Alabama’s crazy season has been given an extra shot of crazy as the Crimson Tide enters the playoffs – for the first time ever, a non-Power 5 conference team is in the final four. And that team, the Cincinnati Bearcats, will be Alabama’s opponent.
There hasn’t been a playoff matchup like this before, and depending on how the Bearcats carry, or fail to carry, the banner for so-called “Group of Five” conferences – American Athletic (which Cincinnati represents), Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt – this might be the last, at least unless or until the NCAA expands the playoff field beyond just four teams.
Cincinnati comes into this game with some statistical weirdness on its balance sheet: the Bearcats rank 9th in scoring offense, for instance, but have the following rankings in total offense, rushing offense and passing offense – 44th, 47th and 52nd.
For outsiders looking in at the Bearcats, most know about running back Jerome Ford because … well, he transferred to Cincinnati from Alabama. Many fans also know the Bearcats have two elite cornerbacks, but they can’t name them (for the record: their names are Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant).
Left to evaluate Cincinnati’s body of work, the schedule produced a run of mostly comfortable wins, although the Bearcats were one-score victors over both Navy and Tulsa, neither of which would scare a team like Alabama. Cincinnati’s “signature win” was by a 24-13 score over Notre Dame early in the season, the first in a series of four uninspired performances for the Fighting Irish.
Cincinnati’s best win? If it wasn’t the AAC Championship Game victory over a one-loss Houston Cougar team – the Cougars’ loss coming in the opener to 7-6 Texas Tech in a game that wasn’t very close – it was probably the 56-21 shellacking of a pretty good Central Florida team two weeks after the Notre Dame win.
In regards to how Cincinnati got where it is, the Bearcats arrived here playing good defense, running the football effectively, and then being the benefactor of a lot of luck in regard to how other teams rose and fell. It was the perfect story for a Group of Five entrant into the College Football Playoff, and the Bearcats took advantage of it.
Now comes the hard part – proving they belong with the big boys.
The Bearcats will operate from a one-back, three-wide spread-style attack; it’s nothing Alabama hasn’t seen, because Alabama runs a similar base itself. The mystery is how much of this offense will translate to something meaningful when it goes up against Alabama’s defense. Cincinnati faced only one defense technically in the Power 5, and that was if you stretch the definition of Power 5 to include independent Notre Dame. In that matchup, Cincinnati put up roughly 400 yards and showed decent balance, so the potential is there. The Bearcats have a mobile quarterback and good depth at the skill positions, and the offensive line has good metrics. Alabama doesn’t have the Bearcats’ statistical balance but ranks 6th in both total offense and passing offense, and has faced better competition.
Desmond Ridder makes the Bearcat offense go, and he’ll be a challenge to keep contained. Ridder has good size at 6’4”, 215 pounds and is the team’s second-leading rusher, carrying the ball 100 times for 371 yards, which includes yardage lost to sacks, and 6 touchdowns. Throwing the ball, he’s put up good efficiency numbers, completing roughly two-thirds of all throws for 30 touchdowns and 3,190 yards. If there’s a weakness Alabama can exploit here, it may be in the turnover department. Ridder pitched 8 interceptions on the year, probably on the high side given the competition Cincinnati faced.
For Alabama, Bryce Young will be playing his first game since winning the Heisman Trophy, and the numbers point to why. Young threw half as many interceptions as Ridder despite recording more than 100 additional passing attempts, and with two good performances to end the year, could eclipse the 5,000-yard passing mark. While Young’s rushing stats pale in comparison to Ridder’s, those who followed Young’s season knew that limiting his rushing attempts was largely by design.
Depth favors Alabama, as the Crimson Tide has two options (Paul Tyson, Jalen Milroe) that are both better than Cincinnati’s Evan Prater. Ridder is a quality quarterback but this one is solidly a Bama edge. Advantage: Alabama
This will be the matchup of the Alabama transfer, Jerome Ford, against one of the players that forced his transfer decision, Brian Robinson Jr. Robinson’s heroics against Georgia, a game in which he wasn’t even certain to play until a few hours before kickoff, should have solidified his standing with fans for decades to come. The two couldn’t be any more different if they tried; Robinson is a big bruiser who is most at home between the tackles, while Ford is a shifty, Swiss Army knife-type back who has put on about 30 pounds since his Alabama days. Curiously, Robinson finished the year with more receptions than did Ford, who was expected to be a Josh Jacobs-type back when he was in Tuscaloosa.
Cincinnati has much better depth coming into this game than does Alabama, with three backs – Ryan Montgomery, Charles McClelland and Ethan Wright – all contributing. Alabama will have to make do with only Trey Sanders and converted receiver Christian Leary, but Sanders has been able to take on heavier workloads in recent weeks.
Neither team uses a true fullback. Robinson and Ford probably make for equal impact to their respective teams, but Cincinnati’s depth is the difference here. Advantage: Cincinnati
The loss of John Metchie III dealt a heavy blow to Alabama, as Metchie was closing in on 100 receptions and had already accounted for 1,142 receiving yards on the year – and still wasn’t high man on his own team. That distinction goes to Jameson Williams, who has caught 68 balls for 1,445 yards and 15 touchdowns, and is averaging 21.3 yards per reception. Cincinnati has no one like him.
The Bearcats are led by Alec Pierce, who has caught 50 passes for 867 yards (17.3 avg.) and 8 touchdowns, still very good numbers. He and Tyler Scott are the outside receivers, while Notre Dame graduate transfer Michael Young will start in the slot. Scott is a big-play threat who eats up a lot of yardage with each catch, but struggles getting open for multiple receptions. Young has been mostly a possession receiver up to this point.
Cincinnati, like Alabama, has a depth issue at wideout, as Tre Tucker has put up good numbers off the bench but things mostly end there. Jadon Thompson, the fifth receiver, averages about a catch each game. The Bearcats get a lot of mileage out of tight ends Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor, who have combined for more than 50 catches. Alabama fans are well aware of the trouble that good tight ends tend to give the Crimson Tide.
With Metchie out, Alabama will lean hard on Slade Bolden out of the slot, while the X position is filled by either Ja’Corey Brooks or Traeshon Holden. Holden would seem to be the more likely pick, given his physical nature, while Brooks would be the primary backup at both outside spots. JoJo Earle returns to action as a reserve slot receiver for this game, and Javon Baker and Agiye Hall were both named specifically by Nick Saban as having become more of a factor during bowl practices.
At tight end, Cameron Latu will start at Y with Jahleel Billingsley playing H and occasionally running some routes as a receiver. Kendall Randolph will play as a blocking specialist. There’s no question that Alabama’s Williams is the cream of this crop, but until more is known about how Holden, Brooks and others might replace (or fail to replace) John Metchie, we just can’t take Alabama here, especially given how Cincinnati uses its tight ends. Advantage: Cincinnati
There’s probably no harder unit to evaluate than the Cincinnati OL, which has put up good numbers in tackles for loss allowed (2nd nationally) and sacks allowed (26th). The starting five is on the smaller side as SEC offensive lines would go, with the exception of RG Lorenz Mets, who stands 6’9”. That kind of height is rare – and not necessarily an advantage – for an interior lineman. Dylan O’Quinn and James Tunstall will start at the tackles, Jeremy Cooper at left guard and Jake Renfro at center. Vincent McConnell gives the Bearcats a quality third option at guard.
For Alabama, Darrian Dalcourt will be available for this game but it remains to be seen whether Alabama goes with him at center or Seth McLaughlin, who was arguably a better option anyway. Javion Cohen and Emil Ekiyor Jr. will start at the guard spots with Evan Neal and Chris Owens starting at tackle. Alabama has been up and down all year along the line but things seemed to come together from the second half of the Auburn game on, which was basically the point at which McLaughlin replaced the injured Dalcourt at center.
If Alabama’s line plays in this game the way it played against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, there won’t be much Cincinnati can do to stop the Bama offense. We’re taking reputation over stats for this one, given what Alabama has on its sideline. Advantage: Alabama
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