Cotton Bowl 2021: Schedule, Top Storylines to Follow in Cincinnati vs. Alabama

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IIDecember 28, 2021

Cotton Bowl 2021: Schedule, Top Storylines to Follow in Cincinnati vs. Alabama

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    Alabama is looking to win the Cotton Bowl, a College Football Playoff semifinal matchup, and get back to the CFP National Championship Game for a chance to defend its title. If that doesn't happen, it will be because Cincinnati will have pulled off a big upset at AT&T Stadium on Friday.

    The Crimson Tide and the Bearcats are set to face off in the first of the two CFP semifinals set to take place on New Year's Eve, and one of these teams will be moving on to face either Michigan or Georgia for the national title on Jan. 10. Alabama and Cincinnati will kick off on Friday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

    This will be the first time that the Crimson Tide and the Bearcats have faced off since 1990. Alabama leads the all-time series between the two programs 5-0.

    Here are some of the top storylines to follow heading into Friday's Cotton Bowl matchup.

How Much Will Experience Play a Factor in the Matchup?

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    Even though the College Football Playoff has only been around since 2014, Nick Saban has a ton of experience with the four-team format. That's because Alabama has made it to the CFP in seven of the eight seasons since the system was implemented (all but 2019).

    With the Crimson Tide winning the national championship last season, there are plenty of players on their roster who experienced that CFP appearance. Some even played in their CFP National Championship Game win over Ohio State, such as linebacker Will Anderson Jr. and running back Brian Robinson Jr.

    Saban has been in the College Football Playoff plenty of times before, and he seems to know how to get his team focused again this year.

    "When you’re in the playoffs, it’s all about what’s happening, it’s what’s in front of you right now," Saban said, per Charlie Potter of "This is one of those you either win-or-go-home-type situations. And I think players need to understand that."

    Cincinnati is making its first appearance in the CFP. If the Bearcats are going to find a way to upset the Crimson Tide, they'll likely need to avoid letting the moment and the atmosphere overwhelm them, and that is something that Alabama should know how to prevent itself.

Alabama Looking to Keep Late-Season Momentum Going

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Alabama is the clear favorite in this Cotton Bowl matchup. However, at least one Crimson Tide player isn't going into the game with that mindset. In fact, he's thinking much differently heading into Friday.

    "I feel like we’re the underdog in this game," Anderson said, per Dean Straka of "All year, we’ve been disrespected."

    Perhaps that's because Alabama wasn't quite as dominant during the regular season as it has been in other recent years. It had four wins against SEC opponents that were decided by seven or fewer points, and it lost at Texas A&M on Oct. 9.

    After the Crimson Tide pulled out a four-overtime victory against Auburn in their regular-season finale on Nov. 27, they had their best showing of the season in the SEC Championship Game. Alabama's offense became the first unit to excel against Georgia's defense, and that led to a 41-24 victory for the Tide.

    So, even though Alabama faced a bit more adversity than usual (by its lofty standards), it built some momentum heading into the CFP that earned it the No. 1 seed. And now, it will look to keep that going against Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Aims to Prove Group of 5 Can Produce CFP Competitors

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    Cincinnati has already made history by becoming the first Group of Five school to reach the College Football Playoff. Now, the Bearcats will be aiming to prove that teams from those conferences can also have success if the selection committee gives them the opportunity to compete for the national title.

    While going 13-0 and winning the AAC championship, Cincinnati proved that it could be dominant against lesser competition and also beat some strong teams. The Bearcats impressed with a road win over Notre Dame on Oct. 2, and they defeated Houston in the AAC Championship Game with ease.

    But Alabama will easily be Cincinnati's most difficult opponent of the season to this point. And the Bearcats know that.

    "If you want to have a shot at the title, you got to beat the champs, and this is what we have," Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell said, per Brad Crawford of "We have a shot to beat the champs."

    If the Bearcats can do that, then maybe the CFP will be more likely to include Group of Five teams in the future. And even if they're unsuccessful, they might prove they can at least hang with Alabama, which is no easy feat.