could. But picking against Alabama at this point in the season is usually unwise. If the Tide play like they did against Georgia, there’s nothing the Bearcats can do. Alabama 34, Cincinnati 23.
Alabama’s inconsistency this season has been notable, and there’s a chance that Cincinnati can make things complicated by getting pressure on Bryce Young. But it’ll be a slog for Cincinnati to move the ball, and giving Nick Saban time to prepare is usually bad news for semifinal opponents. Alabama 31, Cincinnati 14.
Who has the edge?
When Alabama runs
The Bearcats have given up 1.6 yards per carry in their past two games. Alabama’s running game simply hasn’t been up to par against strong competition, as the offense has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry against Power Five teams. This could be an area where Cincinnati’s defense can find a real advantage. EDGE: Cincinnati.
When Alabama passes
Cincinnati’s pass defense is the best in the country. The Bearcats lead the FBS in efficiency defense (100.5) after allowing 10 touchdown passes with 18 interceptions during the regular season. But Bryce Young and the Crimson Tide are a different animal. The Bearcats may make the Tide work but no defense has found a way to stop this passing game. EDGE: Alabama.
When Cincinnati runs
Jerome Ford (1,243 yards and 19 touchdowns) has been terrific as the Bearcats’ feature back. Look for Desmond Ridder (361 yards) to get more involved on the ground. Outside of a poor game against Florida, Alabama’s run defense has been one of the best in the country. EDGE: Alabama.
When Cincinnati passes
The passing game has been more explosive than ever since the start of November. That’s a positive sign for an offense that wants to maximize every pass attempt and try to beat Alabama deep. The Crimson Tide have the pass rush to make things difficult up front, but the secondary does not match up with groups from the program’s recent past. EDGE: Draw.
Cincinnati has survived to this point despite a completely unreliable kicking game. Only six teams made fewer field goals during the regular season and no team hit on a lower percentage of attempts (41.2%). Cincinnati will need every point it can get. EDGE: Alabama.
Luke Fickell has transformed Cincinnati into a national player. But there’s only one Nick Saban. He knows how to make the most of the added time to prepare and always has his team ready to roll. EDGE: Alabama.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alabama, Cincinnati clash in Cotton Bowl: Predictions, game analysis