ARLINGTON, Texas — No. 4 Cincinnati carried the title of David into the College Football Playoff semifinal against top-ranked Alabama. While Goliath was not slayed in the Cotton Bowl on Friday, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban was convinced that the Bearcats belonged in the same arena despite the somewhat predictable 27-6 outcome.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that they belong in the playoff,” Saban said in the win that would send his team to its sixth College Football Playoff National Championship appearance. “I think they gave us all we could handle in this game tonight. If we don’t stop them on fourth down a couple times in the red zone, this game could have been a lot closer.”
While the score ended up lopsided, Cincinnati’s pass defense had the best day of any unit going up against Heisman winner Bryce Young on the season. Young completed just 17 of his 28 pass attempts for 181 yards. He had three touchdowns, each to different receivers, but only one — a 44-yard dime to Ja’Corey Brooks in the second quarter — went longer than 10 yards. It was Young’s first game posting fewer than 200 yards passing this season in an offensive effort that placed more emphasis on the ground attack.
If nothing else, Cincinnati’s loss can’t be pinned on the defense. The Bearcats entered the red zone three times, but only came away with a pair of field goals. Until Young hit his 44-yard touchdown, Cincinnati was well within striking distance of the most fearsome dynasty in college football. Only in the fourth quarter when the Tide put up 10 more points was the game truly over.
“[Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell] has done a fantastic job,” said Saban. “Anybody that looks and watched their team play – even playing us tonight – their team plays with a lot of toughness. They play hard. They’re very well coached. They play together as a group. They’re sound and solid in what they do in every phase of the game.”
Ultimately, an overmatched offensive line sunk the Bearcats’ chances, and quarterback Desmond Ridder’s performance reflected that. Ridder completed 17-of-32 passes for 144 yards, but went 4 of 8 for four yards on third downs. The Bearcats struggled to block Alabama’s vaunted defensive front and Nagurski Award winner Will Anderson posted two sacks.
“We weren’t carrying the fight for anyone but ourselves,” Ridder said. “And to be able to be in the position we’re at – we wanted it to end differently. I’m hoping that there are other so-called Group of Five teams, or teams from any conference, that can make it in the playoffs and show they can compete with the best of the best.”
No Group of Five team had ever finished higher than No. 7 in the final playoff rankings before the Bearcats made the dance. However, players hope their performance can just be the beginning for non-power squads.
“The path is there,” said Cincinnati linebacker Joel Dublanko. “You’ve just got to go out and handle your business.”