Cotton Bowl – No.1 Alabama (12-1) vs. No.4 Cincinnati (13-0)
While the second semi-final between Michigan and Georgia might turn out to be the closer, the Cotton Bowl, the opening College Football Semi-Final between No.1 Alabama and No.4 Cincinnati, might be the most intriguing.
A David vs. Goliath or a Rocky vs. Apollo billing would be a little unkind to Cincinnati, given the considerable talent they have developed in the last two to three years. A nod, however, should be given to the considerable jump they have made in facing Alabama, the undoubted best team in college football over a similar period.
While Nick Saban was winning his third national championship in the playoff era last year, Cincinnati finished last season ranked No.7, then the highest ranking for a Group of Five team. They topped that with an unbeaten 13-0 season.
Giving an early sign of their intent with a 24-13 victory over Notre Dame in South Bend. Comfortable wins over UCF, SMU and Houston continued their momentum. Leading them to a historic place in the Playoff, the first for a non-Power Five conference team.
Alabama, meanwhile, were rebuilding to a certain extent following the annual drain of talent to the NFL. They grew in confidence under the fledgling stewardship of Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young, who stepped up to replace Mac Jones.
The emergence of receivers Jameson Williams and John Metchie III, able replacements for DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, saw the Tide roll past opponents until a 41-38 upset loss to Texas A&M. This, coupled with Georgia’s relentless momentum, threatened to jeopardise Alabama’s seat in the end of season knockout. Seven wins on the bounce, including a close Iron Bowl win over Auburn and a commanding SEC title win over Georgia have put them back in the driving seat for another national championship, their eighth in thirteen years.
While Bryce Young is the jewel in Alabama’s No.1 crown, he is supported by a glittering array of offensive talent. His blind side is protected by the dominant left tackle Evan Neal, a likely top-five NFL Draft pick in April. Alabama’s offensive line, which struggled at times this season, shut down Georgia. Offering their quarterback time and opportunity to pick apart the Bulldogs’ secondary. He will need the same to beat the outstanding Cincinnati secondary.
Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams and John Metchie have given Young unfair one-on-one downfield matchups to target. Their speed and power have left opposing defenders trailing. Williams caught 15 touchdowns for 1,445 yards, 111 per game on average including 184 vs. Georgia in the SEC title game.
He also returned two kick returns for touchdowns, including one for 100 yards against Southern Miss. Metchie added 8 touchdown passes for 1,142 yards before suffering a season-ending injury against Georgia. Slade Bolden will need to step up in Metchie’s absence and look for Jahleel Billingsley to mix things up amongst the Bearcats’ backfield.
For Najee Harris this season, read Brian Robinson Jr. The Tuscaloosa native gives Alabama much needed balance to their stellar passing options with a powerful running game. 14 touchdowns and 1,071 yards on the ground coupled with two receiving touchdowns demonstrate his value to the Crimson Tide offense.
The Tide defense led by linebackers Henry To’oTo’o and Will Anderson Jr, surprisingly snubbed for Heisman recognition, will have to put pressure on the Cincinnati offensive line to snuff out the threat of the mobile Desmond Ridder. Anderson Jr. has had an outstanding season. Winning the Bronco Nagurski Trophy for the nation’s best defensive player, registering 15.5 sacks and a nation-leading 32.5 tackles for loss.
If Ridder and Cincinnati’s rushing game featuring the talents of Alabama transfer Jerome Ford can be contained, the Tide’s secondary, featuring the talented Josh Jobe and Kool-Aid McKinstry, can handle Cincinnati’s passing attack.
They can’t match Alabama’s overall depth of talent. But, Cincinnati’s starting line-ups on offense and defense, on their day, are a match for any team in the country. A talented quarterback, disruptive pass rush that sets up an explosive secondary and strong special teams unit will carry the challenge to the Crimson Tide.
Desmond Ridder is an electric dual-threat quarterback with a stunning 44-5 career record at Cincinnati. He threw for 3,190 yards and 30 touchdowns, rushing for another six scores and 361 yards this season. His performance against Notre Dame, throwing for 323 yards, made teams sit up and take notice. Alabama will need to keep him in the pocket to nullify his threat.
The performance of the Bearcats’ offensive line will be a key factor. A unit that ranked just 48th in rushing attack nationally will not have faced anywhere near the threat the Alabama defense will pose. Jerome Ford, with 20 total touchdowns and 1,242 rushing yards will need to be on top form to create opportunities for him and his quarterback.
Where Cincinnati do have an advantage is their secondary. The pass defense ranked No.1 in the nation for pass efficiency and No.3 in interceptions (18) and passing yards allowed (168.3 per game) allowed. In Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Coby Bryant, the Bearcats have arguably the best pair of cornerbacks in college football. With three interceptions each this season.
Gardner is expected to be a first-round NFL Draft pick in April. While Bryant won the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the best defensive back in college football. He will change his number from 7 to 8, in honour of the similarly named late Kobe Bryant, the L.A. Lakers talent who died tragically in a helicopter accident last year. The absence of John Metchie could give the Cincinnati duo the edge over Jameson Williams and the Alabama receivers. The battle between Cincinnati defensive end Myjai Sanders and Alabama left tackle Evan Neal will be one to watch.
Consistency will be the key here, and which sides decide to turn up to the Cotton Bowl. If the Alabama team that beat Auburn by two points and was trailing LSU appears, a Cincinnati team on their game will cause them problems. This is a team now with a taste for history and used to winning that beat Notre Dame in their own back yard, who will not fear Alabama. If their cornerbacks can get the better of Alabama’s receivers, Bryce Young might struggle.
The Alabama team, historically smelling blood at this stage of the season, which turned up should prove too much for a brave Cincinnati team. The bookies have the spread as Alabama by two touchdowns. I think they will overrun the Bearcats in the second half and win by twenty. Advancing to the final again and breaking the hearts of Cincinnati and their fans, bringing their fairy tale to a premature end.
CHECK OUT THE PREVIEW FOR THE ORANGE BOWL BETWEEN MICHIGAN & GEORGIA HERE
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College Football Playoff – Alabama vs. Cincinnati – Semi-Final Preview by Gareth Evans