Down its most clutch receiver and faced with playing one of the best pass defenses on its 2021 schedule, Alabama used Friday’s win over the Cincinnati Bearcats to both reach the College Football Playoff final, as well as deliver a message on behalf of all Power 5 superpowers: The Bearcats were simply not ready for this kind of physical challenge.
Alabama rolled up nearly 500 yards of offense against Cincinnati, but that feat had been accomplished several times against other opponents this year. The way Alabama did it, though, was demoralizing. Alabama rushed for 301 yards on a staggering 47 carries against the Bearcats, delivering a ground-pounding attack rarely seen in Tuscaloosa for much of the last decade – if not longer.
Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell deployed a 3-3-5 stack alignment against Alabama, a defense designed to limit what Heisman Trophy QB Bryce Young could do against an already stout secondary. That alignment, though, depended on Cincinnati’s front six to contain Alabama RB Brian Robinson Jr. without additional help from the back.
Robinson carried the ball 26 times for 204 yards, and while he didn’t score, he was pretty much Alabama’s offense between the 20s. Cincinnati never really stopped Robinson; occasionally, he got tired and had to be taken out of the game, which was the only thing separating Cincinnati from a much more lopsided score.
There was a lot of discussion in the run-up to this game as to whether Cincinnati belonged in the College Football Playoff at all. The Bearcats’ appearance was framed as a “historic” event, as finally a Group of Five team had broken through the glass ceiling. Surely, an upset would follow.
But Cincinnati was never really in this game. The Bearcats needed Alabama to make multiple, critical errors to put the Bearcats in a position to pull the upset, and Alabama simply would not do that. Bryce Young threw an interception in this game, but the Bama defense drove the Cincinnati offense backward from there. JoJo Earle muffed a punt, but Ga’Quincy McKinstry recovered it. Will Reichard missed a field goal thanks to an iffy hold from James Burnip. But that was the extent of it all.
When the Bearcats had the ball, the size and speed of Bama’s defensive front exposed the Cincinnati offensive line as a near sham. While Bama transfer RB Jerome Ford put up respectable numbers (15 carries for 77 yards, 3 catches for 15 yards), the rest of the Bearcat offense was rendered irrelevant. Quarterback Desmond Ridder was held to 145 yards passing and 4.5 yards per attempt. Top receiver Alec Pierce had 2 meaningless catches for 17 total yards. Alabama shut down Cincinnati’s vaunted tight ends. Only Notre Dame transfer Michael Young Jr. was anything close to a threat, as he picked up a couple of key first downs and was responsible for the longest play from scrimmage for Cincinnati, a 28-yard catch.
It was the kind of physical mismatch that became apparent early in the game and only got worse from there. The question of whether Cincinnati belonged on this stage? Highly debatable. The Bearcats seem to have a talent level somewhere between Arkansas and Ole Miss, as SEC teams go. Cincinnati is better-balanced than either of those, and Fickell’s extensive defensive background makes for a good schemer, but if Jimmies and Joes trump Xs and Os, the Bearcats weren’t playing with a full deck.
Where Cincinnati was able to affect Alabama was in ways that Alabama’s opponent in the finals, Georgia, can not: The Bearcats have an uncommonly good secondary for a Group of Five team. Additionally, Cincinnati has multiple players in its front that can rush the passer from the edge; DE Myjai Sanders was a particular thorn in Bryce Young’s side in this game, recording a sack and 3 quarterback pressures. Still, a team that is hovering around the Arkansas-Ole Miss level is top 15, probably top 20 at best, meaning there were many other teams that probably deserved the Bearcats’ spot in the CFP final four.
One of those teams is of course Georgia, which Alabama will face in a rematch of the SEC Championship Game. The fan interest in yet another Alabama-Georgia matchup, at least outside the Southeast, will be limited, but Alabama and Georgia have clearly been the top two teams in the country for the entirety of the 2021 college football season. Alabama’s win over Cincinnati likely won’t give Georgia any reason to be less confident in its own ability to get a win in a revenge game, but it did give Tide coaches and players the knowledge that Alabama is capable of winning without its typical A-game.
If anything, Alabama beat Cincinnati using its B-game. That’s “B” … as in the style of Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Cincinnati:
1. On offense, Jameson Williams remade his game to fit the Tide’s new needs, while Robinson ran with purpose. The loss of WR John Metchie was always going to be a significant blow to the Tide’s offense, but no one realized just how much the loss would be felt until they watched QB Bryce Young try to find a new, reliable target on possession downs. Over the course of the game, the Crimson Tide’s top deep threat, Jameson Williams, became the new possession receiver of choice out of necessity. Williams finished with 7 catches for 62 yards and no scores, but he had several critical catches on third down and proved he’s more than just a flashy deep threat. Alabama started Ja’Corey Brooks in Metchie’s spot, and Brooks responded with a touchdown catch plus 3 other key catches.
As predicted before the game, Slade Bolden got more of the workload, and added a touchdown catch on Alabama’s first drive. None of Alabama’s reserve receivers for this game – Javon Baker, JoJo Earle, Traeshon Holden or Agiye Hall – found their way onto to the stat sheet, something that probably needs to change if Alabama is going to defeat Georgia again. As for Robinson, both he and reserve RB Trey Sanders put up solid numbers, but it was the way in which Robinson dominated the game when he carried the football that made most of the difference. Cincinnati clearly had not run up against an opponent like Robinson yet this year, and it didn’t take Robinson long to show Cincinnati the differences in SEC football from the rest.
2. On defense, S Brian Branch coordinated a no-fly zone, while DL Phidarian Mathis was disruptive. Will Anderson got the defensive MVP of the game, but the real game-changers were safety Brian Branch in the back end of the defense and DT/E Phidarian Mathis up front. Mathis swatted numerous passes while collapsing the pocket and causing Cincinnati to have to overcommit to protecting against him. On the times Anderson lined up next to Mathis is a pure pass-rushing situation, Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder rarely had time to get the ball off. Branch snuffed out multiple plays before they happened, potentially none bigger than stopping Ridder on an option bootleg on fourth down late in the game. Alabama held Cincinnati to an empty 144 yards in the air and another 74 on the ground, while yielding no touchdowns. Branch and Mathis were the primary reasons for that accomplishment.
3. Offensive line was superb in run blocking, but struggled to give Bryce Young a clean pocket. RG Emil Ekiyor Jr. went out early with some kind of shoulder ailment, and there is no word yet on whether he’ll be available for the championship round. Ekiyor was replaced by true freshman J.C. Latham, and while Latham acquitted himself well in what was easily his biggest chunk of action all season, losing Ekiyor appeared to have a disquieting effect on Alabama’s pass-block schemes.
RT Chris Owens struggled for much of the game and was then injured at the end. Center Seth McLaughlin had another solid outing and appears to have received a battlefield promotion over Darrian Dalcourt to become the new starting center. Left tackle Evan Neal had a dominating performance and LG Javion Cohen was steady, although Cincinnati was able to record 2 sacks and 4 QB hurries on the day. This was a step back overall from the Georgia performance, but understandable given the early injury to Ekiyor.
4. Bryce Young had his worst game since Texas A&M, but was still efficient in plus territory. Young recorded only 181 yards on 17 completions, and was also intercepted once and made several ill-advised throws. But he still ran the offense well, incorporating more option plays and QB runs into the mix and keeping Cincinnati off-balance. The fact he averaged a touchdown every 5.7 completions was not lost on the Bearcats, who struggled to keep him contained. It probably wasn’t the performance Young wanted, but it was the one Alabama needed, and even with the interception, Young minimized crucial errors and helped neutralize the loss of Ekiyor up front.
5. New CBs Ga’Quincy McKinstry and especially Khyree Jackson were huge components to the defense’s success. Alabama tried to play Jalyn Armour-Davis at his usual spot, but Armour-Davis’ hip injury proved too difficult to overcome. Jackson took the field on Alabama’s second possession and never came off. Armour-Davis got one other series on McKinstry’s side of the field before retiring for the evening. Both McKinstry and Jackson were no-go zones for Desmond Ridder, as they and Armour-Davis held Cincinnati’s outside receivers to a rather empty 6 catches for 60 yards on the night. Alabama’s entire secondary played well in this game, with S Daniel Wright having one of his most consistent efforts of the season, but it was the unexpected contribution from Jackson, who had scarcely played up to this point in the 2021 season, that really put Alabama’s secondary over the top.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN