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Cinderella Denied: Nick Saban's Juggernaut Strikes Again in Trampling Cincinnati

An Alabama team that wasn't even a CFP lock one month ago will play for the national championship. Is anyone surprised?

ARLINGTON, Texas—Here we go again.

The Alabama team you watched struggle to beat the likes of LSU and Auburn and lose at Texas A&M; the one that entered the SEC championship game as a near-touchdown underdog; the group with a struggling offensive line, an inconsistent running game and a defense that occasionally looked blah? That Alabama team, the same one, will play for it all.

The Crimson Tide (13–1) and their legend of a coach rolled right over Cincinnati, the Cinderella of the College Football Playoff, 27–6, to advance to a sixth championship game in the past seven seasons and their ninth in 13 years (Bama didn’t make it in 2010, ’13, ’14 and ’19). If you believe that to be a mistype, I assure you it is not. 

Alabama's defense celebrates a tackle vs. Cincinnati

The Crimson Tide defense had its A-game going on Friday.

It is a historic and quite unbelievable stretch—for one team to dominate a sport so incessantly. On Friday afternoon from AT&T Stadium, Alabama did to Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl what it has unleashed on all of college football since 2009: possess far superior talent and play mostly mistake-free football. Cincinnati was the latest opponent to be bludgeoned physically, as Alabama did not give many inches on defense (218 yards) and carved through on offense (482 yards).

Maybe you saw Friday’s version of this movie coming. Plenty did. Cincinnati (13–1), a two-touchdown underdog, was the first Group of 5 team in the Playoff, a team some believed held too weak of a schedule to qualify and a program that had signed 81 fewer four- and five-star prospects compared to Alabama over the past four years. For a nation salivating for parity, the Bearcats were the new blood in the Big Dance against the dominant old guard, the Group of 5 against the SEC—a quintessential David vs. Goliath affair if there ever was one.

Invariably, the result will send many questioning the Bearcats’ inclusion in the Playoff. They beat every team on their regular season schedule and won their conference for a second consecutive season. This year, their résumé featured a crown jewel: a road win against the No. 5 team in the final CFP rankings (Notre Dame).

If not Cincinnati, then who? A Notre Dame team that Cincinnati beat in South Bend? A two-loss Ohio State? A Baylor team that lost at 5–7 TCU? An Ole Miss team that didn’t win its own division?

“There’s no doubt in my mind they belonged in the Playoff,” Saban said afterward. “They gave us all we could handle.”

Desmond Ridder (9) and Cincinnati Bearcats safety Bryan Cook (6) embrace.

Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder (right) and safety Bryan Cook embrace postgame.

What happened Friday afternoon in this Dallas suburb is nothing new. Just three of 15 CFP semifinals have been decided by single digits. Ten semifinals were won by at least two touchdowns.

But if a few things had gone slightly different in the red zone, maybe this one is different. Cincinnati’s defense gave Cincinnati’s offense a chance. Alabama’s defense didn’t give Cincinnati’s offense much at all. The Bearcats’ first eight drives included five three-and-outs, five punts and two drives longer than six yards— both of which ended in red-zone field goals.

Cincy couldn’t run the ball consistently enough, QB Desmond Ridder looked discombobulated most of the game (17 for 32 for 144 yards) and Tide defensive linemen tipped four passes.

“We knew the battle in the trenches was going to be a big deal. That's kinda where the game was won,” said Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell.

The little things stopped the Bearcats. On their first drive, they had three cracks from the 9-yard line and couldn’t score a touchdown—two of which ended in deflected passes, one of which appeared to be bound for an open receiver.

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Then, there were the missed opportunities. In the second quarter, Alabama muffed a punt and the Bearcats came inches shy of falling on the ball 10 yards away from the goal line. In the third quarter, Cincinnati intercepted Alabama quarterback Bryce Young only to flop on the ensuing series: a penalty on first down, a batted pass on second and a sack on third-and-16.

But more than anything, Fickell’s team failed to slow, let alone stop, the Crimson Tide from trouncing them on the ground—clearly Bama’s plan from the outset (the Tide called nine runs on their first 10 plays of the game).

Forget about the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Young threw for just 181 yards)—senior running back Brian Robinson Jr. turned into Saban’s battering ram. He hit the 100-yard mark halfway through the second quarter and finished with 26 carries for 204 yards.

“We knew we were going to have an opportunity to run the ball,” Robinson said. “We proved we were the most physical team.”

Alabama RB Brian Robinson Jr runs vs Cincinnati

Robinson was the story for the Alabama offense on Friday.

You know those pretty games with wonderfully designed and executed offensive masterpieces? This game did not feature many of those. It was downright ugly. Lots of handoffs. Lots of incomplete passes.

And that’s O.K. This Alabama team has won ugly for a while now. Remember the 20–14 victory over LSU? How about the two-point overtime win at Auburn? Saban says Friday’s game was “probably a little bit about what this season has been all about”—a grinding victory, a throwback from his early days in Tuscaloosa. Bama ran 47 times in 75 plays.

“Sometimes you got to take what the defense gives,” Saban said. “A lot of the running plays had passes attached but by the way they lined up on defense, it’s a give read. They took the RPOs away sometimes.”

After the game, Saban and linebacker Will Anderson Jr. discussed the strides this team specifically has made. It’s a young team that few thought would advance to this point after losing to Texas A&M and having to go through Georgia in the SEC title game. And earlier this month it lost one of its best receivers, John Metchie III, for the season.

Lo and behold, here it is.

“It took a long time to develop chemistry on this team,” Saban said.

At some point along the way—maybe it was the close win over Auburn or the scare from LSU—the Tide found what they needed.

The result? Alabama is back in the national championship game.

Here we go again.

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