The Cotton Bowl Classic matchup between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Cincinnati didn’t go as expected.
Not the final score, of course. The Crimson Tide stormed into their sixth College Football Playoff championship appearance under coach Nick Saban with a 27-6 victory against the Bearcats on Friday. Saban now has a chance to win a seventh national championship with Alabama and eighth overall at Lucas Oil Stadium on Jan. 10.
That wasn’t a surprise either considering the Crimson Tide arrived as a 13.5-point favorite. It was how Alabama (13-1) transformed their game plan against Cincinnati (13-1), the first Group of 5 team to reach this stage.
That was the flex. Saban took a page from New England coach Bill Belichick, his mentor, and the Crimson Tide went the old-fashioned route with a power running game and smothering defense. It looked like the early days of the Saban dynasty. That game plan still works when you have the more-talented roster.
Alabama, which entered the game 80th in the FBS in rushing offense, pounded the Bearcats for 302 yards on 6.4 yards per carry. Running back Brian Robinson finished with a school bowl record 204 rushing yards on 26 carries. The Crimson Tide’s top-10 defense limited Cincinnati to one first down in the first half after the opening drive, and Alabama built a two-score cushion by halftime.
Alabama, known for first-quarter statements in the CFP, made a different kind of statement on the opening drive. This was an offense led by Heisman Trophy quarterback Bryce Young, who passed for 421 yards and three TDs and turned the SEC championship game against Georgia into a 7-on-7 showcase.
What did offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien do against the Bearcats?
“Man ball,” of course. A drive with 10 rushes, nine of which were designed runs, for 62 yards. Robinson softened the Bearcats defense, and Young’s only pass was a 9-yard TD pass to Slade Bolden.
O’Brien called a no-risk, no-frills winner. Alabama shied away from deep shots against Cincinnati All-American cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant in favor of a power-running attack. Nobody could tweet, “Run the damn ball” in this one. The offense had just three chunk plays of 20 yards or more, but stuck with the ground-and-pound attack that won national championships with Heisman winners Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry.
Alabama had 25 rushing attempts for 172 yards by halftime, including 17 carries for 134 yards from Robinson. The highlight-reel play came on a 22-yard backward pitch from Young to Robinson, which set up a 44-yard TD pass from Young to Ja’Corey Brooks with 1:36 left in the second quarter. That gave the Crimson Tide a 17-3 halftime lead.
What about the defense? Cincinnati responded to that first punch with a drive into the red zone, but Saban called a timeout on first and goal with 5:48 left in the first quarter. Two incompletions and a blown-up screen pass later, the Bearcats settled for a field goal.
Alabama locked in from there. Desmond Ridder was sacked three times and had three passes knocked down before the half. When Cincinnati got breaks – Alabama missed a field goal and nearly fumbled away a punt in the first half – the Bearcats could not take advantage.
That continued in the second half. Young threw an interception to Bryan Cook, but Cincinnati’s ensuing drive ended on a two-headed sack by Christian Harris and Will Anderson. Ridder finished 17 of 32 for 144 yards and was sacked six times. Running back Jerome Ford was limited to 77 yards. The Bearcats had five three-and-outs and two plays of 20 yards or more. Alabama won the yardage battle 482-218.
This wasn’t about Cincinnati not being able to compete. This was more about Alabama adjusting their plan to make it almost impossible for the Bearcats to pull the impossible. All-American receiver Jameson Williams (7 catches, 62 yards) slid into a possession receiver role to compensate for the loss of John Metchie III, who suffered a torn ACL against Georgia. Young struggled in spots, but he still finished 17 of 28 for 181 yards and three TDs. Young threw the final TD to Cameron Latu with 13:52 left in the fourth.
Belichick and Saban have been adapting for the entire 21st century for that matters, and it leads to ridiculous hypotheticals. It does not matter if this Alabama offense isn’t the record-setting version like 2020. It doesn’t matter if this Crimson Tide team isn’t better than the other six national championship teams under Saban. It does not matter that this semifinal wasn’t aesthetically pleasing to the casual viewer.
What matters? Alabama is good enough to win the national championship this year, and you better be prepared.
Because you simply don’t know what Saban’s game plan will be on Jan. 10.