Alabama Rolls Past Cincinnati in College Football Playoff

Alabama 27, Cincinnati 6

For the national championship, the Crimson Tide will take on the Georgia Bulldogs Jan. 10.

Ja'Corey Brooks caught a 44-yard touchdown for Alabama near the end of the first half that put the Crimson Tide ahead of Cincinnati, 17-3. Credit... Richard Rodriguez/Getty images

Dec. 31, 2021

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- This was the moment the Cincinnati Bearcats had pined for all season. The roster is chock-full of local kids, overlooked by Ohio State in high school and largely underestimated now by the football elite, who put their place in the College Football Playoff down to a matter of necessity: The sport needed a fourth team in the field.

The Bearcats had dreamed so hard about a stage like this that some admitted their jaws might drop when they walked for the first time into Jerry World, as the cavernous Texas-size N.F.L. The stadium is commonly known here. Players held their phones up to the windows of the buses to capture the moment as they pulled up.

The Bearcats were determined and full of determination, taking away memories from their turn under the bright light. However, they also learned a lesson that all college football players have long forgotten -- that Alabama is still the benchmark for the sport.

The Crimson Tide were far from perfect in pulling away for a 27-6 win -- certainly not as fearsome as the team that ripped through Ohio State in last season's championship game -- yet they proved resourceful and showed a keen ability to rise to meet the game's most critical moments .

After Georgia's defense was decimated by quarterback Bryce Young in the Southeastern Conference championship match, he stamped his Heisman trophy candidacy. Alabama instead relied on a seldom-overlooked player: Brian Robinson Jr., who ran 26 times for 204 yard.

Robinson's afternoon of workhorse was the perfect compliment to the Alabama defense. It shackled Cincinnati’s running attack, anchored by Jerome Ford from Alabama, and harassed quarterback Desmond Ridder.

"It's one thing to sit there and watch on film and draw the twists and stunts that they do on the board and work it out through practice," Ridder said. It's quite another to play it on a large stage.

Alabama (13-1), will be competing for the title against No. 3 Georgia, who defeated No. 2 Michigan in the Orange Bowl, the other semifinal, on Friday. The finalists will meet on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

Alabama is trying to claim its seventh national championship since 2009, an extraordinary achievement that is underscored this year by the absence of Clemson and Ohio State in the playoff and Louisiana State firing a coach who won the title two years ago.

Cincinnati, meanwhile, was trying to justify that it belonged on the same field.

The Bearcats' (13-1 record) banner also featured schools from outside of the Power 5 conferences: the Southeastern Big Ten Big 12 Atlantic Coast Pacific-12 and Big Ten Big Ten. No school outside of that privileged class, where most of college sports' millions stream, had reached the playoff, which was instituted for the 2014 season. Despite two consecutive unbeaten regular seasons, Central Florida was thrown out twice.

Although the Bearcats were able to leave the field with a positive attitude, there were some regrets. Ridder's pass was too high for Alec Pierce; Pierce missed the ball in the end zone. Pierce also missed the goal. Bryan Cook, safety, did little with Bryan Cook's interceptions near midfield.

However, Cincinnati will most likely rue not being in a position to force Alabama off the field during decisive downs. The Crimson Tide converted five of the nine plays on third, fourth and fifth downs during the opening half. It also got out a third-and-16 hole in the third period, when Young connected to Jameson Williams for 20 yard over the middle.

The teams have spent the past month preparing for each others, but they also have been focused on avoiding the latest outbreak of coronavirus, which has caused seven teams to withdraw from bowl games. Bill O'Brien, Alabama's defensive coordinator, and Doug Marrone, the offensive line coach, had to take a break from coaching for more then a week before returning to the team. The universities did not confirm that any players had tested positive in the weeks leading up to the game.

If the teams were vigilant, restricting media access to video calls among other measures, little else about the environment hinted at a pandemic.

Although some bars and restaurants may require proof of vaccination, others do not. It was difficult to find any local entertainment districts that required masks for entry. The same thing happened at ATT Stadium where mask-wearing fans made up a small portion of the crowd of 76.313 and a sign outside said: "Masks encouraged."

Christy Schmidt said that she didn't believe it was a concern for people in Alabama. She had traveled from Cincinnati with Mark Schmidt. Each time they stopped for food or gas on the nearly 950-mile drive, they ran into fellow Bearcats fans, who outnumbered Alabama fans by a noticeable margin on Friday. (Their fans roared in excitement when Travis Kelce - a Cincinnati alum - appeared on the stadium's television screen with Patrick Mahomes. Former Alabama stars Trevon Diggs and receiver Amari Cooper watched from the Tide sideline.

Many Cincinnati fans were relishing their team's big moment, particularly as it came in a year when Ohio State did not reach the playoff. Mark Schmidt stated shortly before kickoff that "my heart is saying, ‘Yeah Cincinnati!' It's going be a fight.

Cincinnati could have a puncher's chance if it started with its All-America cornerback duo, Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant.

Gardner is a highly-regarded N.F.L. Gardner is a draft pick and his performance shows that scouts don't just like him based only on spec. According to Pro Football Focus, he has yet to give up a touchdown in more than 1,000 college snaps. Bryant, who was awarded the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back, has successfully defended 45 passes in his career -- the second most among active players.

Alabama was so positive about the Bearcats secondary that they turned back the clock in order to diminish them. The Crimson Tide ran it. Then they ran it yet again. Then they ran it more. Alabama fans loved the familiarity of this strategy, whether they were raised watching Shaun Alexander, Derrick Henry or Major Ogilvie.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban stated, "Sometimes you need to take what defense gives."

Alabama kicked off the game with a running attack. Young made a pass to Slade Bolden on the 10th play. Young had just completed a short pass to Bolden. Bolden had crept into a gap within the zone defense and lunged for the touchdown at 8 yards.

Young would throw two more touchdown passes -- 44 yards to Ja'Corey Brooks late in the first half and 9 yards to Cameron Latu early in the fourth quarter -- but he rarely targeted Gardner or Bryant.

However, depth is the greatest separator between programs such as Alabama. Alabama collects recruits of four- and five stars like Christmas ornaments and other upstarts who have great ambitions. Alabama was successful in rotating its defensive linemen. Ridder was sacked six consecutive times, hit relentlessly, intercepted four passes, and then was sacked again.

When Will Anderson Jr. and Brian Branch met in the backfield to sack Ridder on fourth down early in the fourth quarter, it spelled the end for the Bearcats -- not just for the game, but for their ride this season.