At least four of the five best offensive players among any of the College Football Playoff teams will be playing in the Cotton Bowl. Besides Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder, three of them play for Alabama. Quarterback Bryce Young, wide receiver Jameson Williams and left tackle Evan Neal need no introduction, and each are premium players of a specific position group. Neal will likely be a top-five NFL draft pick next April. That’s why this matchup may rely more on standout individuals, whereas the Orange Bowl is more about the strength of whose offensive and defensive lines can get the job done as units.
When Alabama has the ball…
The overarching question surrounding Alabama is whether or not the offensive line is actually fixed. Offensive line coach Doug Marrone seemingly justified his entire salary in the week between the Iron Bowl—when the Tide surrendered seven sacks against the Tigers—and the much-improved SEC championship game. Young has been pressured 185 times on 527 dropbacks this season, second-most in the country, and he’s been sacked 32 times (14th-worst nationally).
Multiple opponents have gotten at Alabama in different ways. Texas A&M repeatedly showed this overloaded front and came after Young, which Nick Saban said caused communication issues, especially in the second half of the Crimson Tide’s loss.
Against LSU, the Bayou Bengals put in new defensive calls during a bye week to take the pressure off of their depleted secondary and put it on Young. That included disguising pressures to again affect Bama’s communication, as well as, at times, simply bringing more than the Tide could block to try to speed Young’s process up and force a relatively green QB to make quick decisions.
The risk paid off on defense, snapping a run of 31 games in which Alabama had scored 30 or more points.
In the Iron Bowl, a game in which the Tide scored only 10 points in regulation, the Tigers picked on the right side of Alabama’s offensive line numerous times …
… that is, until the Tide made a change and seemingly found the right combination of five linemen. Right tackle Chris Owens got his job back in the third quarter of the Iron Bowl and sophomore Seth McLaughlin took over at center (also a revolving door for Bama this season). A week later against Georgia, McLaughlin got his first start and the Tide kept Young mostly clean, allowing no sacks. While Georgia was able to get some pressure, in crucial spots, Bama either held up …
Or, Young was able to, at times, do the unthinkable postsnap.
As if dealing with one of Georgia’s three outstanding interior defensive linemen wasn’t enough, McLaughlin will absolutely have his hands full with Bearcats nose guard Curtis Brooks, who actually leads the team in sacks from the interior in addition to the rest of Cincy’s front featuring quick-triggering linebackers who are coached to get downhill quickly. Brooks may have to have a big day for the Bearcats to get to the passer, as Neal is likely to handle his matchup on Young’s blind side. His matchup against talented pass-rusher Myjai Sanders will be one to watch closely in the trenches. It will be up to Cincy to generate pressure in creative ways, but that has proved to be effective against other Alabama linemen.
That may further disrupt Alabama’s OL when it aims to run the ball, which the Tide have also not been their normal elite selves at. This season, they’ve had only a 47% success rate on rushing plays (33rd nationally) and a flat-out bad output in expected points added/rush. Part of that lack of rushing attack is why the Crimson Tide struggle to generate first downs on early downs, but they are arguably the nation’s best team on third down, particularly in third-and-long. Their 4.06 yards-per-rush is the worst since Saban’s first year in 2007, and compared to most seasons it’s, on average, more than a yard shy of where they’re used to being.
Bama also lacks the special running back it’s had in years past. What it doesn’t lack, however, is on other parts of the offense.
Even if you get to Young, he’s shown multiple times this year that he is a frustratingly great scrambler and has a back-breaking ability to extend drives. As Georgia’s Kirby Smart put it: “At the end of the day you’ve gotta get to him or he’s gonna get you.”
As far as Williams is concerned, the receiver may realize he has a shadow in this matchup. Cincinnati corner Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner can line up on either side of the defense, but the Bearcats may just want to stick him wherever Williams lines up and try to play 10-on-10 everywhere else. Gardner has allowed eight completions on 30 targets over 387 coverage snaps so far this season.
It’s not at all uncommon to see Cincinnati’s defense look like this … with Gardner rolled up on whoever while the rest of the DB corps aligns differently (although opposite corner Coby Bryant aligns in a healthy amount of press in his own right).
And it doesn’t matter who. Even if Gardner is ceding a couple inches and 50 pounds to Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer.
When Williams runs vertical, Gardner will have his hands plenty full. But Williams doesn’t just line up outside and run down the field. He lines up in the slot at times as well. Alabama will also hide him in stack alignments to try and get softer coverage on top of him.
How Alabama uses the complimentary parts in the passing game against a heavily man-oriented Cincinnati pass defense will be fascinating.
Young has thrown for 4,322 yards, with a laughable 43-to-four touchdown/interception ratio. While Williams has the highlight catches deep down the field that contribute to his 21.3 yards per catch, John Metchie III has been the more voluminous target with 96 catches on 130 targets versus Williams’s 68 catches on 107 targets. The duo have combined for roughly half of Young’s 462 pass attempts this season, but with Metchie out with injury, the story of Friday’s game will be who can step up in his absence—unless Alabama comes out with a surprisingly run-heavy gameplan.
Can the Tide’s Slade Bolden win on the outside against Bryant? Or will this turn into a game where we learn about an understudy Crimson Tide WR who is the Next Five Star Up? Or will it become a Cameron Latu/Jahleel Billingsley showcase versus Cincinnati's defense as matchup nightmares?
If Bama is willing to line up unconventionally for a tight end and feed them, Mayer (eight catches for 93 yards vs. Cincy) showed there is joy to be found on non-Gardner and non-Bryant pass defenders. Here, Mayer lines up as the point person of a three-receiver bunch.
There’s limited evidence that Bama is willing to do that when the matchup dictates it. Against Ole Miss, Billingsley spent 25% of his snaps as a straight-up wideout on plays like this.
And against Arkansas, Latu spent 30% of his snaps lined up out wide.
When Cincinnati has the ball…
Cincinnati is a 13.5-point underdog. It’s not speaking out of turn to say Ridder will have to have a 2012 Johnny Manziel or 2017 Deshaun Watson-level effort under center to win this game. But the Bearcats are a deliberate offense, only running 61 plays per game, and unlike the Tide they’re very efficient down-in and down-out. It may be best for them to try and do everything to ensure this game doesn’t become a track meet in which they have to match Bama shot-for-shot into the 40s on the scoreboard.
Other than Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson and Florida’s Emory Jones, the Tide’s defense has not faced such a credible QB run threat all season. Cincy running back Jerome Ford (an Alabama transfer) has cooled off from his hot start early in the season, but it’ll need more than just him to run the ball effectively in this game. Ridder isn’t just a willing runner—he’s a very capable one too, but coming down the stretch he hasn’t been asked to shoulder that load as much. Expect that to change even in little ways to keep drives going, like through regular zone reads.
It may look simple, but plays like this with a tight end slicing across the formation to effectively lead block on the edge serve a couple purposes, including testing eye discipline—which is a way to affect Alabama’s linebackers—and a creative usage of excellent blocking tight end Josh Whyle.
TEs on the move is a favorite of Bearcats offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, a former tight ends coach. They also set up small swing passes that can be effective in the red zone. These plays do leave a certain position group unblocked: edge rusher. And Alabama has the nation’s best in Will Anderson Jr. As a quarterback trying to read him, you do so at your own peril. Ridder had better have the ball pulled quickly.
Anderson led the nation in solo sacks (14) and was second nationally in pressures. A frightening blend of power and speed, the Bearcats will have to account for him wherever he is, because he doesn’t just come off the edge either (here, see him rushing over a guard).
Cincinnati’s main issue in this game is that it doesn’t have anyone on the outside who can truly scare Alabama’s excellent defensive backs, but Ridder still has a great arm—although his deep ball accuracy can be spotty, when he’s on he’s on.
The Bearcats will need every single bit of explosiveness he can provide. Alec Pierce is the main receiving threat, and as shown above he’s very good at catching high-pointing Ridder deep balls. It’s an ancillary benefit besides the victory, but if Ridder can light it up, he’ll also impress many NFL draftniks going against a Nick Saban defense that is filled with multiple pros, even if it’s not like the vaunted units of the coach’s early tenure. But Ridder’s first goal is to win, and Cincy will need everything he’s got in order to pull it off.
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