Cotton Bowl 2021: Underrated Stars to Watch and Picks in Cincinnati vs. Alabama

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistDecember 26, 2021

Cotton Bowl 2021: Underrated Stars to Watch and Picks in Cincinnati vs. Alabama

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The torn ACL suffered by Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver John Metchie III is the biggest injury blow to any of the four College Football Playoff participants. 

    Metchie is one of Alabama's two 1,000-yard wide receivers and the Crimson Tide need their depth at the position to show in the Cotton Bowl against the Cincinnati Bearcats. 

    Cincinnati was going to make life difficult on the Alabama wideouts with or without Metchie because it has two of the best defensive backs in the country in Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and Coby Bryant. 

    The Bearcats secondary will receive plenty of buzz ahead of the national semifinal on New Year's Eve, but there are other parts of their defense that will be vital to success against the top-ranked team in the country. 

Slade Bolden, WR, Alabama

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    Slade Bolden has flown under the radar on Alabama's wide receiver depth chart because of the first-round talent that surrounded him over the last two years. 

    Bolden earned the team's third-highest receiving-yard total this season, but he was a far ways off from Metchie and Jameson Williams. 

    Bolden is coming off his best performance of the campaign in the SEC Championship Game. He had season highs of five receptions and 54 receiving yards.

    The junior's totals should be around the same numbers on New Year's Eve. He should be used in some crucial third-down or red-zone situations because of his experience. 

    Bolden caught a touchdown pass in the national championship game last season. He had five catches for 38 yards in last year's playoff. 

    The numbers are not significant, but the experience gained in those situations was. Bolden should serve as a safety target for Bryce Young, and he might end up with some new career highs if Williams can't shake his individual matchups against Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant. 

Joel Dublanko, LB, Cincinnati

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    The immediate focus on Cincinnati's defense shifts to the two star defensive backs. 

    Gardner and Bryant could end up as the main reasons why Cincinnati pulls off an upset if it contains Alabama's top wide receivers well enough. 

    The Bearcats also need to focus on stopping the run. Alabama might be more inclined to run Brian Robinson Jr. to offset the potential matchups in the passing game. 

    Senior linebacker Joel Dublanko will be tasked with keeping Robinson's production as low as possible inside AT&T Stadium.

    Dublanko leads Cincinnati in total tackles with 106 and with 56 solo tackles. He had two sacks and an interception in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. 

    Dublanko does not get a ton of time in the spotlight, but he could end up as the top defensive player in the contest if he puts enough pressure on Bryce Young. 

    Cincinnati must get in Young's face with its pass rush to create some mistakes that Gardner and Bryant could potentially take advantage of. 

    The Bearcats will be competitive with Alabama as long as their defense holds up. That is possible if their leading tackler shines on the interior. 


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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Alabama 27, Cincinnati 20 

    Alabama proved in the SEC Championship Game that its top talent can show up on the biggest stages. 

    The offense laden with five-star talent was too much for Georgia's top-rated defense to handle. 

    Cincinnati comes into the Cotton Bowl with similar defensive statistics to Georgia, and it should learn from UGA's failures in Atlanta, but it may not have enough to contain all of Alabama's talent. 

    The Bearcats should remain in the contest because Alabama may take time adjusting to life without Metchie in the passing game. 

    Alabama still has the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback in Bryce Young and a defense that turned in its best performance of the season against a highly-talented Georgia offense. 

    Cincinnati has a solid quarterback in its own right in Desmond Ridder. He should benefit from the experience gained against a SEC foe in Georgia in last season's Peach Bowl, but that experience can only take him so far. 

    Alabama has the best talent across the board, and there is enough playoff experience throughout the squad to make up for any absences.