ARLINGTON, Texas — No. 1 Alabama cruised past No. 4 Cincinnati 27-6 in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on Friday in a College Football Playoff semifinal matchup that might as well have been played in 2009. Running back Brian Robinson Jr. rushed for a career-high 204 yards while the team as a whole gained 301 yards on the ground — a season-best by a sizable margin — against a Bearcats defense that had allowed just 3.33 yards per game on the season and hadn’t given up more than 133 in a game since Nov. 6.
It looked much more like an old-school offense under Nick Saban that was predicated on establishing the run and breaking the will of the opposing defense. That was apparent on the first drive of the game when Alabama had 10 straight rushing plays on the ground prior to quarterback Bryce Young’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Slade Bolden.
“We started out running the ball,” Robinson said. “We had positive runs in the run game, and we had to trust it. Just stay with it. We knew we were going to have an opportunity to run the ball with the rest of the game. So, with that first drive, coming off 10 carries, it just let me get my mind right and be prepared to run the ball the rest of the game.”
Where on Earth has this been all season?
The Crimson Tide gained just 91 yards in the narrow win over Florida, six in the nail-biter over LSU and 71 in the four-overtime triumph over Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The offensive line was an abject disaster up until the SEC Championship Game when it dominated a Georgia defense that was widely-regarded as one of the best defenses in a generation.
It was that performance, however, that gave this unit the confidence it needed heading into the College Football Playoff.
“I literally put all my heart into this,” said Robinson. “This university, that team in that locker room, I don’t want to let my brothers down. I don’t ever want to let my coaches down. I don’t ever want to let my university down. I give it everything I got, and it’s a reflection of all of the hard work that we put in during the week.”
Alabama’s identity, for the better part of a decade, has been its high-flying aerial assault. That transformation started in 2014 when Saban hired Lane Kiffin to serve as his offensive coordinator, and has evolved to a point where it’s considered a major upset if an Alabama offensive player isn’t invited to New York City in December as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
This game plan, while old-school, had a new-school twist, even though Young didn’t light up the scoresheet through the air.
“A lot of these running plays had run-pass options and passes [off of them],” Saban said. “I thought Bryce did a really good job of making good decisions and taking advantage of the runs when we had them and a couple of advantage throws when we had them.”
This performance against Cincinnati should terrify the rest of the country, not just Alabama’s opponent in the College Football Playoff National Championship — although that will be the main storyline for the next 10 days. The college football world witnessed Saban go retro on the game’s biggest stage when every aspect of college football has gone the other way for an entire decade.
There’s a phrase that accompanied old-school Alabama in the early part of the 2010s that referred to the offense as “Saban’s Joyless Murderball.” That’s exactly what Cincinnati got a dose of, except the “joyless” part might need to be altered. After all, this specific team showing that it has this kind of performance in its arsenal after all that it has gone through this season should make everybody — Saban included — quite joyful as the calendar turns to 2022.