In Alabama’s seventh appearance in the College Football Playoff, the sport’s dominant power over the last decade defeated No. 4 Cincinnati, the playoff’s first non-Power 5 team, 27-6 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
The No. 1 Crimson Tide are now 6-0 at AT&T Stadium under Saban.
Behind Bryce Young‘s three touchdowns, as well as Brian Robinson Jr.’s 204 rushing yards (an Alabama bowl record), and a defense that held the ninth-best scoring offense in the nation to single digits, Alabama outgained the Bearcats 483-218 and controlled the pace of the game from start to finish.
The win puts Alabama in the title game for the fifth time in six years and one step closer to winning its fourth title since the introduction of the playoff system. The school will try for a seventh title since Saban became the program’s head coach, against either No. 2 Michigan or No. 3 Georgia on Jan. 10.
Alabama established the winning formula for this matchup early by monopolizing the ball for 10 of the first quarter’s 15 minutes and rushing for 106 yards on 18 carries. It would go on to finish the game with over 33 minutes of possession.
With the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Young under center, the Tide decided to run the ball 10 times for 62 yards on their first drive — their most rushing attempts on a first possession since a 2008 game against Arkansas State. Cincinnati’s defensive line looked helpless as Robinson Jr. and Alabama’s running backs gained 6.2 yards per rush on what became an 11-play, 75-yard drive that ended when Young threw his first pass of the game — an 8-yard toss to wide receiver Slade Bolden.
Young’s first touchdown pass was his 44th on the year, which broke the record of 43 touchdowns Tua Tagovailoa set in 2018.
Cincinnati countered with a balanced attack, moving the ball down the field to the tune of short passes to four different receivers and a pace that appeared to confuse the Alabama defense. But once the Bearcats entered the red zone, Alabama called a timeout and its defense — which had only allowed one touchdown in their opening defensive drive all season vs. LSU — held Cincinnati to a field goal.
When Young finally dropped back to pass downfield more often, the Bearcats were able to pressure him, but he still completed crucial passes on multiple third downs and one fourth down to keep drives alive. In the second quarter, the Cincinnati defense was finally able to get a stop on a third-down when Young’s scramble for a 12-yard run on third and goal was short of the end zone, setting up a field goal that put the Tide up 10-3.
The first drive was all the Bearcats had to show for their efforts. Cincinnati’s offense punted on three straight drives in the first half as Desmond Ridder was pressured on seven of his 21 first-half dropbacks and was sacked three times. Cincinnati’s front line kept getting to Young too but couldn’t do anything to stop the run.
As the Alabama offensive line opened gaps at will, Robinson Jr. ran all over a Cincy defense that had been allowing only 137 rushing yards per game. Robinson Jr., who had 63 yards after contact in the first half and 95 yards after contact all game, eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground with six minutes left in the first half and had 134 by halftime. He had never gone above 99 yards in a half before. Robinson Jr. would finish the game averaging nearly eight yards per carry.
At first, the Tide’s dominance on the ground made their decision to keep throwing the ball questionable. Even though they were averaging over six yards a carry as a team, Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien continued to opt for Young’s arm. After a couple of incompletions, two punts, and a missed 44-yard field goal, the Heisman winner finally delivered. With less than two minutes left until halftime, Young deposited a perfect 44-yard touchdown pass to Ja’Corey Brooks to put them up 17-3.
Alabama, which entered the game 109-1 when leading by at least 14 at halftime under Saban, did not look back.
Cincinnati’s offense once again started things off in the second half with another impressive, five-minute drive that looked promising but stalled after the Bearcats entered the red zone. Instead of opting to go for it on fourth and five, coach Luke Fickell passed up the opportunity to get six points on the drive and decided to kick another field goal. On cue, the ensuing drive ended in a three-and-out punt.
In the third quarter, Young overthrew a receiver on third down, resulting in only his fifth interception all season. The pick would be inconsequential — Alabama’s defense batted another Ridder pass down (they downed five all game) then sacked him on third down to force yet another Cincinnati punt.
All game, the Alabama defense made life miserable for Ridder, who was sacked six times, and prevented the Bearcats from extending drives. Cincinnati converted its first two third downs of the game and then went on to go 0-for-10 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth down.
Young’s poise, meanwhile, led to a 5-of-13 success rate on third downs for the Tide. His third touchdown pass of the night — a 9-yard toss to Cameron Latu — pushed him over 4,500 passing yards on the season, breaking Mac Jones’ school record from last season.
Earlier this week, Saban talked about how it had taken this particular Alabama team a little longer to get on track. Though some of the numbers in this game tell the story of a blowout, that Alabama didn’t dominate in its usual blowout fashion showed that, even if Saban’s team this season isn’t one of the very best, it’s still good enough to win it all.