CINCINNATI — Yes, it’s a longshot. Yes, I’ve been questioned if I’m feeling well. No, I haven’t suffered a head injury (lately).
No one has convinced me why the University of Cincinnati football team can’t beat Alabama in the College Football Playoff.
As the future favors the bold, I think it favors the Bearcats in the upcoming semifinal at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 31.
Here are a few reasons why:
Luke Fickell. Fickell’s first year as an assistant coach at Ohio State was 2002, when the Buckeyes overcame a 12-point spread and upset Miami, which was considered the greatest college football team to put on shoulder pads at the time. The Bearcats will be a two-touchdown underdog when they play Bama. Fickell is fine with that. Make it three touchdowns, he would be happier. He’s been the underdog in huge games and he’s come out a winner.
Fickell hears the college football prognosticators telling his team it can’t win. The Bearcats have thrived off of “can’t”.
Fickell’s own experiences as an assistant have set him up for success. Whether it was losing to Michigan as Ohio State’s interim coach in 2011 or the beatings the Buckeyes sustained against Florida and LSU in the National Championship game in the 2000s, Fickell knows the bad, but he also knows the good. He was special teams coach when Ohio State beat Miami. He was a large part of Ohio State’s defensive plan that led to OSU’s win over Alabama in 2014 in its last national title year.
That Alabama team was very similar to the 2021 squad, putting up big numbers in the air, struggling at times against lesser opponents and losing a lot of players the previous season to the NFL draft.
Fickell has saved something for this game because that’s what his mentors Meyer and Tressel would do. He’s prepared this team psychologically. And it’s a team that fits his image – a senior-laden group that plays hard in all phases.
The SEC isn’t the SEC this year. The Crimson Tide had one loss this year – at Texas A&M. Alabama gave up 41 points to the Aggies, which lost to the lowly likes of UCLA and Mississippi State.
Alabama couldn’t slow down Texas A&M's offense that had two true freshmen on its offensive line and was leaning on its backup quarterback – one that played most of the second half with an injured leg.
Alabama also struggled against Florida and LSU – two teams that fired their coaches before the season ended – as well as Arkansas and Auburn (winning the latter took four overtimes). Alabama’s best win was in the SEC Championship game against Georgia. Georgia’s best win was against Kentucky.
Cincinnati had as impressive a win as anyone in the playoffs when it beat No. 5 Notre Dame by two scores on the holiest turf in college football. (The turf was much holier after the Bearcats were through running all over the Fightin’ Irish.)
The democratization of college football. What can’t go on forever won’t. Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama and Oklahoma have cornered the top high school recruits for themselves based on their playoff success. Since the beginning of the playoff in 2014, those four teams have dominated in appearances and it has shown in recruiting and the number of NFL players those teams produce each season.
But recruiting success also breeds disadvantages. Sending a lot of players to the draft means many are leaving early, which means roster turnover is a bigger issue. In college basketball, as the blue bloods like Kentucky, Duke and Kansas began losing freshman in droves to the NBA, it left them open to senior-laden mid-major teams that had the patience, the experience, and the discipline to take on the more highly-touted teams. You can’t reload forever; sooner or later teams need to rebuild. Clemson showed that this past season. It appears to be catching up to Alabama. UC has a chance to show if it has.
The matchup works. The Crimson Tide offense is high-powered and Bryce Young’s numbers are almost science-fiction level, which is why he won the Heisman. Alabama scores points the way most teams wish they could gain yards.
Enter UC’s best unit – its secondary. It matches up well against the passing attack. Young won the Heisman, but Cincinnati senior cornerback Coby Bryant won the Jim Thorpe Award as best defensive back and the Cats allow the 2nd fewest passing yards per game in the country, which could nullify Alabama's 6th most passing yards per game in the country. OK, maybe nullify isn't the right word, but the Bearcats are physical enough to slow down the ball moving through the air.
The other part of the offense, the rushing game, is not like Alabama's of years past: They are a meager 80th overall in the country. Cincinnati isn't the best against the run (45th overall in rushing defense), but they hold the advantage over the Crimson Tide.
Overall, Bama has the 4th best scoring offense in the country, but UC matches up perfectly with that, too, as the 4th best scoring defense in the country, giving up only 16 points per game.
The real question mark is the Bearcats on the offensive side, but they still have the past performance to do it. The Bearcats are 9th overall in the country in scoring compared to the Crimson Tide's 18th overall in points allowed, a slight edge.
But they'll have to score those points through the air. Alabama has the 4th best rushing defense in the country compared to UC's 47th-ranked rushing offense.
On the passing side of things, UC was only 52nd best in the country in yards per game, but that outranks Alabama's 63rd position in passing yards allowed on defense.
UC has proven this year it belongs on any field in the country. They’re experienced, smart, skilled, talented, have a hell of a coach, a chip on their shoulder and a lot of focus. The world says UC can’t. I say why not?
Cincinnati 38, Alabama 37.
B.J. Bethel was a sportswriter for the Dayton Daily News and Horizon Newspapers, where he covered Ohio State football for four years and the Cincinnati Reds minor leagues for four years. He’s covered high school sports, recruiting and the NFL draft and wrote a weekly Monday column called The Audible in the Dayton Daily News. He’s been published by the Washington Post, the New York Times News Service and Fox Sports.