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Keep an eye on the underbelly of the Bearcats in Friday’s College Football Playoff semifinal between No. 1 Alabama (12-1) and No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0) at the Cotton Bowl (3:30 p.m. eastern, ESPN).
Cincinnati’s defensive front six in its 3-3-5 alignment averages 248 points. Alabama’s offensive line averages 316 pounds.
If Bearcat defensive end Myjai Sanders lines up across Alabama left tackle Evan Neal, Sanders (6-foot-4, 224) is giving up three inches and 126 pounds to Neal (6-7, 350).
Yes, Alabama has had a state of the art passing game ever since it went New School finesse when coal and potatoes Nick Saban with his Old School roots from West Virginia and Ohio hired California boy Lane Kiffin to be his offensive coordinator in 2014 with sunshiny results.
Kiffin left after three seasons with the 2015 national title and a runner-up finish in 2016, but the offense has largely remained the same under Brian Daboll in 2017, Michael Locksley in 2018, Steve Sarkisian, another California boy, in 2019 and ’20 and presently Bill O’Brien. The Tide won more national championships in 2017 and 2020 with more aerial offense than ever as in ’15.
The top five passing seasons in Alabama history have all happened since 2014 – Mac Jones with 4,500 last year, Bryce Young with 4,322 this year, Tua Tagovailoa with 3,966 in 2018, Blake Sims with 3,487 in 2014 and Jake Coker with 3,110 in 2015.
Early this month, Young became the first Alabama quarterback in history to win the Heisman Trophy. He broke a record that stood since 1969 for passing yards in a game with 559 on 31-of-40 passing with five touchdowns in the Tide’s 42-35 win over Arkansas on Nov. 20. His 314 completions this season broke the record of 311 set by Jones last year. He is 179 yards away from breaking the school passing mark of 4,500 set by Jones last year. His 43 touchdowns are second in the nation and tied the Alabama record set by Tua Tagovailoa in 2018.
Young is fifth in the nation in efficiency at 175.5 on 314-of-462 passing with just four interceptions. But Cincinnati is No. 1 in the nation in pass efficiency defense at 100.477 with 18 interceptions, 10 touchdown passes allowed and just 10.6 yards a completion, and the Bearcats are No. 2 in fewest passing yards allowed with 168 a game.
Cincinnati has the best cornerback tandem Young will see this season in projected first round junior Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and senior Coby Bryant, who could go in the second round. Alabama is missing one of its best receivers John Metchie III because of a knee injury.
Cincinnati is just No. 44 in the nation in rush defense – one spot worse than 6-6 LSU – with 137.5 yards allowed a game.
So, look for Alabama to run the football behind Neal and right guard Emil Ekiyor (6-3, 324) and center Darrian Dalcourt (6-3, 300) and right tackle Chris Owens (6-3, 305) and left guard Javion Cohen (6-4, 305). Even backup center Seth McLaughlin is 6-4 and 205.
It will be reminiscent of the days of tailback Mark Ingram, who gained 1,658 in 2009 at Alabama and won the Heisman or that of Trent Richardson, who gained 1,679 in 2011. It will be senior tailback Brian Robinson Jr. left and right. He has 1,071 yards on 223 carries on the season with 14 touchdowns, but is averaging just 89 a game. He will get that and more Friday.
In one of Cincinnati’s closest wins this season, it struggled to beat Tulsa, 28-20, on Nov. 6. The Golden Hurricane had two 100-yard rushers that day – Shamari Brooks with 132 on 25 carries and Anthony Watkins with 105 on 15 rushes. Tulsa had a chance to win late, but fell to 3-6. It finished 7-6.
Even Saban, who consistently credits opponents, has not heaped praise on Cincinnati’s run defense. He says nothing bad either. But read between the lines – the underbelly. It’s what he doesn’t say.
“Defensively, they’re aggressive. They’ve got some good edge pass rushers,” he said at a press conference Thursday. “They’ve got good cover people, especially the corners.”
At another press opportunity Thursday, Saban couldn’t think of anything else to say about Cincinnati’s defense.
“Defensively, they are very aggressive. They have got really good cover people,” he said again. “They affect the quarterback in many ways.”
They can’t do that last one if Young is just handing off most of the time, then launches a few.
The Tide will simply run the damn ball.
Alabama 31, Cincinnati 17.