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Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell kept repeating something during the month-long build-up of his College Football Playoff semifinal game against No. 1 Alabama Friday.
“For us and our program, we don’t want to think we’re carrying some flag for the non-big schools, so to speak,” he said.
That ended up being a very good strategy as Cincinnati, the first non-Power Five conference school to reach the CFP, dropped the flag and the ball from beginning to end of its 27-6 loss to the Crimson Tide in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The No. 4 Bearcats (13-1) deserved to be in the game. There is no question about that. And they played no worse than some other national semifinal victims to Alabama that are brand names, such as, Notre Dame, which fell 31-14 last year, or Power Five programs, such as Clemson, which lost 24-6 in the 2017 season, or Washington, a 24-7 loser in 2016, or Michigan State, a 38-0 loser in 2015.
Like those, Cincinnati never quite showed up and was not able to get that flag, so to speak, into the end zone once after scoring 38 points a game coming in. The Bearcats, averaging 429 yards a game, managed a season-low 218 yards and rushed for a season-low 74 on 26 carries for 2.8 yards a carry.
The game itself was a season low.
“It rarely ends how you envision it,” Fickell said after the game. “It’s very difficult.”
Cincinnati’s longest gain was 28 yards. It registered 13 first downs. Quarterback Desmond Ridder threw for 144 yards after entering the game averaging 245 a game. Alabama tied a season high with six pass breakups.
Alabama (13-1) scored all the points it needed to win on a 75-yard drive in 11 plays in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.
The first 10 plays of that drive were runs with tailback Brian Robinson carrying six times for gains of 6, 3, 5, 5, 7 and 9 yards. What year is this? Bear Bryant would have been so proud as coach Nick Saban went retro.
Forget Cincinnati’s top-ranked pass defense. Alabama just gave it to Robinson 26 times for a Bama bowl and career-high 204 yards behind his behemoth offensive line that outweighed Cincinnati’s front six by an average of 70 pounds a man.
Alabama even lost starting right guard Emil Ekiyor to a shoulder injury early in the game, and right tackle Chris Owens went down. But they found others, and just kept pounding. Saban was not sure if Ekiyor will return for the national championship game on Jan. 10 against either Michigan or Georgia. Regardless of which team wins that one, it will have to watch for Alabama’s run and its pass and its defense.
The Tide led 17-3 at the half, and Robinson had 134 yards, which was more than he had in 10 entire games this season. Alabama’s 172 yards rushing in the first half were more than it finished within eight games on the season.
“Those guys deserve the very best,” Fickell said. “It doesn’t feel that way right now.”
New rule: A first-time entry into the College Football Playoff can’t play Alabama in the semis.
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