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A Cotton Bowl Preview with Roll ‘Bama Roll’s Brent C. Taylor

NCAA Football: Heisman Trophy Presentation Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For Cincinnati Bearcats fans, the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic will stand as the defining moment thus far into a program history entrenched with majority heartbreak. It’s a source of opportunity in a pool of unexpected coaching departures, losing seasons and disappointments.

For Alabama fans, well, it’s an annual occurrence. Down the Drive had the privilege of conversing with Brent C. Taylor — a writer for the blog Roll ‘Bama Roll — to see what goes into being a Crimson Tide fan and the expectations for Friday’s game.

Here’s what he had to say.

1. Starting out with the obvious, here. Alabama has a lot of weapons, but the absence of John Metchie III is arguably the biggest missing X-factor for any team in the College Football Playoff. How well do you see Alabama compensating for their second-best weapon and who else (aside from Jameson Williams) steps up for the Crimson Tide?

The biggest compensation is going to have to be leaning more on the run game with a hopefully-healthy Brian Robinson. That’s the short answer.

As far as trying to find a new pass-catcher... your guess is as good as the rest of us. Slot receiver Slade Bolden is a consistent starter who’s good for a few catches per game, but I don’t expect his usage to really go up. At tight end, Jahleel Billingsley ended 2020 with a whole lot of hype as a hybrid dynamic weapon, but he’s been a sharp disappointment this year with untimely drops. Maybe now he’ll finally step up?

Or, maybe we see some young receiver step in and do some good. Freshman JoJo Earle was looking good as a punt returner and getting some time as a rotational slot receiver before breaking his ankle early this season, but word is that he’s back to practicing. Freshman Ja’Corey Brooks is a talented, big receiver who made the huge endzone fade catch to take the game to overtime against Auburn, but that’s basically all we’ve seen from him this year.

There’s also a couple of reserves who have gotten varying amounts of playing time in the past in Traeshon Holden and Javon Baker, as well as the uber-talented freshman Agiye Hall, who was the star of the spring game and then found his way onto the bench this entire season for reasons Saban won’t say more than just “practicing the right way.”

All that to say.... I don’t have a lot of confidence in anyone not named Jameson Williams, and I hope the running game picks up the slack. (And also the national media have really been ignoring this point for some weird reason)

2. We all know Alabama will always be Alabama as long as Nick Saban is around, but the Crimson Tide suffered a serious dropoff in experienced talent transitioning from the 2020 to the 2021 season. So much so that analysts started to paint Georgia, a team that ‘Bama thoroughly dominated, as a better all around club prior to the game. Where does the 2021 squad rank among Saban’s Crimson Tide led teams and is there an argument for this season alone (considering the wider amount of younger, inexperienced talent and the notion of ‘Bama having a “down year”) to qualify as one of Saban’s greatest accomplishments?

The weird thing with this team has been the inconsistency. The defense actually did return a lot of veteran talent, and they had an inexplicably rough stretch at the beginning of the year before seeming to figure things out. The offense is basically 10/11 brand new starters from the previous season, so I expected a major step back. Instead, they’ve spent some games looking like the GOAT, and other games where a double-A-gap blitz is apparently the hardest puzzle in the world to figure out.

On one hand, the coaching and discipline of this team have seemed off and much more sloppy this year. On the other, they’ve overcome that and are STILL the #1 seed in the playoffs, which is an impressive coaching job in itself.

I’ll put it this way: This is a great team with some major mental inconsistencies and a young offense, and I’ve seen much more well-rounded Saban teams wind up NOT winning a national championship.

3. Similar to the way Cincinnati has cut it close with their conference foes, Alabama has produced their fair share of close calls. Of course, the Crimson Tide’s were against better contenders, but nonetheless against teams they were expected to close out with ease. Do you think this has to do with the SEC’s great depth (the conference did have 13 bowl eligible teams, after all) or are the presumed to be “exploitable issues” something Cincinnati really has a chance to take advantage of?

Don’t buy into the SEC depth thing. Auburn and LSU are crappy teams, and Alabama just decided not to block a blitz for entire games. Plus Nick Saban has literally never had a game not turn out stupid when playing at Auburn. While we obviously don’t have a lot of comparable teams to judge Cincy on, the Bearcats are at least as talented as Auburn and have much better coaching than any of the Tide’s squeakers this year.

Alabama’s OL (particularly RT Chris Owens) have been an exploitable unit all year long, and Bryce Young, for whatever reason, will have stretches where he breaks against overload blitzes before he finally remembers that hot routes are a thing.

Blitz, blitz, and blitz some more, and hope that you can get out to a bit of a lead before Young adjusts. It’s what Texas A&M did, and Auburn very nearly pulled it off, except their QB was horrendous so they never managed to score either.

4. Will Anderson is one monster of a dude, but the Heisman finalist voting failed to tribute his full body work. Do you think the usual quasi-quarterback award influence was at work in failing to launch him into the top four, if not even the front runner position?

Will Anderson is Alabama’s best player, and the most impressive edge rusher I’ve seen in my lifetime. I love Bryce Young, but’s Alabama’s 3rd best QB in the last three years.

I’m fine with the Heisman group deciding to give a trophy to a QB, because, well, it’s hard to have more impact at any position than a QB. I’m absolutely not fine with them giving a pity vote to the Michagan edge rusher playing the SAME POSITION with HALF the tackles for loss just because they wanted folks from different regions and couldn’t bring themselves to vote for two Alabama players.

Anderson got the NCAA record for TFLs since 1988 and crushed the stats from Chase Young and Ndamakung Suh in their Heisman finalist years, won the trophy for the nation’s best defensive player, and then got snubbed in favor of the Michigan dude?

Highway robbery, man.

5. Continuing with Anderson, what’s the over/under for sacks we should expect from the star linebacker come Friday? You’re obviously limited to a few choices, but having the nation’s leader in the stat gives you more options than most.

Probably 1 sack. Cincy runs the ball a lot, so I don’t expect too many chances for sacks.

That said, Anderson’s true specialty isn’t even his pass rush, but his freakish ability to blast read option meshes from the backside. And Cincy runs a LOT of those. So you can expect a couple of TFLs and a decapitated running back if the QB decides to pull the handoff back at the last second.

6. Jameson Williams is the best receiver in the nation. Likewise, there are few cornerbacks in the country who do it better than Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. Do you see there being a clear victor in this matchup and will Gardner allow that coveted first touchdown?

I don’t know if Jameson is the “best” receiver in the nation, but he’s definitely the fastest. As long as Gardner can stay in his grill and keep Williams within tackling distance, Jameson isn’t great with contested catches.

But just one little slip up, and it’s a 75-yard touchdown.

I think Gardner probably wins most of the reps throughout the game, but Williams gets free a couple of times. 7 catches for 100 yards and a TD or something like that.

7. There’s going to be a lot of focus on Cincinnati trying to stop the Bama run game in an effort to make the Crimson Tide look one dimensional. Brian Robinson Jr. has produced weaker numbers in recent matchups, but the majority of the reason can be attributed to his strained hamstring as well as Auburn and Georgia having some of the best run defenses in the nation. Is Robinson bound for a bounce back game, or do you see some other guys being focal points for a few more carries than usual?

I think Robinson will be the center of Alabama’s attack. When the Tide played Ole Miss’s 3-3-5 stack defense this season, the gameplan shifted to rely heavily on Robinson. He’s not a superstar back that’s going to make folks miss in the open field a lot, but he’s 230 pounds and fast in straight lines. That’s something I like against Cincy’s lighter defensive line. He’s been pretty injured the last month, and really only playing because, well, all of Alabama’s back up running backs tore their ACLs in one season.

If he isn’t fully recovered though.... Well, Trey Sanders is the only other healthy back left on the roster, and he missed the entirety of his first two seasons with a broken foot and a shattered pelvis. Which is not ideal. That’s when things will get tricky for the Tide (or if the offensive coordinator gets impatient and decides to forget to rely on the run).

8. Bama fans have had it pretty good in the BCS National Championship / College Football Playoff eras. Which win under Nick Saban was your favorite?

The 2012 season will always be special to me, as I was a freshman at Alabama for that season and got to experience the whole thing on campus. Plus embarrassing Notre Dame in front of the whole country after the Manti Teo saga was just delicious.

The 2015 championship was my senior year, and that comeback win over Clemson with the onside kick was pretty crazy.

Of course, 2009 was awesome because it was the first in my lifetime after a decade of crappy football, and last year’s team was pretty special because of how dominant it was wire-to-wire (plus it avenged all of the heartbreaks of 2018 and 2019).

As far as a single game, the 2017 Natty over Georgia where Nick Saban benched his starting QB in favor of Tua Tagovailoa, put in a bunch of freshman receivers, and launched a massive comeback ending with an overtime walk-off touchdown on 2nd and 26 was the most intense and subsequently joyous football game I’ve ever experienced.

So 2012 for my favorite entire season, but 2017 for the best individual game.

9. Who wins the Orange Bowl?

I think Georgia will, but I’m not confident in it. Between Kirby Smart and Jim Harbaugh, we’ve got two of the best choke artists in the game, so it’ll be interesting to see who chokes it away harder. The Bulldogs, though, I think are going to have a tough time, psychologically, recovering from the SEC Championship game.

You guys probably don’t know the history too well, but everytime they put together a good team since 2008, their season has ended with a loss to Alabama. Usually in pretty heartbreaking fashion after the Bulldogs got an early lead. This year, they basked in glory all season long about having the “best defense ever” and the clear cut #1, only to have the Tide decide to finally put everything together and play their best game of the season, absolutely crushing the Bulldogs.

They’ve been taking it hard, I imagine, and I wonder if Kirby Smart is able to channel that disappointment into something positive, or if they just spiral.

10. Who wins the Cotton Bowl?

Alabama SHOULD win this. And I hate saying that to you guys, as I think Cincy is just as talented as pretty much anyone in the SEC not named Alabama, Georgia, or A&M, and better coached. It’s more of a matchup thing. We’ve toasted anyone running a 3-3-5 defense the last few years, and our defense (particularly Will Anderson, safety DeMarcco Hellams, and nickel/safety Brian Branch) is built to tackle read-option offenses.

If things go well, I expect something like high 30s for Alabama and low 20s for Cincy. Like a 17 point victory or so.

But I also have no faith in the mental consistency of the Alabama game, and it could very well turn into a 21-24 nailbiter with a 50-50 shot for either team if the offensive line forgets how to block blitzes again.

That wraps things up for us today. A special thanks again to Brent for participating in this Q and A. For our viewers, you can find his work over at Roll ‘Bama Roll — SB Nation’s Alabama Crimson Tide blog — as he finishes up previews for the big game.