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Cincinnati employs a 3-3-5 base that has been highly effective against the pass – 7th in total defense, 4th in scoring defense, 2nd in raw pass defense and 1st in the nation in pass efficiency defense. The Bearcats have been borderline acceptable against the run, 45th, which is a concern for them given the level of competition faced. Alabama’s 3-4 over/under scheme, utilizing multiple fronts, has risen to a ranking of 8th nationally, 4th against the run and tied with Cincinnati for 4th in scoring defense. Against the pass, Alabama is 63rd in raw pass defense and 65th in pass efficiency defense.
Alabama’s ability to shuffle multiple looks up front has been one of the hallmarks of the Tide’s success in 2021. D.J. Dale will start at nose when Alabama uses one; otherwise, Phidarian Mathis will slide between tackle positions. Justin Eboigbe, LaBryan Ray and Byron Young will rotate at end. Tim Smith and Stephon Wynn Jr. provide depth in the middle, while Alabama’s end depth basically comes from rotating outside linebackers down during sub package formations.
Cincinnati has quality ends – Myjal Sanders on one side, and a rotating combination of Malik Vann and Jowon Briggs on the other – while the team’s sack leader comes from the middle, nosetackle Curtis Brooks. Jabari Taylor provides depth outside, while Marcus Brown backs up Brooks at nose. Again, size becomes an issue, as Brooks rings in at around 6’1”, 280, somewhat small for a top-level interior tackle. The choice for Cincinnati outside is basically whether the Bearcats want to go after Bryce Young or stop the run; Vann has more quickness while Briggs, a Virginia transfer, brings the beef.
Alabama is about 20-30 pounds bigger per man across the front, but Cincinnati has done a lot with what it has: 27th in sacks, 12th in tackles for loss nationally. But like the offensive line, we have to be cognizant of what the competition has looked like thus far. Advantage: Alabama
Cincinnati routinely plays three linebackers, although Darrian Beavers and Joel Dublanko get more work than does strongside linebacker Ty Van Fossen, who will exit for a dime safety in a lot of cases. The common thread to Beavers and Dublanko that separates them from other 3-3-5 linebackers is both are not just tackle collectors, but are good at making plays behind the line of scrimmage, bucking the trend of read-and-react linebackers that tend to play back a step in this alignment. Beavers and Dublanko are the team’s No. 1 and 2 tacklers, while Jaheim Thomas and Wilson Huber provide depth behind hybrid safety/LB Deshawn Pace, who gets about as much work as the starters. There’s an element of try-hard here, though, as Cincinnati lacks a high-end prospect at this level.
For Alabama, inside backers Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o have both elevated their games in the final third of the season, while the outside linebacker group of Will Anderson Jr., Dallas Turner and Drew Sanders is uniformly elite. There is a question as to whether Christopher Allen will or won’t be available for this game, but he isn’t terribly needed at this point. Chris Braswell has developed into a solid depth option at OLB, while Jaylen Moody provides depth inside. Advantage: Alabama
If Alabama had a better medical situation at cornerback, the Crimson Tide would likely take this category as well due to the advantages at safety and performance adjusted for competition level. Despite what Cincinnati has been able to accomplish – the Bearcats are especially adept at intercepting passes – Alabama with its full complement of defensive backs, especially playing the way they have over the last month, would be hard to beat. Josh Jobe, however, will miss this game, and Jalyn Armour-Davis won’t be 100 percent. Ga’Quincy McKinstry will start in Jobe’s spot, while little-used Khyree Jackson will have to play Armour-Davis’ spot if necessary. Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams will start at strong and free safety, while Daniel Wright provides backup there, and Brian Branch and Malachi Moore handle the Star spot.
Cornerback depth is problematic, as Jackson is the only healthy backup to have played. Jahquez Robinson is in the other second-team spot at the moment, while walk-on Joshua Robinson is next in line. Cincinnati will start Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant at the corners, Bryan Cook and Ja’von Hicks at the high safeties and Arquon Bush at nickel. Hybrid LB/S Deshawn Pace is effectively the dime back.
There’s a lot of height and size, especially outside for Cincinnati, and this would have been a very slim edge to Alabama anyway if Jobe was available. But with the issues at corner, we can’t make that pick now. Advantage: Cincinnati
Placekicker has been a mess for the Bearcats, with four different players – including a defensive lineman – scoring points off placement kicks this year. And while Cincinnati’s injury list has but one name on it, it’s starting kicker Cole Smith, who is just 3-of-8 on field goal attempts. The other three players are a cumulative 4-of-9 on the year, making Cincinnati a brutal 7-of-17 on field goal tries, with just 1 make from beyond 40 yards out. Punting is a much different story, as the Bearcats rank 30th in net punting behind Mason Fletcher. The Bearcats have also blocked 6 kicks and 2 punts, ranking them among the nation’s leaders in blocked kick stats.
Kickoff return defense and punt return defense are both solid, while returns are also in good shape. It’s the kicking alone that is a problem, but those details matter in a game like this. Alabama counters with one of the best placekickers in the country, Will Reichard, and punter James Burnip is coming off his best game of the year.
Alabama won’t be dynamic on punt returns unless JoJo Earle is completely healed, and given Slade Bolden’s reliability, a change is unlikely at this point in the season anyway. Alabama’s coverage teams are among the most talented in the country. The question comes down to whether Cincinnati’s struggles in kicking the ball outweigh Alabama’s meager punting numbers. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in five categories, Cincinnati in three. In all three Bearcat leads, Alabama could make a case for overtaking Cincinnati. For OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama holds a measurable edge in both.
This leads to a summary not unlike what we’d expect when the SEC’s best team faces off against a Group-of-Five opponent. Cincinnati is certainly a quality team, led by a rising star in coach Luke Fickell, and having made good and frequent use of the transfer portal to build the roster. What the Bearcats lack is pure star power anywhere but possibly at cornerback or running back, and at running back, the star power comes in the form of an Alabama transfer who couldn’t crack the starting lineup in Tuscaloosa.
As for which team will be most motivated, most every Alabama fan knows the story of how the Alabama program came to national prominence in the first place. Alabama was invited to the 1926 Rose Bowl to take on Washington in a game that wasn’t expected to be competitive. Southern football was widely disrespected during that time, and Washington was expected to destroy the upstarts from Tuscaloosa. Of course, what ended up happening was Alabama rallied to upset Washington 20-19 and put Southern football on the map for the first time. Even fans of rival Southern programs who hate Alabama with every fiber of their being begrudgingly acknowledge that without Alabama’s win in that game, it could have been years before another Southern team would have gotten a shot.
Cincinnati, therefore, is carrying more than just its own weight into this game. It is the standard-bearer for all Group of Five teams that have been begging for a shot against the college football bluebloods. A win here over Alabama would have the potential to affect the selection process for playoff teams for years into the future.
But if it happens, it will be an upset. Let there be no doubt about that. Alabama is the stronger team across the board, with the more dangerous offensive weapons, and more team speed on defense. Those are the factors we believe will make the difference here.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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