The Alabama Crimson Tide have not soared above the clouds this season. This is not a dominant, vintage Nick Saban team. This is not a juggernaut or a colossus. If Tank Bigsby had not run out of bounds late in the Iron Bowl, we wouldn’t be discussing Alabama as a College Football Playoff team favored to win its semifinal game at the Cotton Bowl against Cincinnati.
By Matt Zemek
Alabama would be in the Sugar Bowl preparing to play Baylor in an off-the-radar game. Alabama maxed out against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, but in order to reach the College Football Playoff, the Crimson Tide needed a lot of breaks to go their way – not only against Auburn, but also versus LSU and Florida. There isn’t an aura of inevitability as Alabama prepares for this playoff semifinal, even though the opponent is Cinderella, the first Group of Five team to make the playoff in eight years of this event. Cincinnati, unlike Alabama, has not lost a game. Are the schedules different? Yes … but Alabama easily could have three losses this season. The Tide have not been imposing enough or consistent enough to be penciled into the national championship game on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis. Here’s what the Tide have to do against coach Luke Fickell’s Bearcats in the first of two playoff semis on New Year’s Eve:
1 – Meet the physical challenge
Alabama was outworked, physically, by Auburn. The Tide were not outworked by Georgia. Cincinnati is a physically tough team. Will we see the Iron Bowl version of Bama or the Georgia version? This is a simple way of exploring whether Alabama will prevail. Cincinnati can match up with Alabama if the Tide aren’t ready for battle. If the Tide meet the moment and rise to the occasion, their speed and skill should carry the day. It really is that simple.
2 – Pass rush
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder is talented, but he isn’t an equation-changing player. He is an excellent game manager for the Bearcats, but not an astonishing, overwhelming force. If Alabama regularly pressures him, it’s likely that Ridder will commit a significant mistake at some point. Just one or two big Ridder mistakes should be more than enough for Alabama to win.
3 – Bryce Young’s legs
Alabama hasn’t used or relied on Bryce Young’s running ability very much this season. In a playoff semifinal against a quality Cincinnati defense, Young needs to be ready to scramble and make improvisational plays outside the pocket. Quarterback draws might come open against outside blitzes. Young needs to be ready to see and zoom through any running lanes he gets. If he does this early, Cincinnati won’t be able to punish him or make him sweat. Alabama’s offense will be able to function fluidly.