Cotton Bowl 2021: Individual Matchups to Watch in Cincinnati vs. Alabama

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2021

Cotton Bowl 2021: Individual Matchups to Watch in Cincinnati vs. Alabama

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    The 2021 Cotton Bowl is a classic college football bowl storyline. An undefeated Group of Five team in the Cincinnati Bearcats will be fighting for legitimacy and respect when they take on the No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.

    The only twist on this rendition of the David vs. Goliath is that it's under the College Football Playoff banner. The playoff committee finally let a Group of Five team crash the party after the Bearcats went undefeated for the second season in a row.

    No. 4 Cincinnati is a considerable underdog against a red-hot Alabama team. The Crimson Tide come into the game off a dominant win over previous No. 1 Georgia. They could see the Bulldogs in an SEC rematch national championship. But they'll have to get by Cincinnati first.

    While it might look like the matchup favors Alabama, the Bearcats are here for a reason. They have talent all over the field, and the result is going to be some great individual matchups.

    Here's a look at a few key ones that are worth watching as the game unfolds Friday.

Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant vs. Jameson Williams

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    Let's start with a true clash of titans. Ahmad Gardner was one of the best cornerbacks in the country this season. He won the AAC Defensive Player of the Year award and was named to PFF's All-American team.

    According to their numbers, the corner has not given up more than 20 yards to a receiver all season. That's even more impressive when you factor in that he's asked to play press-man on a lot of his coverage snaps. If that holds true in the Cotton Bowl, it will have been a phenomenal performance.

    If The Tide wants to try to move Jameson Williams away from Gardner, he'll see Coby Bryant, this year's Thorpe Award winner, which is given to the country's best defensive back.

    The Crimson Tide have a quarterback capable of putting stress on any secondary in Bryce Young, but they also have a talented receiving corps to match. Even with John Metchie III out of the game, Williams has more than 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns.

    It's safe to say that he will be Gardner's toughest assignment yet. And while Young has other weapons and can avoid Gardner to an extent, that's not the way the Tide offense wants to operate.

    The Gardner vs. Williams matchup features the most combined talent on the field and is one that college football fans and NFL draftniks alike are going to love.

Will Anderson vs. Dylan O'Quinn

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    The Cincinnati Bearcats offensive line has done a great job of keeping quarterback Desmond Ridder clean and at least getting positive gains in the run game.

    The unit ranks fifth in tackles for loss allowed (only 45 all season) and 29th in sacks allowed (20). However, they haven't seen a force of nature like Will Anderson Jr. coming off the edge for Alabama.

    Despite Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson getting the invite to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, it was the sophomore Anderson who was the most prolific pass-rusher in the country. He finished the season with 15.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for a loss.

    In short, Anderson is the type of defender who is able to crash an entire game plan.

    While Alabama will move him around and use him on stunts, the bulk of slowing him down will fall on right tackle Dylan O'Quinn. The junior was named to the first-team All-AAC team. However, he was conspicuously left off all the PFF All-AAC team.

    He will get a chance to prove himself in a big way in Friday's game. His ability to keep Anderson at bay will be pivotal in the Bearcats offense getting off the ground.

Desmond Ridder vs. Alabama Secondary

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    In the Nick Saban era, there's been one tie that has bonded all the teams that have beaten Alabama: They all got a tremendous performance from their quarterback.

    There's no way around it: If the Bearcats are going to pull off the upset, it's going to be because Desmond Ridder has one of the best performances of his career.

    The dual-threat quarterback has been a driving force during Cincinnati's two unbeaten seasons, and he has the attention of the Alabama defense.

    "He's a great athlete. He's long, he can extend plays with his arm or his legs, he can see downfield really well, he can run out of the pocket," Anderson said about the opposing quarterback, per Tony Tsoukalas of Rivals.

    This year's Crimson Tide secondary has been uncharacteristically unspectacular defending the pass. They are 65th in passer rating allowed and 41st in yards allowed per attempt. They are, however, 10th in interceptions.

    So the Tide are capable of creating turnovers, but it isn't as though they haven't been picked apart occasionally. That's going to be something worth monitoring if this game is close.