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Cotton Bowl Preview: Cincinnati Looks to Prove It Belongs Against SEC Powerhouse Alabama

Luke Fickell and the Bearcats will make history by being the first Group of 5 team to play in the CFP. Will they feel the pressure, or prove they belong?

For years now, many in the college football world have been hoping a Group of 5 team would get an opportunity to be included with the big boys in the College Football Playoff.

Well, you won’t find a bigger boy, so to speak.

Cincinnati (13–0), the No. 4 seed in the 2021 CFP, will play No. 1 Alabama (12–1) in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Dec. 31 (3:30 p.m. ET). It’s your typical plucky-underdog-against-mighty-powerhouse matchup. It’s G5 against the SEC.

The early betting line for the game—Alabama is a two-touchdown favorite—reveals the challenge for Cincinnati. The Crimson Tide changed its fortunes after upending No. 1 Georgia, 41–24 for the SEC title, helping Nick Saban’s team rally from being out of the Playoff picture to being the top seed. There was “strong consensus” for Alabama and Cincinnati to land where they did in the rankings, CFP chairman Gary Barta told ESPN on Sunday.

So, both teams will meet at AT&T Stadium with Cincinnati carrying the weight of proving the Group of 5’s worth resting on its collective shoulders and Alabama chasing an incredible eighth national championship in 13 seasons.

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Story line you’re already tired of

Get ready to be exhausted by the above. There is a very clear story line for this game and it involves the first Group of 5 team getting the opportunity to take down what just might be the greatest dynasty in college football history.

No, the record hasn’t skipped. Be prepared for this angle to dominate headlines and tweets in the coming weeks. College football’s fan base would like nothing more than to see the mighty Tide dethroned and shoved out of the CFP.

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Key matchup to watch

This is a meeting between two head coaches who pride themselves on defense. Both played on that side of the ball in college, each in Ohio (Saban at Kent State and Luke Fickell at Ohio State). The teams' defenses are at the top of college football (Alabama is ranked eighth, Cincinnati seventh), both units giving up around 305 yards a game.

Can either offense move the ball well? The thing that normally separates the SEC from all other leagues is the players on the defensive front, in talent and depth. You hear it from coaches about the Alabamas, LSUs and Georgias all the time. How in the world do they have that many big, strong, athletic D-linemen? The Bearcats have struggled at times on the offensive line, ranking among the middle of the pack (48th) in rushing offense, and that does not bode well in this matchup.

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Underrated X-factor

Which Alabama team will show up? The Tide are in the midst of a weird, roller-coaster kind of season. Bama lost to a team (Texas A&M) that ultimately finished 8–4, struggled against 6–6 teams like LSU and Auburn, and then rolled two top-10 programs in Georgia and Ole Miss.

What gives? Who knows. The Tide, like Cincinnati, have struggled at times on the offensive front, as well. And there was a handful of games—Auburn and LSU come to mind—where quarterback and Heisman Trophy front-runner Bryce Young looked average at best, mostly because of the pressure he faced. Clearly, the Tide has a consistency problem. If the same Tide team that played in the Iron Bowl shows up, the Bearcats might just be in business.

Alabama wins if …

… Hyde, not Jekyll, shows up. If there’s one thing that has troubled Saban teams in the past, it’s a mobile quarterback. Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder is a slippery one—he is second on the team in rushing, averages about seven rushing attempts per game and has run for six TDs. Ridder is also efficient through the air with 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season. If Ridder is able to run and pass against the Tide, it might be an early exit for Saban’s crew.

Cincinnati wins if …

… the Bearcats' defense at least slows Young and Alabama’s offense. They got some help from the injury bug, as the Tide’s second-leading wideout, John Metchie III, could miss the game with an apparent season-ending knee injury. Don’t worry, Alabama still has plenty of other weapons. Cincinnati and Fickell will have to find ways to slow the Tide’s offense. The best way: bring pressure. That’s what LSU did, holding Bama to 20 points in a six-point loss. Don’t be afraid to bring the house.

More College Football Coverage:

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Cincinnati and the Opportunity of a Lifetime
Inside the Wild Week That May Change CFB Forever