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No. 1 Alabama is a two-touchdown favorite by FanDuel to beat No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0) in the opening College Football Playoff semifinal Friday (3:30 p.m. eastern, ESPN).
But do not be surprised if the game is closer than that. In other words, be careful with your money, particularly you prideful Bama fans, which is redundant.
Alabama (12-1) did not cover spreads five times this season, which is extremely rare.
As a 14-point favorite over Florida, it won 31-29, and the Gators finished 6-7 overall and 2-6 in the SEC.
As an 18-point favorite over Texas A&M, Alabama lost 41-38 to a team that finished 8-4 and 4-4 and lost to LSU.
As a 28.5-point favorite over LSU, the Tide sweated out a 20-14 win, and the Tigers finished a pedestrian 6-6 and 3-5 in the regular season.
As a 20.5 favorite over Arkansas, Alabama had to pull out everything to win a 42-35 thriller against a team that finished an average 8-4 and 4-4.
And against 20.5 underdog Auburn, Alabama trailed 10-3 until the final moments of regulation and needed four overtimes to win 24-22.
Auburn lost its last five games in pitiful, punchless fashion to finish 6-7 and 3-5 – its worst season since 2012. And if tailback Tank Bigsby stays inbounds late in regulation, Auburn beats Alabama.
So, do not be surprised if this one is close. Here are three matchups to keep a particularly close eye on:
CINCINNATI CB AHMAD “SAUCE” GARDNER VS. ALABAMA WR JAMESON WILLIAMS:
First of all, Gardner has one of the greatest nicknames ever. And if he covers Williams well during the game, somebody needs to say, “Man, Gardner is on Williams like sauce piquante on alligator.”
That’s a Cajun specialty, in case you don’t know.
Gardner is expected to be the second cornerback taken in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft after LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr.
“I’m pumped to see Gardner lined up against Alabama’s Jameson Williams in the College Football Playoff,” NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper wrote recently. “Gardner has long arms and is physical in press coverage. He doesn’t give up big plays. As the nearest defender in coverage this season, he has allowed quarterbacks to complete just eight passes on 29 targets for 60 total yards.”
Williams leads Alabama in receiving yardage with 1,445 and in touchdowns with 15 on 68 catches, and the Tide has Heisman winning quarterback Bryce Young. But Young and the Tide will not have their other top receiver as John Metchie III is out with a knee injury.
Cincinnati also has another excellent cornerback in senior Coby Bryant. Young has not faced a better pair all season.
ALABAMA EDGE RUSHER WILL ANDERSON JR. VS. CINCINNATI OFFENSIVE LINE:
Anderson leads the nation with 15 sacks on the season. Cincinnati has only allowed 20 sacks on the season for 28th in the nation. How well the Bearcats can contain Anderson will be key. Anderson, who will be a first round pick in 2023, also leads the nation in tackles for loss with 32.5.
CINCINNATI QUARTERBACK DESMOND RIDDER VS. ALABAMA PASS DEFENSE:
Ridder, a senior, is No. 11 in the nation in efficiency at 164.8 on 234-of-355 passing for 3,190 yards and 30 touchdowns with eight interceptions.
“He has the arm talent and mobility to put him in the first-round conversation,” Kiper said.
Alabama’s Young is No. 5 in efficiency at 175.5 on 314-of-462 passing for 4,322 yards and 43 touchdowns with four interceptions.
But Young is going against a much better defense statistically than will Ridder. Cincinnati is No. 1 in the nation in pass defense efficiency at 100.47 with 18 interceptions and 10 touchdowns allowed with 10.6 yards a completion. Alabama is a whopping No. 66 in pass defense efficiency at 133.84 with 23 touchdowns allowed and 15 interceptions with 11 yards allowed a completion.
Cincinnati is also No. 2 in the nation in fewest passing yards allowed a game at 168.3. Alabama is No. 63 with 223 a game.
I can hear Bama fans growling now about the schedule differences between the two schools. Yes, Alabama has played a more difficult schedule, but that Tide pass defense has holes.
Take Cincinnati and the points.