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How Can Cincinnati Bearcats Beat Alabama?

  • The Draft Network
  • December 30, 2021
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A roster made up of draft-eligible talent on both sides of the ball—similar to their counterpart—don’t scoff at the idea of the Bearcats playing ultimate spoiler in the College Football Playoff. A gritty, uber-talented group with everything to gain and a head coach quickly earning his way to be considered among the nation’s elite, Cincinnati is no walkover.

For Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, their story remains the same. Five-star recruits, projected top-10 talent, underclassmen with round-one evaluations before ever earning the correct allotment of snaps, they, expectedly, remain a heavy favorite. Led by Heisman-Trophy-winning signal-caller Bryce Young, his skill set paired with the electric Jameson Williams on the perimeter presents a challenge to Luke Fickell’s group not yet faced during their unblemished campaign this fall. A sophomore with his first CFP appearance in the foreground, if Young is able to captain the Tide to its fourth national title in the last seven seasons in the weeks to come, it could be his biggest feat yet for a player many believe will come off the board first in the 2023 NFL Draft. 

For the Bearcats, their ability to stay in the football game starts on the outside, and the duo tasked with limiting Williams. A day-one talent to be, if you’re Fickell, you couldn’t handpick a better corner to attempt to minimize Williams’ impact than Sauce Gardner. One of CFB’s most dynamic, shutdown defenders the last few seasons, Gardner is the alpha for a Bearcats defense with pro pedigree at all three levels. Yet to declare for April’s NFL draft, Gardner’s skill set will be put under the lights of a national stage he’s yet to face in his college career. With the ability to shut down his entire side of the field, his impact against one of the country’s most dynamic wide receiver talents in Williams will remain ever important to Fickell’s group.

While it will be interesting to see just how Fickell approaches Alabama’s WR1, whether they plan to shadow him with Gardner, bracket him with a corner and safety, or flat out double him from the line of scrimmage, it doesn’t hurt to have the Jim Thorpe award winner (top DB) on the opposite side to lift the burden a tad from Gardner as they attempt to completely extinguish Williams from Alabama’s aerial attack. A fifth-year talent, Coby Bryant is the Robin to Gardner’s Batman within the apex of the Bearcats’ defense. A 6-foot-1 talent whose skill set has maneuvered under the radar due to Gardner’s prowess on the opposite side of the field, without John Metchie III, his ability to smother the likes of Crimson Tide pass-catchers in Slade Bolden, true freshman Ja’Corey Brooks, and, when flexed out wide, Jahleel Billingsley, could hold the master key to Cincinnati's defensive success.

And as good as Cincinnati’s secondary room has been, it goes without saying the pro-pedigree they tout at the first and second levels that will be tasked with not just restricting Young’s arm, but his ability to create with his legs outside of the pocket as well. Getting home with four would surely be the ideal scenario as Fickell could drop seven in coverage with a spy on Young, but the play of edge threat Myjai Sanders, interior mover Curtis Brooks (7.5 sacks), and linebackers Darrian Beavers and Joel Dublanko to fly sideline to sideline to take away the shallow areas of the Crimson Tide offense will remain paramount. While Young has shown the knack to sling it downfield with accuracy all season long, without Metchie III, an intermediate zone monster, Saban will look to get Williams and Bolden involved early with YAC opportunities to gain yards in chunks without their top possession receiver.

It’s a tall task to stop the Tide, and with Alabama’s most recent offensive barrage coming against a historically good Georgia defense, ultimately keeping Young and Co. under the 30-point mark could prove extremely difficult. But, Cincinnati can score points too. And in bunches.

Led by potential QB1 in the upcoming draft, Cincinnati’s offensive success will lie solely on the shoulders of their dual-threat signal-caller, Desmond Ridder. One of the nation’s premier quarterbacks, Ridder’s continued progression under Fickell has seen him take leaps and bounds as a quarterback talent primed to solidify and drastically boost his day-one draft stock with a solid performance on Friday evening. And as good as Ridder is both inside the pocket and as an escape artist with an ability to both deliver the football on time and with precision outside of structure, the Bearcats are much more than just a one-trick pony. 

While many other high-prestige programs around the nation live or die by the throwing shoulder of the individual under center, the well-balanced roster that Fickell has at his disposal has become the sub-headline to the first non-Power 5 program to appear in the CFP.

Wideout Alec Pierce and ball-carrier Jerome Ford—an Alabama transfer—are two veterans within Fickell’s unit. The senior (Pierce) and junior (Ford) have become the cornerstones of Cincinnati's offensive prowess this fall. 

While his numbers don’t jump off the page like some of the country’s WR1s, Pierce is as consistent as they come. The target hog for Ridder within the Bearcats offense, while you won’t see him headlining a highlight reel, consistency is king, and Pierce is as sure-handed a talent as they come in the country. At 6-foot-3, he boasts a long and athletic frame that will make waves during the upcoming offseason draft circuit. A supremely gifted athlete, Pierce earns his money primarily within the vertical third of the field, using his straight-line speed and length to pop the seal off the top of defenses. While he needs work within the intermediate areas of the field—an area he will ultimately need to dominate against the Tide—he does tout the ability to elevate and extend to work through contact, which masks his limitations as a pass-catcher over the middle of the field. Pierce’s skill set, coupled with Ridder’s versatile ability, has seen a growing rapport to where he should be approached defensively from Saban the same way the Bearcats will look to defend Williams. 

With Ford, he’s a perfect example of a backfield mesh synonymous with success at both the college and NFL level. As pass-heavy as offenses have become (like Alabama), the presence of a run game with both Ridder and Ford could provide a wrinkle Alabama’s defense has yet to face. 

While you could say I’m reaching, whether the Bearcats attempt to pass strictly out of shotgun or dominate via play-action, the run game has to show pop against a superior front seven for anything in the pass game to work—there’s just no way around it. It’s easy to work in zone and man on the backend if you know you can get home and limit the run with four rushers, especially when you have Will Anderson flying off the edge. But if the Bearcats begin to pound the rock for chunks at a time for an extended period, the Crimson Tide will be forced to bring an extra body into the box, opening up the aerial game for Ridder. 

While Ford by no means has to take on a gargantuan workload, when his number is called, as he’s done all season, he’ll need to continue to put up numbers comparable to the best the nation has to offer at the running back spot to keep Alabama’s athletic second level off-balance. On an offense with attention centered around Ridder, and rightly so, Pierce and Ford will represent the spark plugs to an offensive arsenal as explosive as any in the country.

Nearly two-touchdown favorites heading into New Year’s Eve, it won’t surprise anyone if Saban once again captains his way to a CFP title game appearance as a program synonymous with success and prestige overflowing through the walls of their Tuscaloosa facility. On the opposite side, Fickell’s group enters with everything to gain with Crimson Tide naysayers aboard their bandwagon. While it will take a perfect gameplan, execution, and the ball bouncing their way, the Bearcats have found themselves in an opportune spot to shock the football landscape if all goes well in their program’s most important matchup in its 90-plus year history.

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