CFB Playoff Preview: David vs Goliath?

By Callum Squires

Everyone loves David vs Goliath matchups. How could you not? The overwhelming favourite vs the plucky underdog. The immovable object vs the freak occurrence. The absolute certainty vs the unknown mystery. Thanos vs the Avengers. Mewtwo vs Pikachu. Mike Tyson vs Jake Paul (I’d love to see that…). Okay… Fine, maybe some of those are a little exaggerated, but they’re also all applicable to the matchup at this year’s College Football Playoff Semi-Final, at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

Gatecrashing The Party

Credit: Jeff Dean (Associated Press)

Nick Saban’s #1 Alabama Crimson Tide are inevitable. A year on from winning the inaugural “Covid Crown,” the Tide are back in the College Football Playoff, and heading full steam ahead for another title. Standing in their way, making their debut in the Playoff, the first non-Power 5 team to ever make it to this stage… The #4 Cincinnati Bearcats. Obviously, the Bearcats aren’t here by charity; they’ve more than earned their spot, but there’s still a “Cinderella-story” element to the turnaround their program has gone through over the past 5+ years.

Coach Luke Fickell has built this program in a short space of time from a relative nobody on the National stage to a certified Top 10 program. It’s no wonder numerous Cincinnati coaches and players have made reference to being “a Top 10 team” throughout the media availability this week – you can smell that’s been the goal of this project, and they feel very proud that they’ve accomplished it. Fickell stated

“…That’s the great thing about Cincinnati, is we keep talking about we want to become a top-ten program. And we’ve got a ways to go still on developing everything from not just our program, facilities, and all those kinds of things. For me, that’s also, I’d say, the selfish part of it that keeps you motivated, or me motivated, is seeing where we can continue to grow this program over the next three, four, five years.”

But despite the successes Fickell and his team have had, there are still detractors: Cincinnati have committed the sin of not being part of a Power 5 conference. There are experts who believe teams like Notre Dame (an independent), or Ohio State (perennially in these positions but soundly defeated by #2 Michigan about a month ago), or even Big XII Champions Baylor (with their 2 losses) might have been better fits for the Semi-Final than a 13-0 Bearcats team, because of the supposed “weakness” of the American Athletic Conference schedule.

Certainly, without the 24-13 road win over Notre Dame in early October, it’s hard to see how Cincinnati would have made it into the “Big Dance.” Credit then must go to Fickell and his coaching staff for being bold and scheduling the Fighting Irish. Fortune favours the… you get the picture. But after all this work to get here, can Cincinnati hold their own? Under the bright and excessively large lights at Jerry World… there will be no questions left unanswered.

The Weight Of The Non-Power 5 World On Their Shoulders

Speaking to me earlier in the week, ESPN’s Todd Blackledge said he didn’t think the performance of Cincinnati in this game should be used to judge the landscape of college football as a whole. “If they play well and perform well, I think certainly that will be used as part of the discussion; I don’t think the opposite should be true though. There’s been plenty of Power 5 schools in Semi-Final games that have not fared well – that have gotten blown out.”

Blackledge is right – many “blue bloods” have tried and failed to upset the apple cart of processions to National Championship games that has at times felt reserved for – obviously – Alabama, the Clemson Tigers, and, to a certain extent, the Ohio State Buckeyes. This does feel like a massive moment in College Football Playoff history, with the discussions about expanding the Playoff (which Blackledge noted he was in favour of) still at the forefront of many people’s minds.

Cincinnati’s QB Desmond Ridder echoed Blackledge’s sentiments when I asked him if they felt any additional pressure carrying the banner for non-Power 5 schools aspiring to reach this stage in the future. “For us, we’ve already had so much pressure on us throughout this entire season… it’s just really been about us, and will always continue to be about us, and the way we go about our game,” said Ridder, with the air of quiet confidence the maverick dual-threat has carried throughout the last couple of seasons. Ridder is an immensely likeable guy – not just the electricity he shows when he breaks into the open field, but the tenacity he plays with and how much he enjoys being on this big stage: I’m certainly rooting for him.

Still, regardless of whether or not Cincinnati feel any pressure to perform from the outside, it’s hard not to see this team being used as a measuring stick for whether or not non-Power 5 teams should get this same opportunity in the future. I think the noise from UCF will certainly be audible if Cincy hold their own, considering how the Knights were snubbed in 2017 despite being undefeated.

No Bulletin Board Material

Credit: Dallas Morning News

Perhaps the most notable theme from the Alabama camp all week is how respectful and complementary they’ve been about Coach Fickell and his team. Clearly – at least publicly – they don’t view this as “David vs Goliath.” Head Coach Nick Saban, in his Thursday morning media availability, called Cincinnati “a very, very good Cincinnati team who certainly competed well all season long and certainly deserves the right to be in the playoffs. And they’re very well‑coached. Their players play hard. They play well together. So this will be a very challenging game for us.” So Saban believes Cincinnati are a threat, or at least wants us to believe he does…

I asked Alabama’s explosive LB Will Anderson Jr. what he had seen from Cincinnati’s offense, and how they stacked up vs the SEC competition the Tide have faced all season. “I feel like all year we’ve seen a lot of Quarterbacks like him… fast, can move out of the pocket, can make plays with their arm, can run, that’s like the SEC…” Anderson said, “they have a really good Offensive Line, they protect really well… it’s gonna be a really good challenge for us and we just have to be ready.”

The respect between players goes both ways too. Cincinnati’s imposing Defensive Lineman Curtis Brooks told me that Alabama QB, and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young was an exciting test for his defense, noting “The Heisman means he’s the best in the country; he won it for a reason.” Young has blossomed on this stage and stepped into Mac Jones’ shoes like a duck taking to water. You don’t win the Heisman without being truly exceptional, even in what has been a “down year” for College QBs.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the Tide. Bama’s offense has struggled in a couple of games this year under new Offensive Coordinator Bill O’Brien, with the O-Line especially taking some scrutiny. The Tide turned in a flawless performance against Georgia last time out, to win the SEC Championship and vault themselves into the #1 spot for this playoff. Their lone loss (41-38 to Texas A&M on Oct 9th) feels an age ago now. O’Brien himself continued the theme of complimenting the Bearcats, calling them “an outstanding Cincinnati football team and, relative to our offense versus their defense, an outstanding defense.”

O’Brien himself has drawn plaudits from his team, with Young in particular praising his demeanour and how open to working with the players O’Brien has been. “For OB to have the coaching legacy he’s had, … the resume he had, he could have easily came in and said, ‘Just sit down, be quiet, and this is where you’re going to throw the ball. This is what I’m going to call.’ But for him to come in and talk to me about how I saw stuff, for us to really have that dialogue, it speaks to him as a coach. And that’s something that definitely helps me. Definitely makes it a lot easier for me to be comfortable in the system and for us to have success.”

WR Slade Bolden told me Coach O’Brien had settled in quickly and made everyone feel right at home with him. “It’s been great having Coach O’Brien this year,” Bolden said. “I feel like it didn’t take long for us to connect as an offense with him… And we all trust O’Brien’s play‑calling, and we know that he’s going to put us in the best position… We all trust and believe that that’s the best as well.”

An Insurmountable Task?

Credit: ESPN

Perhaps moreso than usual, this Alabama team feels gritty, imperfect, but battle-tested in a way that might make them even more dangerous. There’s no pressure to complete “the perfect season,” thanks to the aforementioned blemish at Kyle Field, but bouncing back from that to hagn 41 points on a Georgia defense that had been allowing less than 7 per game upto that point was incredibly impressive.

Alabama have felt disrespected at times this year, and set out chasing back-to-back titles (which has never been done before in the CFP era) trying to prove the doubters were very wrong. Speedy WR Jameson Williams is their obvious home-run threat, and he’ll provide the sternest test in their entire career for the exciting Cincinnati cornerback tandem of Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner (who it should be noted has given up ZERO touchdowns in his NCAA career) & Coby Bryant. If Bryant and Gardner can find ways to keep the electrifying Williams under wraps in this one, Cincy have a clear path to the upset.

And I’d be remiss in not mentioning Jerome Ford, Cincinnati’s star RB. Ford started his college career with the Tide, before leaving Tuscaloosa to join Fickell’s revolution for his junior and senior seasons. Only 3 FBS players have scored more TDs than Ford (20) this season. He may not want to be known as “the Alabama transfer,” as he noted earlier this week, and has downplayed the significance of facing his former squad, but the revenge game narrative is oh-so-tasty… it almost writes itself.

When I’ve been able to speak to a few members of the Cincinnati-based media who are in Dallas this week, there’s a definitive air of confidence that the Bearcats will compete on this stage. Those who watch this team week in and week out believe that this matchup is one they can win. Not “will win” – there’s zero arrogance or disrespect towards climbing the mountain that is beating Alabama – but could win. This is not a foregone conclusion, as far as pretty much everyone in Dallas seems to believe. Vegas however, doesn’t agree. The Tide are firmly entrenched as two touchdown favourites with most bookies, and I would hazard a guess that most of the money on the night will be backing the Tide.

This may well end up as “just another semi-final blowout…” BUT… what if it isn’t? For the sake of that possibility, I’m going to choose to be a dreamer and believe this game will live up to the hype. David’s going to land a few blows in this one, one way or another. Goliath may well roll on to the National Championship game after the dust settles but… after all the weird and wacky things that have happened in 2021… why couldn’t we get one more surprise on New Year’s Eve? Well… “Because ‘Bama,” is the loud and obvious rebuttal to the dreamers. We’ll just have to wait and see. One thing’s for sure, whatever the outcome, this will be a moment in CFP history we talk about for years to come. Happy New Year, and enjoy the game.