Cotton Bowl 2021: Factors That Will Decide Cincinnati vs. Alabama Playoff

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistDecember 25, 2021

Cotton Bowl 2021: Factors That Will Decide Cincinnati vs. Alabama Playoff

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Football is a complicated game. When the Cincinnati Bearcats and Alabama Crimson Tide take the field in the 2021 Cotton Bowl, players will be executing what would otherwise sound like a foreign language to a strong majority of viewers.

    However, the recap of any matchup is simple: Who performed best in the moments that shaped the outcome?

    Entering this national semifinal, Alabama is a considerable favorite. However, the Bearcats have a chance to shatter those expectations if they excel in a few different areas.

    The reality is Cincinnati has a major challenge ahead. But there's a definite path to springing an upset on top-ranked Alabama.  

Alabama's Wideouts vs. Cincy's Star Corners

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Looking at the rosters overall, no reasonable person would argue Cincinnati has more talent than Alabama. But the Bearcats, when they're on defense, may actually have an edge in the passing game.

    Cincinnati boasts a pair of AP All-America cornerbacks with Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant. They've combined for six interceptions and 15 pass breakups this season, headlining a secondary that ranks No. 3 nationally in yards allowed per pass attempt.

    As you can imagine, though, the SEC powerhouse presents the biggest test Cincinnati has faced all season.

    Alabama will be without top pass-catcher John Metchie III (torn left ACL), but Jameson Williams is an elite playmaker. He's reeled in 68 passes for 1,445 yards and 15 touchdowns, and his 21.3 yards per reception is fifth-best in the country.

    For the Bearcats to have a shot at winning, they desperately need the secondary to limit the explosiveness of Alabama's offenseand, more specifically, Williams.

Cincinnati's Offensive Line Matching Alabama's Rush

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Paying attention to the line of scrimmage isn't the most glamorous choice, but a talent disparity can become rapidly evident when watching the offensive and defensive lines.

    Will the Bearcats be able to handle Alabama's front seven for 60 minutes? The latter note isn't meant to be trite, either.

    Last season, Cincinnati played Georgia in the Peach Bowl. In short, the Bearcats met the challenge for 30 minutes and took a 14-10 lead into halftime. After a targeting penalty removed left tackle James Hudson from the Peach Bowl, however, the offense struggled to move the ball consistently. Cincinnati watched a 21-10 lead evaporate into a crushing 24-21 loss.

    Alabama ranks third nationally in sacks and fourth in tackles for loss. Edge-rusher Will Anderson Jr. leads the nation in both of those categories, and six more players have recorded five-plus TFLs. This is a relentless, aggressive and productive defense.

    Cincinnati must avoid the game-changing turnovers and negative plays that Alabama is so adept at creating.

Can the Bearcats Get Bama off the Field?

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    An obvious storyline can still be a correct one.

    Heading into the CFP, Alabama holds top-10 rankings in yards per play, yards per game and points per game. Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young leads a prolific scoring attack that only trails Coastal Carolina in third-down conversion rate.

    It's pretty tough to beat the Crimson Tide when their offense keeps extending drives. Imagine that, right?

    Without a doubt, "get off the field defensively" is easier said than done against the Tide. Yet it's no coincidence that Alabama totaled 21 punts in its four closest games (Florida, Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn) and 22 throughout the remaining nine contests.

    Cincinnati's opposition has mustered a 33.7 third-down clip in 2021. If the Crimson Tide are anywhere around that mark, the Bearcats are likely in range of springing an upset.

    But if the Tide are picking up first downs and sustaining drives, a stunning win would be incredibly difficult for Cincinnati.