- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
ARLINGTON, Texas — Have no pity for Cincinnati. The Bearcats wanted to be in the big room with the big boys of college football, and on a big afternoon in Big D they were there, in a College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with the biggest program of them all.
And what happened to the fourth-ranked Bearcats, the first non-Power 5 participant in the eight-year CFP era, was the same fate that has befallen nearly all those who came before them, a roster of brokenhearted teams not from the upstart AAC but hailing from the biggest brand-name, high-dollar conferences.
Yeah, UC, don’t feel too bad. Alabama drubbed all of them too.
There will be those who will try to use Cincy’s 27-6 loss in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic as a platform for their “No one but Power 5 teams from here on out!” arguments. But anyone who watched Friday’s game without that preset attitude saw that Cincinnati, which will be a Big 12 member in the near future, laid enough hard licks and came within a few inches on enough close plays (that near recovery of a muffed Bama punt return late in the second quarter of an 11-point game, argh!) to show that the Bearcats deserved to be in Dallas this New Year’s Eve.
“So many of those plays were just inches away,” Cincinnati linebacker Joel Dublanko bemoaned after the game. “A couple of missed tackles here and there that really cost us. I think we absolutely belong in this game.”
If the current and future members of the CFP selection committee were really watching, then they certainly saw cause to be more open-minded about other outlier teams in the future … well, at least until the playoff finally expands to include them anyway. Then again, who knows? Before including the Bearcats this year, they seemed to work pretty hard to keep the outsiders, well, outside.
“We weren’t carrying the flag for anyone but ourselves,” Cincy quarterback Desmond Ridder said after being held to 144 yards passing and minus-6 yards rushing. “We wanted it to end differently, wish it could’ve ended differently. So I’m hoping there are other so-called Group of 5 teams or teams from any conference that can make it in the playoff and show they can compete with the best of the best.”
To be clear, the best of the best is still Alabama, aka the defending national champion. Cincinnati competed with the Tide as well as anyone has, which is to say not so much at all.
This was the sixth time that Bama had opened the CFP as the No. 1 team and faced the No. 4 squad. The Tide are now 5-1 in those games, with the only loss coming to eventual national champ Ohio State in the inaugural 2014 CFP. The next four wins came by double digits, over Michigan State (38-0), Washington (24-7), Oklahoma (45-34) and Notre Dame (31-14). On Friday, Cincinnati became the fifth member of that college football blue-blooded but red-faced club.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban came to the 2021 Cotton Bowl with a 5-0 record at AT&T Stadium at the helm of the Tide, with an 8-3 overall CFP mark, a 64-7 record against non-SEC opponents and a 74-8 tally in nonconference plus postseason games. On Friday, Cincinnati added one more Bama win to each of those records.
So, no, Cincinnati, there is nothing fun about one’s bandwagon blowing out all four tires and lurching into a ditch. But perhaps it won’t sting so badly when you look around that ditch and realize that your fellow residents of the wreckage also include the likes of Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson.
What might hurt is when the Bearcats go back and look at the film of the biggest bowl appearance in the program’s nearly 140-year history. They will see in high definition that Alabama’s playbook for Cincy was right out of the Tide’s typical nonconference playbook: pounding and punching early and often to wear down the legs and psyches of their opponent’s thinner roster by the second half.
The Tide opened the game with 10 consecutive run plays. They ran it 47 times in all, nearly twice the number of pass attempts, and monster trucked their way to an Alabama bowl-record 301 yards rushing. By the second half, some wondered why Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young wasn’t a larger part of the Bama game plan. His 17 completions, 28 attempts and 181 yards were his lowest outputs of the season. He also threw only his second interception of the year. But he also threw a trio of touchdown passes, the only three times Alabama reached the end zone all night.
Bama implemented its sleeper-hold offense, slowly choking out Cincinnati by methodically and physically moving the ball and letting Will Anderson Jr. take a highlighter pen to his “Why wasn’t I on y’all’s Heisman ballots?!” essay. The Tide’s defense allowed only six points and 218 yards, only 74 of which came on the ground.
Those who will try to argue that Cincinnati didn’t belong in the four-team CFP field will point to Bama’s approach as the same one the Tide use to routinely drag down the likes of Southern Miss and Mercer. But it’s also how they routinely wear down a lot of big-box SEC opponents, as well as every single one of those previous CFP semifinal foes.
An embarrassing night for Cincinnati? Not a chance. That 2015 Michigan State team would take the Bearcats’ loss over its own anytime. For that matter, Georgia might even take it over its collapse against Bama in the SEC championship game one month ago.
The Dawgs will have plenty more chances for revenge against the Tide. So might the Spartans. Let’s hope that Cincinnati’s Cotton Bowl showing earns the Bearcats another shot somewhere down the road, and if not for them, for the next would-be CFP party-crasher.
“I told them I do not want to see them hang their heads,” Cincy coach Luke Fickell said. “Because when you get beat like that, there’s times you start to wonder why. We never pointed a finger and won’t start to point a finger. Those guys deserve the very best.”
On Friday they got it. The best team playing in the middle of the best era ever in the 152-year annals of the sport. No one worth their gridiron salt believes in moral victories. But they damn sure believe in losses that can be used to build toward more actual wins on the scoreboard.
“The only thing we can do is learn,” preached Ridder, who in all likelihood has played his last game with the Bearcats. “These guys are going to take it in, watch the film and continue to get better and continue and grow and continue to be a greater Cincinnati team in years to come.”
College football would be greater for it.
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