The stage is set. Twelve years ago, the Cincinnati Bearcats eyed the Big 12 Championship Game, rooting for underdog Nebraska against the 3rd ranked Texas Longhorns.
Entering the anticipated duel, the Cornhuskers looked to be outmatched, but an incredible defensive showing at the helm of Ndamukong Suh seemed to qualify as just what the doctor ordered for the Bearcats’ national championship hopes.
The prize? A date with Alabama.
Cincinnati never did earn that chance, courtesy of a game-winning Longhorn field goal among other unfortunate events leading to an ugly Cornhuskers departure from the Big 12. But twelve years later that dream has come to fruition, right here. Right here, in Arlington Texas.
Talent-wise, the Bearcats don’t stack up to the Crimson Tide. Coaching-wise, well, let’s just say it’s hard to out-coach Nick Saban. But for what Cincinnati misses in those two categories, they make up for in undefeated record and the desire to reach the final goal more than any of the other playoff teams.
Here’s Down the Drive’s evaluation of whether it will be enough to upset Alabama in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
The Top Storylines Surrounding the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
Cincinnati and the Group of Five’s First Ever CFP Appearance: It took a few upsets, goal line stands and wins over ranked teams to reach this point, but we’re here. Cincinnati — along with the rest of the group of five — no longer needs to live through the “what if’s” and such. What lies ahead stands as the first chance for a non-power team to crack No. 1 since BYU in 1984. Of course, taking down Goliath (Alabama) will be no easy task for a lesser in pure strength David (Cincinnati), but the feat remains possible at the bear minimum.
Bryce Young Looking to Put Exclamation on Heisman Winning Season: Firsts at Alabama are hard to come around these days under Nick Saban. The near annual tradition (or so it seems) of winning a national championship is accompanied by the likes of top tier talent and all kinds of heartbreak-inducing triumphs over the rest of the college world. And so it qualifies as odd that Bryce Young — an underclassman signal caller for the Crimson Tide — represents the first quarterback in school history to win the Heisman Trophy.
There’s been Mark Ingram II, Derrick Henry and DeVonta Smith. There’s been Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones.
But Young represents a new category for Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. He’s a mixture of both, and like all those names mentioned, he’s ready to lead his team to a national championship.
The Absence of John Metchie III: Aside from Ohio State, no program owns a stock of immense receiver talent greater than Alabama.
There’s just one problem for the Crimson Tide: John Metchie III — one of the team’s two star wide receivers — won’t be taking the field on Friday. Subject to a torn ACL in the SEC Title Game, Metchie will miss the rest of the 2021-22 season. That takes some of the pressure of Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Coby Bryant at the cornerback position, something this article will dive deeper into in a bit.
COVID-19 Looms Over as Threat, but Fails to Hinder Either Team: In the world of news and sports, a recent surge of COVID-19 (due to a new variant referred to as Omicron) has put multiple athletic leagues and events on hiatus. The FBS was one of said associations to experience the outbreaks, with Boston College, Texas A&M, UCLA, Virginia and more opting out of bowl games due to virus issues from within.
Such unexpected cancellations prompted the CFP committee to enforce a new set of rules, which included a team being disqualified from earning a shot at the national title if unable to field an adequate roster on New Year’s Eve. However, neither Cincinnati nor Alabama has experienced any issues thus far into playoff week (Alabama’s OC Bill O’Brien and offensive line coach Doug Marrone did contract the disease after the matchup with Cincinnati was announced but have since been cleared to coach in the Cotton Bowl).
Cincinnati Cornerbacks vs. Alabama Receivers: Starting with the obvious, Alabama receiver Jameson Williams will venture against Cincinnati corner Ahmad Gardner in what should qualify as the game’s most entertaining duel. There are two main questions surrounding this matchup: Can Sauce Gardner really stop Williams, a task no corner has managed to fulfill this year? Is he bound to let up his first TD? Williams stats total out to 68 receptions for 1,445 yards and 15 TD’s, with eight of those scores coming in the last four games. If Gardner wants to keep the streak alive, he’ll need to prepare for a few more targets to come his way than usual.
On the other side, it’s a bit of a mystery. Coby Bryant — the Jim Thorpe Award winner — will be tasked with covering whoever Nick Saban sees fit to replace the aforementioned John Metchie III as the Crimson Tide’s WR2. As stated earlier, it’s a big loss considering Metchie III lead the team in receptions (96) and the rest of the receiver core is fairly young with lesser experience.
(For the record, true freshman Ja’Corey Brooks, who has reeled in five receptions during the season, is listed as the current starter in Metchie’s place.)
Cincinnati Defensive Line vs. Alabama Offensive Line: While the duel between Alabama’s top receiving talent and Cincinnati’s cornerback tandem ensues, another matchup — the battle of the trenches — will play a key factor in determining the victor of Friday’s game.
For starters, the Alabama defensive line is expected to provide a fruitful load of pressure against Desmond Ridder and Cincinnati’s run game, but the main question surrounds whether the Bearcats’ attack — the likes of Curtis Brooks, Myjai Sanders, and Malik Van — will find success in doing the same.
The Crimson Tide offensive line remains an inconsistent bunch. Some days, the results are spotless. Others, it’s anything but. If ‘Bama wants to protect Bryce Young against a defense that produced eight sacks vs. Houston, it better be the former.
Alabama Stat Leaders
Passing: It’s tempting not to drool all over the Heisman winner’s stats from the Cincinnati side of things, but 314 completions on 462 attempts for 4,322 yards, 43 touchdowns and only four interceptions will successfully turn even the most profound hater into an admirer. If there were a significant category Bryce Young wasn’t top ten in, it would be fanbases that love him (looking at you, Auburn).
Rushing: With the absence of Roydell Williams (knee), a productive Alabama run game relies solely on Brian Robinson Jr. Robinson, whose stats dipped towards the backend of the regular season, is expected to enter Friday at full strength after Hamstring complications plagued his final pair of games. He leads the Crimson Tide in all categories on the ground with 223 carries for 1,071 yards and 14 TD’s.
Receiving: Reiteration comes into play a lot when talking about Jameson Williams. His 68 receptions for 1,445 yards and 15 TD’s have already been worth mentioning once, and you can’t help but praise the athleticism put forth on the field.
Tackling: There are few things guaranteed in life: death, taxes, Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl and an Alabama player owning an unnecessarily complicated last name. Luckily for Henry To’oTo’o, the stats produced on the field are enough to override any criticism on the newest edition of a tongue-twisting surname. The Sacramento born talent leads his team in overall tackles (100) along with 47 solo tackles and four sacks.
Interceptions: A non-factor in Alabama’s recent games, DB Jalyn Armour-Davis represents the least statistically inclined member of the group. The 6-foot-1, 192-lb Alabama native fails to provide the sheer consistency of To’oTo’o or Will Anderson Jr, as his key stat is interceptions. At a total of three, the junior clocks in with the 33rd most in the country, though there’s also 30 tackles (21 solo) to show for.
Cincinnati Key Stat Leaders
Passing: It should remain no surprise that Desmond Ridder leads the way for the Bearcats with 234 completions on 355 attempts for 3,190 yards and 30 TD’s. The senior quarterback, who stands 3rd in all time win totals for a player, has produced a fourth straight season of +2,100 passing yards and tallies a CMP% of 65.9 in 2021.
Perhaps the only knock on his resume is the interceptions (8), but Ridder’s ability to act as a signal caller, running back and receiver manages to even things out.
Running: Again, no surprises here. Jerome Ford may very well own the rawest talent on Cincinnati’s roster.
The Alabama transfer The Bearcat running back sports rushing total of 200 attempts for 1,242 yards and 19th touchdowns — the seventh most in the FBS — on the 2021 season. His impeccable bursts of energy find ways to garner Cincinnati 50+ yard scores when the opponent is least expecting, and he makes it count in the biggest moments.
Receiving: While the Cincinnati receiving core calls itself home to a bit more variety than the Ford/Ridder dominated run game, it’s no longer a multiple man race for who stands at the top of the food chain. Alec Pierce — one of the many commanding seniors of the team — holds nearly double the receptions compared to anyone else on the Bearcats thanks to his 50 catches for 867 yards and eight touchdowns.
Such an impressive performance will be hard to produce against a ‘Bama secondary that focuses specifically on the senior, but he’s the guy all eyes will be glued to nonetheless.
Tackling: Alabama is to Will Anderson Jr. as Cincinnati is to Joel Dublanko. And no, that’s not to say the two are the same in terms of talent/caliber, but rather with importance to their teams. Dublanko represents the premier linebacker on the Bearcats with 106 total tackles (56 solo), 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble/interception each. The fifth-year senior from Aberdeen, Washington, fancies double his production from that of last season and will play a pivotal role in creating havoc for Bryce Young — 3.5 of his sacks have come in the last two games. He remains the reason for why Cincinnati broke open the bank in the early third quarter against Houston with his pivotal INT, and a similar performance could garner the Bearcats some much needed momentum against the No. 1 team in the nation.
Interceptions: For a team rich in upperclassmen starters, a sophomore leading the way in interceptions serves as a diamond in the rough. Like Dublanko, Deshawn Pace highlights a talent-rich linebacker group sprawling with all sorts of impressive statistics. Pace is plenty involved in the tackling department with his 86 total tackles (42 solo) but four 2021 interceptions (tied-12th in FBS) remain the Cincinnati native’s true gem.
Player to Watch Out for: Alabama LB Will Anderson Jr.
Will Anderson Jr. is a mad man and there’s no other way to put it. As if his Bronco Nagurski Trophy wasn’t enough, the 6’ 4”, 243-pound sophomore’s stats show as to why Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett will tremble in fear at the possibility of a highly-anticipated rematch. Anderson leads the nation in sacks (15.4), providing a fruitful load of swagger to come with his performance on the field. His 91 total tackles (52 solo) certainly don’t hurt the Heisman snub argument, either.
Important Seasonal Statistics
Below are graphs regarding the status of Alabama and Cincinnati in certain categories. These put into perspective offensive/defensive statistics, off the field numbers (such as strength of record and schedule) and who possesses the edge going into Friday.
The graph above features the ESPN FPI’s interpretation of the two schools’ on and off the field statistics. The Crimson Tide rank 2nd overall, with Cincinnati trailing five spots behind at No. 7.
Ultimately, the main difference that gifts Nick Saban’s squad the edge is strength of schedule. Alabama clocks in at 4th, while Cincinnati finishes nowhere near the rest of its playoff counterparts at 91st.
Graph two highlights yardage per game between the two schools. Aside from yards allowed, Alabama and Cincinnati differ starkly in all categories.
Illustrating yards per play on offense and defense, graph three favors Cincinnati in the majority of categories.
How Alabama Can Win
Four words: play your best game. When Alabama is at its best, no one can beat them. Not Georgia, not Michigan, not Cincinnati. Aside from holding the greatest abundance of team talent according to 247sports composite, the Crimson Tide owns the coaching staff necessary to beat any given team on any given day regardless of who’s on the field and who’s not. Have Jameson Williams explode for huge plays as always, find ways to expand the run game past Cincinnati’s defense, and apply pressure to Desmond Ridder through the likes of Will Anderson Jr. and the defensive line. Completing those tasks will result in Nick Saban and co. remaining in the driver’s seat for the entirety of the game. And Cincinnati, like Georgia, can’t afford to go down big early. The Bearcats are accustomed to big leads early on, but those usually fade out towards the backend of the second half. Remember the Notre Dame game? Or Navy? How about Tulsa?
Cincinnati plays its worst football in the final quarter of play. The guys are often too burnt out to create production and needing to switch from the usual conservative-like approach to an upbeat offense while down in the second half spells chaos for the Bearcats.
How Cincinnati Can Win
To pull of the David vs. Goliath-like upset, Cincinnati needs to make Alabama look one dimensional on offense. That means shutting down Brian Robinson and the Crimson’s Tide run game as a whole, keeping Alabama’s lower tier receivers quiet and at minimum limiting Jameson Williams.
Of course, Williams can’t be stopped completely. He’s far too speedy, and even with Ahmad Gardner’s consistency and zero touchdowns allowed, the Biletnikoff finalist is blossoming into peak form at just the right time. But, the ability to keep those big plays at one instead of three or four could play the difference in keeping the Bearcats within arm's reach of Alabama. If you take away the deep ball the majority of time, Bryce Young doesn’t have a plethora of options left. And without all those options, that two or three score cushion Alabama tends to sport against their playoff opponents starts to vanish.
Cincinnati won’t win in a shootout — Alabama is far too explosive to be outscored and the Bearcats just don’t possess the weapons needed to compete in such a scenario — but they could certainly shock the college football world in a low scoring affair.
Down the Drive’s Cotton Bowl Predictions
Ryan Randone: Alabama 31, Cincinnati 17
Clayton Trutor: Cincinnati +13.5
Ben Adams: Alabama 31, Cincinnati 24
To cap the preview off, Down the Drive is providing its final predictions of both the Cotton Bowl Classic and Orange Bowl, courtesy of writers Ryan Randone, Clayton Trutor and Ben Adams.
Our projected fates for Cincinnati each defer marginally, with Ryan projecting Alabama to cover against the Bearcats, Ben expecting Cincinnati to beat the spread but ultimately fall short and Clayton taking a more mystery-like approach. The overall consensus, however, is that Bama’s explosive offense and speed will serve as too much for the Bearcats to keep up with. Cincinnati keeps it respectable, but the Crimson Tide ultimately triumph into yet another national championship game.
Down the Drive’s Orange Bowl Predictions
Ryan Randone: Georgia 23, Michigan 14
Clayton Trutor: Georgia 48, Michigan 0
Ben Adams: Georgia 28, Michigan 7
Georgia (-7.5) is a consensus pick among all three writers to win straight up and cover the spread. The Dawgs hold the nation’s top defense along with a trustworthy offensive line, and Down the Drive expects Michigan’s one-dimensional offense to struggle in creating production against an All-American front seven/linebacker corps. Whether or not Wolverine running back Hassan Haskins — the teams most consistent and pivotal outlet of scoring — manages to find holes against the likes Jordan Davis and company will depend on the performance of his Joe Moore Award winning offensive line, but the efforts of both parties won’t be nearly enough to light up UGA like the Iowa’s and Ohio State’s of the world.