No. 1 Alabama rolls into title game, beating Cincinnati

By Stephen Hawkins
Associated Press

Arlington, Texas — Brian Robinson Jr. ran for a career-high 204 yards and top-ranked Alabama rolled into yet another national championship game by physically overwhelming the first non-Power Five team to make the College Football Playoff.

Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young threw three touchdown passes while mostly avoiding Cincinnati’s standout cornerbacks and the Crimson Tide beat the Bearcats 27-6 in the CFP semifinal at the Cotton Bowl on Friday. It was the sixth semifinal victory in a row for the Crimson Tide.

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder (9), right, is sacked by Alabama's Brian Branch (14) and Will Anderson Jr. during the second half of the Cotton Bowl.

Alabama (13-1) has missed the four-team playoff only once and will try to win its second national title in a row and fourth in the eight seasons of the CFP format. The Crimson Tide will play either No. 2 Michigan or No. 3 Georgia, the previously undefeated team Alabama beat for the SEC title, in the national title game Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

“I’m really, really proud of our team, our players. I think they showed great competitive character out there,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Guys showed a lot of resiliency all year, to be able to have the opportunity to get to this game. They showed a lot of resiliency … played together as a team, everybody kind of had each other’s back.”

Alabama clearly was doing what it could to minimize the impact of cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant, and pretty much succeeded with Robinson rushing 26 times and Young throwing a lot of short, safe passes – though he did find hit Ja’Core Brooks for a 44-yard catch-and-run TD on a play away from the standout defenders for a 17-3 lead just before halftime.

“As a young kid, just always wanted to be a part of this program. Just always wanted to play for a national championship,” said Robinson, the fifth-year senior from Tuscaloosa in his first season as the featured back. “Just being able to go out there and just lead this team in this big game on this big stage … it’s like a dream come true.”

The Crimson Tide opened the game with 10 consecutive runs before putting three receivers opposite of Gardner, who hasn’t given up a TD in coverage in his college career. Young found Slade Bolden open in the left flat for an 8-yard TD pass that put Alabama ahead to stay.

With their own dynamic quarterback in Desmond Ridder, the NFL prospect who returned for an extra season for just this chance, the Bearcats (13-1) were the nation’s only undefeated team until facing the playoff standard bearer.

“Obviously this is gut-wrenching and really, really difficult for everybody, but most importantly for the 30 or so seniors that have brought this program and this team so far,” Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said.

Cincinnati’s breakthrough into the four-team playoff was bolstered by a win the first Saturday of October at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, who lost 31-14 to Alabama in a CFP semifinal Rose Bowl played at AT&T Stadium last New Year’s Day, didn’t lose another game this season and finished fifth in the final CFP rankings behind the history-making Bearcats.

Ridder was sacked six times and outside of a 9-yard run on the opening play of the second half never got to hurt Bama with his feet. He was 17-of-32 passing or 144 yards.

“It’s one thing to sit there and watch on film, and to sit there and draw the twists and stunts they do on the board and work it through practice,” Ridder said. “It’s another thing to come down here and play it on a big stage.”

Young, a 20-year-old sophomore, has a chance to become the fifth Alabama quarterback in 13 seasons to win a national title as a first-year starter. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 181 yards in the playoff game, four weeks after setting an SEC championship game record with 421 yards passing in a win over Georgia and three weeks after being the first Crimson Tide QB to win a Heisman Trophy.

His only interception came late in the third quarter when he overthrew All-America receiver Jameson Williams in a crowd of defenders and was picked off by Bryan Cook on the logo at midfield. Williams caught the other seven passes thrown his way for 62 yards, the longest being 20 yards.

After Cook’s interception, the Bearcats went three-and-out for the fifth time in the game, with Ridder sacked for 10-yard loss on third down.

The Bearcats had a season-low 218 total yards and held without a touchdown for the first time since a 42-0 loss at Ohio State in the second game of the 2019 season, the last time they had played a top-five team.

“We knew the battle in the trenches was going to be a big deal, and that’s kind of where the game was won,” Fickell said. “In no phase of it did we give ourselves an opportunity.”