Alabama rolls past Cincinnati, secures berth in national championship game

Analysts and fans spent weeks pondering No. 4 Cincinnati’s avenue – if there was one – to stunning the college football world. In the end, the Cotton Bowl boiled down to what everyone knew: As nice a story as Cincinnati was, Alabama’s talent was just better.

Bearcats fans flooded AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the most significant game in program history. It was a long-awaited opportunity for a Group of Five school, qualifying for the four-team College Football Playoff and facing one of the big boys.

Cincinnati drew the ultimate big boy in No. 1 Alabama, the defending champion seeking its seventh title under coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide proved too much, outmuscling the Bearcats en route to a 27-6 win Friday in their CFP semifinal. Alabama outgained Cincinnati, 482 yards to 218, in the win.

Alabama secured yet another CFP Championship game appearance as it goes for back-to-back titles for the second time under Saban. It will face the winner of Georgia vs. Michigan (Orange Bowl) in Indianapolis on Jan. 10.

“I’m really proud of our team, our players,” Saban said. “They showed great competitive character out there. We knew it’d be a tough game. The guys showed a lot of resiliency all year long to have the opportunity to get to this game. They showed resiliency tonight to overcome adversity, make plays when we needed to make them. ... Now they’ve created the opportunity to play for the national championship. I’m extremely proud of this group for that.”

The Tide (13-1) greeted the Bearcats with its physical run game, opening with 10 consecutive rushes. Alabama exceeded 100 rushing yards in the first quarter. By halftime, it had 25 rushes for 172 yards. Running back Brian Robinson accounted for 134 yards.

There were times throughout the afternoon when one wondered why Alabama bothered throwing. Robinson, a Tuscaloosa native, was exceptional, shoving his way through Cincinnati’s formidable defense for 204 yards on 26 rushes. That performance set a school record for rushing yards in a bowl game. Robinson was named the game’s offensive MVP.

“As a young kid, I always wanted to be part of this program,” Robinson said. “I always wanted to play for a national championship. Just being out there and leading this team in this big game, on this big stage, to have another opportunity to play for a national championship, as a young kid, that’s the only thing I wanted to do. It’s like a dream come true.”

Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young didn’t replicate his explosive showing against Georgia in the SEC Championship game, but he became Alabama’s all-time single-season record holder for yards (4,503) and touchdowns (46). He finished 17-for-28 passing for 181 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said the defeat was “gut wrenching” and “difficult for everyone.” His Bearcats (13-1) missed several game-changing opportunities in the first half that contributed to a 17-3 halftime deficit. Quarterback Desmond Ridder guided his team into the red zone on Cincinnati’s first possession, but the Bearcats went backward and had to settle for a field goal.

On defense, the Bearcats had the Crimson Tide in a third-and-9 before edge rusher Myjai Sanders, a possible second-day 2 NFL draft prospect, jumped offside. Alabama converted the easier third down. Later in the drive, Young found Jameson Williams for 12 yards on a third-and-14. Alabama converted the fourth down and added a field goal.

The good break that Cincinnati desperately needed barely eluded it at the 3:39 mark of the second quarter. Alabama returner JoJo Earle muffed a punt in his own territory. The surrounding Bearcats couldn’t snag the ball, and Williams recovered.

Eight plays later, Alabama distanced itself with Young’s 44-yard touchdown toss to Ja’Corey Brooks. Cincinnati was down two scores at halftime, which was somewhat a win, given it had been outgained 302-76.

Cincinnati’s opening drive of the second half stalled in the red zone, again forcing it into a field goal. Late in the third, Cincinnati produced the game’s first turnover when a pressured Young threw off his back foot and was intercepted by safety Bryan Cook at midfield.

The Bearcats’ following offensive sequence: an illegal shift, a rush of minus-1, an incompletion, and a sack produced by Christian Harris and Will Anderson (Dutchtown High) Cincinnati’s spurt of momentum evaporated, and it punted.

“I think (our defense) made a big statement as the season went on,” said Anderson, who was named the game’s defensive MVP. “We’ve cut down on mental errors and stuff like that. So as the season’s gone on, as we’re coming up on our final game, I think it’s critical we pay attention to the details and make sure we’re all on the same page and keep cutting down on those mental errors, have fun and play together as a unit.”

During Alabama’s ensuing drive, Young converted a third-and-16 with a 20-yard pass to Williams, who had re-entered the game after a brief absence because of a shoulder injury. Williams added a 17-yard reception, plus another 15 yards on Deshawn Pace’s unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty in which he knocked off Williams’ helmet.

Young then found Cameron Latu on a 9-yard score to build a 24-6 lead in the fourth. That was the dagger for the Bearcats, whose offense scuffled for nearly the entire afternoon. The Bearcats drove into Alabama territory on the next drive only for Ridder to get sacked on fourth down, ending their final shot.

Ridder went 44-6 as the Bearcats’ quarterback, the third-most wins by a quarterback in FBS history. His team lost only two games over the past two seasons - to Georgia and Alabama. Ridder, one of many standout Bearcats who just completed their collegiate careers, could be a first-round selection in April’s NFL draft.

Maybe some could deem Friday a moral victory for the Group of Five (though Cincinnati certainly won’t see it that way). The Bearcats competed against Alabama equally or better than most others who’ve opposed them on this stage. Alabama had won five semifinals games by an average over 20 points per game.

Those results include a 38-point humiliation of Michigan State, a 17-point thumping of Washington, an 18-point win over Clemson (one of many meetings between the two), an 11-point victory over Kyler Murray’s Oklahoma (Alabama led 31-10 at halftime, the score ended 45-34) and a 31-14 laugher against Notre Dame a year ago.

So it’s not like Cincinnati is short on company. The Bearcats didn’t let Alabama pull away until the fourth quarter. Their defense fared better Friday than Georgia’s much-lauded unit did against Alabama earlier in the month. Ultimately, Cincinnati needed at least another couple of big plays, a bounce or two or three, to threaten the result with how the contest progressed.

“There’s no doubt in my mind they belonged in the playoff,” Saban said. “They gave us all we could handle. If we don’t stop them on fourth down a couple times, stop them in the red zone, this game could’ve been a lot closer. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what (Fickell) has done, their program and their players in terms of the way they bought in.”

Alabama turns its attention to the championship game, where it will either face Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines – the first team to begin the season unranked and make the CFP – or a rematch with Georgia, whom Alabama torched in the SEC Championship game.

The title game will again be a duel of college football blue bloods, despite Cincinnati’s best spoiler effort.