Alabama prepares for Cotton Bowl Classic against Cincinnati

Ashlee Woods | @ashleemwoods, Sports Editor

Three weeks after an empathic 41-24 win over the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship, Alabama football will return to action in the Cotton Bowl Classic. 

The No. 1 Crimson Tide will face the No. 4 Cincinnati Bearcats Friday afternoon in Arlington, Texas. 

Unfamiliar Teams

It’s not very often two unfamiliar teams meet in the College Football Playoffs. These two teams have only met five times, and Alabama won all five.

These two programs have gone in very different directions since their last meeting, in November 1984. 

Alabama is now a perennial force in college football, winning six national championships under head coach Nick Saban. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has only recently found consistent success under head coach Luke Fickell. 

Fickell came to Cincinnati in 2017 after spending time at Ohio State. During his time at Ohio State, the Buckeyes won a BCS Championship in 2002 and the 2014 National Championship. Fickell soon brought his winning ways to Cincinnati. 

The Bearcats went 4-8 in Fickell’s first season in 2017. With a much improved roster the following year, the play on the field excelled. Fickell led the 2018 Bearcats to their third 11-win season in program history. That earned him the title of American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year. Since then, Cincinnati has become a top program in the Group of Five. 

Fickell’s next step? Get his team to the College Football Playoffs. 

Path to the College Football Playoffs 

College football fans and analysts laid out the path for Cincinnati to make the playoffs. The Bearcats needed to go undefeated, have a signature top-10 win and dominate in conference play. 

Cincinnati went 12-0 on the season and won the American Athletic Conference for the second straight year. On Oct. 2, the Bearcats traveled to Notre Dame and earned a 24-13 victory over the Fighting Irish. Fickell’s squad also went 8-0 in its conference. 

Cincinnati did everything it needed to do, and yet there was doubt that the Bearcats would make it. When the final CFP rankings came out on Dec. 3, Cincinnati was No. 4. The Bearcats became the first Group of Five school to make the CFP. 

Support for the Bearcats is at an all-time high. 

“You can’t really find UC gear anywhere,” said Owen Racer, sports editor of The News Record. “It’s just unbelievable the amount of UC gear that is everywhere. There’s definitely more fans than there were before.” 

Cincinnati may be new to the national limelight, but its opponent isn’t. 

This is Alabama’s seventh appearance in the CFP since the playoff’s creation in 2014. Since then, Alabama has made the final four ever year except 2019. The Crimson Tide have been the top-ranked team in five of their six appearances. 

This year, Alabama is defending its title as national champions.

The Leaders Under Center

The teams share similarities. Both have head coaches with CFP appearances, both are well coached, and both have a great talent under center. 

For Alabama, it’s sophomore Bryce Young. The Heisman Trophy winner has wowed fans and analysts all season with his high level of play and calm nature on the field. Young broke records all season en route to winning the Heisman two weeks ago. According to Young, this is all in the past. 

“What I won was about what I did in the past, which is great,” Young said. “But that doesn’t entitle me to anything in the future.” 

His future includes a shot at defending a national championship title. 

Cincinnati, on the other hand, has senior Desmond Ridder. Ridder, like Young, has wowed fans with his play this season. He was the 2021 AAC Offensive Player of the Year and a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. Ridder is the nation’s winningest quarterback, with a 44-5 record. 

Like Young, Ridder is among the best in the NCAA in passing efficiency, at 11th overall. He completed 65.9% of his passes for 3,190 yards, 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions. 

Riddler is a dual threat. He can — and isn’t afraid to — extend plays with his legs. Ridder has the most career rushing touchdowns for a UC quarterback, with 28. He is also the only active Football Bowl Subdivisionplayer to rush for more than 2,000 yards in his career. 

On top of this, according to PFF, Ridder has thrown 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions on throws 20 yards or more. 

“He’s done nothing but play better and better and better this year, and he continued to develop,” Saban said. 

Alabama has faced several dual-threat quarterbacks this season, including one every day in practice. To some, Ridder provides a different challenge for the Crimson Tide. 

“I think Desmond Ridder is pretty unique because he is a dual-threat quarterback,” Racer said. “So I think if that can be taken advantage of and utilized efficiently from the jump, Cincinnati can really take advantage of Alabama’s defense in that sense, and that’s not something you can really prepare for with a dual-threat quarterback because you never know what they’re going to do.”

Ridder will be hard to contain and Alabama will have to respect Ridder’s arm talent, but the Alabama defense is up to the task. 

I plan on doing what Coach [Nick Saban] wants us to do,” linebacker Christian Harris said. “Whatever my job is individually and whatever everybody else’s job is, whenever that play is called, to execute whatever that is.”

The Rushing Attack

Ridder isn’t the only threat on the Bearcats’ offense. Running back Jerome Ford has been crucial to the success of Cincinnati’s offense. Ford briefly played for the Crimson Tide in 2017 before transferring to Cincinnati, and he’s looking to forge his own path. 

“I’m thankful for everything Coach Saban did for me and the opportunity to play at Alabama,” Ford said. “But I’m a Bearcat, and I would kind of appreciate it if people stopped calling me ‘the Alabama transfer.’ I am a Cincinnati Bearcat.”

The junior from Tampa is among the top running backs in the country. This season, he has rushed for 1,242 yards and 19 touchdowns. His rushing touchdown mark is sixth in the NCAA, and his yardage is 18th. His production has helped Cincinnati have the 47th-ranked rushing offense in the NCAA — well above Alabama, which ranks 80th. 

Alabama has struggled at points at stopping the run but still has the fourth-ranked rushing defense in the NCAA. This is by far the best rushing defense Ford has faced this season, but Alabama knows it has to be prepared to stop Ford. 

“Just doing my job,” defensive lineman DJ Dale said. “Jerome is a great player. He’s a real good back, a very great back. So just being disciplined and doing what I can do, just playing the right technique and just doing my job.”

Overcoming Adversity 

It’s no secret that these offenses have high-level talent, but both teams have experienced adversity this season. 

Alabama struggled on the field. A last-second 41-38 loss to Texas A&M hit a reset button for the team. Still, problems on the field arose. It took until the last play to earn a victory over LSU. It took four overtimes and a 97-yard drive to leave the Iron Bowl with a win. 

The tough, gritty wins for Alabama this season were met with criticism from fans and analysts. The outside noise fueled the Crimson Tide. 

“I still feel like we’re the underdog in this game,” linebacker Will Anderson Jr. said. “I mean, all year we have been disrespected. I’m pretty sure we’re still probably getting disrespected out there.”

For Cincinnati, it’s about proving that it — along with other G5 schools — deserve to be in the playoffs. Despite an undefeated record, the Bearcats had two one-possession wins: one over Tulsa and one over Navy. It took Cincinnati outscoring the University of Houston Cougars 21-0 in the third quarter to beat them on Dec. 4. 

The Bearcats have maneuvered every obstacle in their way and now stand in front of the best team in college football. Cincinnati now feels like it is where it belongs. 

“We always have a chip on our shoulder, no matter if we’re better than the team, if we’re going in as an underdog. We know we deserve so much more,” Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner said. “It’s always been like that since I got here. So the fact that we’re able to finally be where we always wanted to be puts more of a chip on our shoulder. That’s more motivation.” 

The 86th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic will take place on Dec. 31 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on ESPN. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. CT.