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No. 4 Cincinnati and No. 1 Alabama are "Ready to Rumble" in CFP Semifinal at 86th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

Stakes are high in the 2021 College Football Playoff Semifinal at the 86th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic between Alabama and Cincinnati

ARLINGTON, Texas — Stakes are high in the 2021 College Football Playoff Semifinal at the 86th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. The Bearcats put a perfect 13-0 season on the line against the 12-1 Crimson Tide. The winner punches its ticket to Indianapolis to play for college football's national championship. Any way you slice it, this is a history-making day.

Two simple words, posted on the official Twitter account of the Cincinnati Bearcats football program  (@GoBearcatsFB), sum up the storyline of today's Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, as well as the focal point of this year's College Football Playoff: "History made."

The lingering question, to be answered inside AT&T Stadium when the undefeated Bearcats (13-0) meet top-ranked Alabama (12-1) in a CFP semifinal matchup, now becomes "How much history?" When the fourth-ranked Bearcats take the field in Arlington, they do so as the first team from a Group of Five conference to compete in college football's version of its Final Four.

It has taken eight seasons for members of the CFP Selection Committee to green-light a playoff participant that is not considered one of college football's blue-blood programs. That fact alone makes Cincinnati's presence in this Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic a game #LikeNoOther in the bowl's 85-year history of elite postseason matchups.

That the surging Bearcats face Alabama, the defending national champion and winner of six national titles in the past 12 seasons under head coach Nick Saban, makes today's matchup a classic champion vs. challenger confrontation in the minds of most college football fans. The outcome promises to be a referendum on the idea of adding more inclusivity to the CFP playoff bracket in future seasons.

None of that matters to Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell, however.

"We're incredibly excited to have this opportunity. But we don't want to think we're carrying some flag or making a statement for the non-big schools," Fickell said.  "If we start saying we're trying to make a statement for a bunch of different programs, you can get lost in a lot of the things that are going on. We try to stay focused on us and representing what it is that we do in our program, our community, our university and our city."

While that approach may have helped the Bearcats produce undefeated records during both the 2020 and 2021 regular seasons, it sounds shortsighted to longtime college football observers who have seen undefeated teams from UCF (twice) and Cincinnati (once) left out of three CFP Playoff fields since 2017. In 2014, both TCU (11-1) and Baylor (11-1) were jumped in the final CFP Rankings to create a spot for Ohio State (12-1) despite victories by all three teams on Championship Saturday.

"Coaches live in bubbles, but the rest of us don't. We know the significance of this moment in the history of the sport," said Chris Fowler, ESPN's longtime college football announcer and analyst, in summing up the significance of Cincinnati's inclusion in this year's playoff field. "They have been carrying a flag for all the Group of Five teams, for all the outsiders. For all the people who've been talking about inclusivity in this four-team bracket. Well, Cincinnati has kicked their way in. It took a lot to get there. They had to be perfect … Now, they are in and now they get a chance.

"And who's waiting for them? Big, bad 'Bama. The ultimate dynasty in the sport, and a chance (for Cincinnati) to prove their point against one of the great teams you've ever seen.  So it's fitting. I think they are totally deserving of a spot. But I don't want to lose the importance of what this really means in the history of the sport. Before the Bearcats go off to the Big 12, they have done what no one could do before."

Saban, who played his college football at Kent State, acknowledged that the inclusion of a playoff team from outside the typical handful of elite, large-school, blueblood programs is good for the sport. Particularly in light of the fact that Cincinnati defeated Notre Dame (11-1), the team that finished No. 5 in the final CFP rankings, by a 24-13 margin when the schools met Oct. 2 in South Bend, Ind.

"I absolutely think that everyone who participates in college football at the Division I level should feel like they have an opportunity to get in the playoff," Saban said. "When I was at Kent State, it was the Mid-American Conference, but we played and tried to be the best that we could be. Cincinnati certainly deserves to be part of this, based on what they have accomplished. They beat Notre Dame. They're undefeated. I mean, how many undefeated teams are there out there?"

Among the playoff participants … just Cincinnati. Saban's team seeks to change status in Arlington and has been installed as a two-touchdown favorite, further underscoring the favorite vs. underdog appeal of this matchup while adding more motivation for the Bearcats.

Fifth-year starting cornerback Coby Bryant, one of more than 30 seniors on the Bearcats' roster, welcomes pre-game chatter about an inevitable Alabama runaway. He also cited this year's win at Notre Dame, along with a 24-21 loss to Georgia on a last-second field goal in last year's Peach Bowl, as evidence that the Bearcats have the physical and mental capacity to handle any blueblood program from a Power 5 conference that crosses their path.

"Absolutely," Bryant said. "We have the right coaches to prepare us. We have the right mentality. So, absolutely, I have no doubt in that."

Neither does senior quarterback Desmond Ridder, a fourth-year starter who has thrown for 3,190 yards and 30 touchdowns this season. Throughout his career, Ridder (6-4, 219) has been an elite dual-threat player, throwing for 10,095 yards with 81 touchdown passes while rushing for 2,175 yards and 28 TDs. He has led the Bearcats to a 23-1 record over the team's last 24 games.

"We can play with the top dogs and the big SEC schools. It doesn't matter who we play. At the end of the day, football is football," Ridder said. "We've been ready to play this game for a long time. Our ultimate goal is to win championships and when we talk about that, we usually talk about conference championships. But now to be able to go out and actually play for a national championship, it's going to be pretty exciting."

From a "Tale of the Tape" perspective, the Bearcats match up well with the Crimson Tide on paper with one glaring exception. Cincinnati, winner of the American Athletic Conference, placed 48th among Division I teams in the most recent 2021 strength of schedule rankings. Alabama, the SEC champion, finished first. Beyond that, however, Cincinnati holds serve across the board.

The Bearcats won 11 of their 13 games by double-digit margins, including the 24-13 triumph at No. 5 Notre Dame and a 38-24 road victory over Indiana, a Big Ten member. Cincinnati had no game closer than seven points the entire season and recorded lopsided victories over three notable, bowl-bound conference rivals: UCF (56-21), SMU (48-14) and No. 20 Houston (35-20), which saw its 11-game winning streak ended by Cincinnati in the AAC championship game.

Alabama won by double digits on eight occasions but suffered a 41-38 loss to No. 25 Texas A&M , a 4-4 team in SEC play, on Oct. 9. The Tide won four additional conference games by a touchdown or less, including a 24-22 four-overtime victory over Auburn on Nov. 27. Once in the SEC championship game, however, Alabama knocked off then-undefeated Georgia, 41-24, to move back atop the final CFP rankings while dropping the Bulldogs (12-1) into the No. 3 spot in the playoff bracket.

While CFP Selection Committee members consider only the teams' records from that particular season while seeding teams into their bracket, Ridder believes that Cincinnati benefitted from its combined 44-6 mark over the past four seasons, as well as consecutive undefeated regular-season records in 2020 and 2021, in efforts to become the first team from outside a Power 5 league to land a playoff berth.

"I think we checked all the boxes as far as what we needed to do," Ridder said. "And it didn't just start with this team. It started with the teams from two and three years ago. They've all had great records. I really think it's our past that's helped us get to where we are today."

In today's Classic, Ridder said the key is taking advantage of this historic opportunity and making sure the Bearcats become the first Group of Five team to win a playoff game – not merely play in one.

Standing in the way of making that happen is an Alabama team led by quarterback Bryce Young, a Heisman Trophy finalist who threw for 4,322 yards in his first season as the Crimson Tide starter. The sophomore enters the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic with a 68 percent completion rate and a 175.9 passer-efficiency rating. He has thrown for 43 touchdowns against only four interceptions.

In the estimation of Alabama linebacker William Anderson, Young is the best quarterback in the country.

"If you've been watching the games, there isn't anyone else coming close to him," Anderson said after Young's 421-yard, three-touchdown passing performance in the SEC championship game victory over Georgia. "No one's better than Bryce."

Many of Young's connections have been made to receiver Jameson Williams, a transfer from Ohio State who has averaged 21.3 yards per catch, with 15 TDs, in his lone season in Tuscaloosa. Williams (68 catches, 1,445 yards) projects to have an even bigger role than usual against Cincinnati because of a season-ending knee injury suffered by teammate John Metchie (96 catches, 1,142 yards, 8 TDs) in the SEC championship game.

"John Metchie has been an outstanding player for us, no doubt. He has been the leader of that group," Saban said. "We have some young players who are going to have to step up at the position. We need to use this practice time (leading into bowl week) to have them develop."

In many ways, Saban said the extended practice sessions benefited his team at multiple positions. Unlike Cincinnati, which has rolled with consistency this season behind multiple senior leaders, Alabama has had up-and-down performances from week to week that have puzzled the team's longtime coach. Despite the team's 12-1 record, Saban characterized 2021 as a "very difficult and challenging" season with some many new faces playing major roles for the first time.

"We were a pretty good football team against Georgia. But just because you did it once doesn't mean it's going to stay with you," Saban said. "Right now, the challenge is, 'Can you be a good football team all the time?' It's been challenging to get the players to have the right psychological disposition to be able to sustain the performance, play hard, be physical, play one play at a time, and come out and make the kind of plays that are going to give you the opportunity to be successful against whoever you play. That's important, because the big thing our players need to know is that things are not going to get easier. They're going to get much more difficult."

In Cincinnati, the Tide faces the most experienced team it has played all season. Several seniors on last year's team, including Bryant and linebacker Joel Dublanko, took advantage of the extra year of college eligibility offered by NCAA administrators in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and opted to return for another shot at a national championship. That veteran leadership has resulted in a disciplined team that does not commit many penalties and owns a plus-11 turnover margin, tops among the playoff participants.

"If it wasn't for having 30-something seniors … that really could handle (distractions) and control the locker room, I think it would have been a lot more difficult for our team and our program to be here," said Fickell, who singled out Ridder, Dublanko and Bryant for special praise. "But those guys did a phenomenal job of handling everything that has been thrown at them, not only on the football field, but most importantly, off the football field."

As a result, Fickell said the Bearcats find themselves "in a good place" because they have continued to grow and exceed outsiders' expectations on a near-weekly basis without dealing with bloated egos.

"Us grunts, we just go about working," said Fickell, who played nose guard at Ohio State during his college days. "Our players' ability to stay together and stay in that true philosophy about this being all about the team, that's what I've learned from these guys this year. They have the ability to do that because of their maturity and their belief in one another."

Young, in turn, sees similar unselfish traits in his Alabama teammates. Although he acknowledged that losing Metchie, the team's most heralded receiver, takes away "an integral part of our offense, and a leader who has stepped up for us." Young said his teammate's absence will serve as a source of motivation.

"We all rally around each other, offense and defense. It doesn't matter," Young said. "The next man is going to have to step up and we're going to do it for him in the future. We need to do it for 'Metch.'"

Regardless of the result, this Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic is poised to be remembered as a measuring stick for the Cincinnati program and others like it that have national championship dreams. Ridder plans to keep that in mind today.

"As a program, we always want to compete with the best and play the best," Ridder said. "Coach always talks about being a Top-10 program, not just a Top-10 team. And Alabama's been a Top-10 program ever since I was a kid, and years before that. So getting an opportunity to play the best and see what we can do is going to be exciting."