No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati: Cotton Bowl CFP semifinal preview, best bets

Cotton Bowl (CFP semifinal): No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati

Location: Arlington, Texas | Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Dec. 31) | Alabama -13.5 | Total: 57.5

How these teams got here

Alabama (12-1): By now you probably know the only team to beat Alabama all season. The Crimson Tide started 5-0 before losing 41-38 to Texas A&M on a last-second field goal in College Station. The loss put a dent in Alabama’s playoff hopes and forced the Crimson Tide to win out the rest of the way to make the playoff.

And that’s exactly what happened. Alabama scored over 40 points in five of its last seven games and survived slogs against LSU and Auburn — the latter game went four overtimes. That Auburn win put Alabama in a win-and-in scenario for the SEC title game and the Crimson Tide dominated No. 1 Georgia 41-24. That win propelled Alabama to the top seed of the College Football Playoff and cemented quarterback Bryce Young as the Heisman winner.

Cincinnati (13-0): You definitely know that Cincinnati is the only Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff. The Bearcats became the first non-Power Five team to make the final four with an undefeated season after a 9-1 campaign in 2020. If Cincinnati doesn’t go 9-0 during the 2020 regular season and puts up a fight against Georgia in last season’s Peach Bowl, are you reading about the Bearcats in this preview?

Thankfully you are. Cincinnati has averaged over 39 points per game in 2021 and scored the biggest win of its season on Oct. 2 in a 24-13 victory over a Notre Dame team that ended the season at No. 5. That was the last win over a team that finished the season in the CFP top 25 until a 35-20 win over Houston in the AAC title game.

ATLANTA, GA  DECEMBER 04:  Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams (1) reacts after catching a touchdown pass during the SEC Championship college football game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs on December 4th, 2021 at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA.  (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
With John Metchie sidelined, Alabama receiver Jameson Williams could be in for even more targets than usual. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Players to watch

Alabama WR Jameson Williams: The Ohio State transfer has been phenomenal this season as Alabama’s big play weapon. Williams has 68 catches for 1,445 yards and 15 TDs and had a huge game in the SEC title game against Georgia. He’s going to be the focal point of Cincinnati’s secondary with John Metchie III out for the playoff after suffering a knee injury against the Bulldogs. Williams will probably see a lot of double coverage. If he can break free — or another Alabama receiver steps up — the Crimson Tide should play for another national title.

Cincinnati RB Jerome Ford: While QB Desmond Ridder was a Heisman finalist and Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant are perhaps the best cornerback duo in college football, Ford is the pick here for Friday afternoon. He’s rushed 200 times for 1,238 yards and has scored 19 TDs on the ground. Ford averages over six yards a carry and will put Ridder and the rest of the offense in a great position if he can maintain that average against the Crimson Tide’s front seven. If Ford has a big day, Cincinnati can pull the upset.

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 04: Cincinnati Bearcats running back Jerome Ford (24) carries the ball for a touchdown during the game against the Houston Cougars and the Cincinnati Bearcats on December 4, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What’s on the line

Alabama: The Crimson Tide will play in a sixth national championship game in eight seasons of the College Football Playoff era with a win. Alabama is 3-2 in its previous five CFP title games and the two losses have come to Clemson. It’s also worth noting that 2020 was the first season that Alabama won a playoff title while going undefeated. The Crimson Tide have only won two national titles (2009, 2020) under Nick Saban without losing a game during the season.

Cincinnati: A Group of Five team has a chance to win the national title if the Bearcats win and the Big 12 can also try to claim some playoff success if its future conference member wins the game. No Big 12 team has played for the national title in the College Football Playoff era.

Best bets

Nick Bromberg: I’m buying into the idea that Cincinnati can keep up with Alabama. I think the Crimson Tide have more top-end talent than the Bearcats and that ultimately will be the difference, but I’m also not sure that Cincinnati is overmatched. Alabama is only 7-6 against the spread this year and I think the Tide drops to 7-7. Pick: Cincinnati +13.5

Sam Cooper: To me, whether or not Cincinnati makes this a game is going to come down to Desmond Ridder. Ridder needs to be a factor in the run game and needs to make timely throws on third down if the Bearcats are going to have a chance. Alabama played great against Georgia, but that team that lost to Texas A&M and played close games against Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Auburn is in there somewhere. This line sitting at 13.5 feels like the books begging you to take Bama. I'll go the other way and most likely regret it. Pick: Cincinnati +13.5