The 2021-22 College Football Playoff officially gets underway on Friday afternoon with Alabama and Cincinnati meeting in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic for a trip to the national championship. It's a David versus Goliath showdown in Arlington, as the Crimson Tide are making their seventh trip to the CFB Playoff and have their sights set on their seventh national title under coach Nick Saban. This is the Bearcats' first trip to the playoff, and coach Luke Fickell's team made history in the process by becoming the first Group of 5 team to reach a semifinal.
Trips to the CFB Playoff and national championship are an annual expectation in Tuscaloosa, but Alabama's path to the No. 1 seed wasn't easy. The Crimson Tide opened the year with a 44-13 rout of Miami but had to hold off Florida (31-29) in the Swamp two weeks later. After back-to-back victories, Alabama stumbled 41-38 in College Station. That loss left no margin for error for the Crimson Tide. Saban's team responded by winning out, but victories against LSU (20-14), Arkansas (42-35), and Auburn (24-22 in four overtimes) didn't come easy or relied on last-minute plays to hold onto the win. Those close calls and some iffy play at times left Alabama as an underdog to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. However, Saban's team met the moment thanks to big days from the defense and quarterback Bryce Young, guiding the Crimson Tide to a 41-24 win and the program's eighth SEC title since 2009.
Although a Group of 5 team never earned a spot in the CFB Playoff coming into the 2021 season, a trip to the four-team semifinal by Cincinnati was within reach if it could go 13-0. Fickell's team picked off Miami (Ohio) and FCS Murray State before facing a crucial two-game stretch at Indiana and Notre Dame. The Bearcats dispatched the Hoosiers 38-24, followed by a road win in South Bend over the Fighting Irish (24-13). Fickell's team had a few close calls in conference play with victories over Navy (27-20) and Tulsa (28-20), but Cincinnati found its next gear down the stretch, beating SMU, East Carolina, and Houston by a combined score of 118-47.
Alabama owns a 5-0 series edge against Cincinnati, but the two teams have not played since 1990. The Bearcats are 2-1 in bowl games under Fickell. The Crimson Tide are 11-3 in postseason contests (excluding national title games in the CFB Playoff era) under Saban.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (CFB Playoff Semifinal): No. 1 Alabama (12-1) vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Spread: Alabama -13.5
When Alabama Has the Ball
The 2021 version of Alabama's offense isn't quite as dynamic as the one that led the team to a national championship last year. However, it's not far off that level. Behind Heisman winner and quarterback Bryce Young, the Crimson Tide averaged 42.5 points a game and 6.7 yards per snap this fall and paced the SEC with 12 plays of 50-plus yards.
Young is the catalyst that makes the entire offense go for coordinator Bill O'Brien. The sophomore passed for 4,322 yards and 43 touchdowns to only four picks in the regular season. Also, he connected on 68 percent of his throws, averaged 9.4 yards per attempt, and boasted a 175.5 quarterback rating. Young saved his best for last, torching Georgia for 421 yards and three touchdowns in the SEC Championship Game to lead Alabama to a conference title and the No. 1 spot in the CFB Playoff. With Young leading the way, Alabama is averaging 37.4 passing attempts a game — the most in a single season under Saban. The Crimson Tide's path to a victory on Friday flows through Young and his ability to consistently deliver through the air.
Young's supporting cast suffered a setback when John Metchie III tore his ACL late in the second quarter of the SEC title game. Metchie led the team with 96 receptions, turning those catches into 1,142 yards and eight scores. With Metchie out, more defensive focus can shift to big-play weapon Jameson Williams (68 rec., 1,445 yds., 15 TDs). Also, Metchie's absence will require other players to step up in a tough spot. Slade Bolden (32 rec.), Traeshon Holden (15), Javon Baker (seven), and JoJo Earle (12) should be more involved at receiver, while Cameron Latu (20) and Jahleel Billingsley (16) will contribute at tight end.
A strong running game has been a staple of Saban's teams in Tuscaloosa. However, as a result of key departures along the offensive line and at running back, the Crimson Tide are averaging only 4.1 yards per rush in 2021 — also illustrating why the offensive success hinges on Young's right arm. Brian Robinson Jr. leads the ground game for O'Brien with 1,071 yards and 14 touchdowns and should be closer to 100 percent after a leg injury against Auburn forced him to play at less than full strength in the SEC title game. Depth behind Robinson is a concern after Roydell Williams and Jase McClellan were lost due to injury. Trey Sanders is the No. 2 back for O'Brien, but converted receiver Christian Leary and former linebacker Demouy Kennedy are next up.
It's a strength versus strength battle when Alabama's offense has the ball. Only two teams — LSU and Auburn — held the Crimson Tide under 30 points this year. Can Cincinnati become the third? This defense did not allow an opponent to score more than 28 points in a contest this year and finished the regular season holding teams to just 16.1 points per game and 4.32 yards per play. Also, the Bearcats don't give up big plays (just six of 40-plus yards) and rank first in the AAC in red-zone defense.
Under Fickell and coordinator Mike Tressel, the Bearcats have assembled a defense that doesn't have a glaring weakness. Only one team (Tulsa) rushed for more than 200 yards against Cincinnati, as this unit limited teams to 3.3 yards per carry. Throwing the ball against the Bearcats' secondary is just as challenging. Behind the All-America duo of cornerback Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant, the defense limited opposing offenses to just 10 passing scores and ranked No. 1 nationally in pass efficiency defense. Helping the pass defense is a standout front anchored by four first-team All-AAC selections — linemen Myjai Sanders and Curtis Brooks and linebackers Darrian Beavers and Joel Dublanko.
Slowing down Alabama's offense is going to be a monumental challenge for Cincinnati. Can the Bearcats win enough battles up front with their base defense to not devote any extra attention to pass rush? If they can, that makes slowing down Young a little easier. Also, Cincinnati needs to shore up any weaknesses against the run and keep Robinson (and Young's legs) in check. Not allowing any big plays is another must.
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
Similar to Alabama, Cincinnati's offensive success starts with its quarterback. Desmond Ridder — a four-year starter — piloted the Bearcats to an average of 39.2 points a game and 6.93 yards per play this season. Cincinnati has scored at least 30 points in 10 of its 13 games and averaged at least 6.7 yards per play in each of the last five contests.
Not only has Ridder improved as a passer in his time at Cincinnati, but his ability to make plays on the ground is an x-factor for Alabama's defense to account for on Friday. The senior connected on 65.9 percent of his throws this year for 3,190 yards and 30 touchdowns to eight picks and added 361 yards and six additional scores on the ground. The Bearcats need Ridder to deliver in their toughest game of the year on Friday, and the Kentucky native has played well in key spots. In the Peach Bowl loss versus Georgia last year, Ridder connected on 24 of 37 throws for 206 yards and two touchdowns. In a key victory against Notre Dame this fall, the senior scored three times and totaled 323 yards.
Ridder doesn't have an All-American at receiver to target, but the sum of the parts forms a solid group for Cincinnati's passing game. Alec Pierce has been Ridder's favorite target in 2021, catching 50 passes for 867 yards and eight scores. Tyler Scott (26 rec.), Tre Tucker (32), and Michael Young (24) round out the top contributors at receiver in the regular season. Tight ends Josh Whyle (25) and Leonard Taylor (27) are x-factors to watch on Friday. The two players combined for 10 of the team's 33 touchdown catches this year.
Cincinnati's offense isn't just about Ridder, however. Running back Jerome Ford rushed for 1,243 yards and 19 touchdowns this season and led the AAC with six rushes of 40-plus yards. The Alabama transfer had five 100-yard efforts, including 187 in the AAC title game over Houston. A big play or two from Ford would significantly boost the Bearcats' hopes of an upset. Finding running room will hinge on how well the Cincinnati offensive line handles Alabama's defensive front. Although the Bearcats have limited teams to just 20 sacks, this unit has yet to face off against a front like the one the Crimson Tide bring to Dallas.
Alabama's defense enters the playoff holding teams to 4.7 yards per snap and 20.2 points a game this year. Only one of their last seven opponents (Arkansas) eclipsed more than 24 points. Opposing teams have struggled to find any running room against this defense (just 82.8 rushing yards a game allowed), and the pass rush (46 sacks) led by Bronko Nagurski Trophy-winning linebacker Will Anderson Jr. has been relentless. On the back end, the Crimson Tide have been prone to giving up a few big plays at times and ranks 66th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
For Cincinnati to win, Ridder has to deliver another strong all-around performance, Ford needs a couple of big plays on the ground, and the offense has to score a touchdown when it gets inside the red zone. Also, holding up in the trenches — arguably the biggest concern going into the Cotton Bowl — to give Ridder time to throw and lanes for Ford to run behind is a must.
Can David slay Goliath? Or is Alabama simply primed for another blowout victory en route to another national title? The moment shouldn't be too big for Cincinnati. Fickell will have the Bearcats ready to play, and the defense can win a few battles in the first half as Young finds his footing with a revamped receiving corps without Metchie. However, in the second half, the Crimson Tide's edge at the line of scrimmage on defense, along with more depth on both sides of the ball starts to show up. Young connects with Williams for a big play, Robinson churns out a strong game on the ground, and Alabama's defense puts the clamps on Cincinnati in the second half to book a trip to the national title game.
Prediction: Alabama 34, Cincinnati 20
Podcast: CFB Playoff Breakdown and Predictions