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Alabama crushes Cincinnati in Cotton Bowl, cruises to national title game

The Bearcats deserved to be in the College Football Playoff semifinals. But deserving to be there and being good enough to win are different things.
Armwood High alumnus Jerome Ford and the Bearcats ran into a juggernaut in No. 1 Alabama.
Armwood High alumnus Jerome Ford and the Bearcats ran into a juggernaut in No. 1 Alabama. [ JEFFREY MCWHORTER | AP ]
Published Dec. 31, 2021|Updated Jan. 1

ARLINGTON, Texas — No. 1 Alabama’s dominant 27-6 win over No. 4 Cincinnati in the College Football Playoffs semifinals Friday was probably inevitable.

Not because the 13-1 Bearcats didn’t deserve to become the first Group of Five team in the College Football Playoff. They did.

Related: What USF football can learn from Cincinnati’s College Football Playoff run

Instead, the lopsided result in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium seemed inevitable because lopsided results have become a playoff tradition, like the sunset hitting the San Gabriel Mountains at the Rose Bowl or SEC fans saying everybody else didn’t play nobody.

Cincinnati is the latest team to suffer a big loss in a College Football Playoff semifinal.
Cincinnati is the latest team to suffer a big loss in a College Football Playoff semifinal. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | AP ]

The first College Football Playoff game was Florida State’s 39-point loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl in the 2014 season. Since then, the semifinals have been a string of blowouts interrupted by an occasional close game.

The last time Alabama (13-1) played in the Cotton Bowl was a 38-0 demolition of Michigan State in the 2015 season. The Bearcats acquitted themselves better Friday than those Spartans did.

The last time Alabama played a playoff game at AT&T Stadium was last season’s relocated Rose Bowl. Only a garbage-time touchdown by Notre Dame made the Irish’s margin of defeat, 17 points, slimmer than Cincinnati’s.

The Crimson Tide earned a trip to the 2016 season title game in Tampa by beating Washington 24-7 in the Peach Bowl. The Tide led Kyler Murray’s Sooners 28-0 through the first 17 minutes of the Orange Bowl two seasons later.

ACC or AAC. Big 12 or Pac-12. Big Ten or independent. It doesn’t matter.

It’s not about conference affiliation. It’s about talent accumulation. As long as the teams at the top keep landing the most stars and developing them well, results like Friday’s Cotton Bowl will keep being repeated.

The gap between the superpowers (Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson most years) and the next tier (Oklahoma, Notre Dame, the Gators of 2018-20) is that massive.

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder couldn't get much going against Alabama's defense.
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder couldn't get much going against Alabama's defense. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | AP ]

Cincinnati was very good. The Bearcats entered the postseason undefeated and had a double-digit win at No. 5 Notre Dame. They had one of the winningest quarterbacks in college football history, Desmond Ridder, and at least a half-dozen other players set to get drafted by the NFL in 2022. It took a perfect storm of scheduling, super seniors and luck to make it happen, but Cincinnati deserved to break the Group of Five’s glass ceiling.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they belong in the playoff,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said.

But there’s a difference between belonging in the playoff and being good enough to win a game or two in it. That difference was most evident Friday along the line of scrimmage, where Alabama muscled its way to victory.

The Tide had six sacks, including two by former five-star recruit Will Anderson, while allowing two. Alabama batted down passes, including two by former top-150 recruit Phidarian Mathis and another by former top-50 prospect Henry To’oTo’o.

Behind an offensive line that includes potential first-round NFL draft pick Evan Neal from Bradenton’s IMG Academy, Alabama averaged more than twice as many yards per carry (6.4 to 2.8).

“We knew the battle in the trenches was going to be a big deal,” Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said. “That’s kind of where the game was won.”

Alabama running back Brian Robinson ran for 204 yards on Cincinnati.
Alabama running back Brian Robinson ran for 204 yards on Cincinnati. [ JEFFREY MCWHORTER | AP ]

It was also won in the backfield behind Brian Robinson’s Alabama bowl record 204 rushing yards. The Bearcats’ stout defense entered the semifinal allowing only 137 rushing yards per game. Robinson had 134 at halftime.

Robinson’s offensive MVP performance is a sign of the hard-to-replicate depth that separates Alabama and the other elites from everybody else. Robinson isn’t the best skill player on his offense (that’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young) or the second best (receiver Jameson Williams). In his previous three games, Robinson ran for 248 yards and no touchdowns.

But Robinson is a hard-running former top-150 recruit who can break out in any game if the situation and matchup require it. The situation and matchup required it Friday, and Robinson answered with the game of his life to push the Tide to their sixth national title game in the eight seasons of the playoff.

There was, realistically, not much Cincinnati could do about it. The Bearcats ran into a juggernaut. Cincinnati has seven blue-chip recruits on its roster, according to recruiting website 247Sports. Alabama has 74.

“For us coming from Cincinnati, from the American (Athletic) Conference,” Ridder said, “this is about as good as you can ask for.”

It’s the same thing virtually every other team outside the bluest of blue bloods can ask for.

Just get to the playoff. Because a lopsided loss once you get there is probably inevitable.

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