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Giving Away Money: Cotton Bowl Semifinal — Cincinnati Efficiency

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What do the Bearcats bring to the table?

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 American Championship Game - Houston at Cincinnati

Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In our run-up to the Cotton Bowl CFP Semifinal between the Crimson Tide and the Cincinnati Bearcats, we’ve been breaking down efficiency stats and thumbnailing some projections based on those.

ICYMI: The ‘Bama offense is here, and you can find the Tide’s defensive efficiency marks here.

There is a lot of data to get through, but some general observations so far are:

  • Alabama is a very good 3rd down team and has few negative drives, because it is a very good 1st down team. That is particularly true when Robinson totes it on 1st down: he averages almost 6.0 YPC on 1st down.
  • But, even if a defense gets Alabama into 3rd down, Bryce Young has been spectacular. He has even been at his best on longer 3rd down attempts (7-9 yards). Where UC can cause problems is forcing BY9 to throw on 3rd and 10+. Young hits just 50% on those must-make longer conversions. But, getting Alabama into 3rd and 10 (or longer) is very, very hard to do because of how good they are on 1st down.
  • Cincinnati’s running game, which is where the UC offense makes its living, is at a definite disadvantage in the trenches. It has been erratic against teams determined to stop the run, particularly underperfomed against Power 5 teams, and when the ground game falters, it has generally forced UC to play in a lot of squeakers.
  • It is also a sloppy offense that has turned the ball over almost twice as many times as Alabama has (and Alabama has been outstanding forcing turnovers from good opponents this season). Against teams with winning records, that has corresponded with UC’s ball-hungry defense not generating gaudy turnover stats as they did against poor teams: “just” 11 TOs forced in 7 games against teams with winning records vs. 22 forced vs. 6 teams with losing records.

So, today, we’ll dive into Cincinnati a bit deeper and see what the G5 Cinderella can do that poses a problem for ‘Bama, and could even position them for an upset win over the No. 1-seed Tide.

Or, you know, at least cover +13.5.

Cincinnati’s Strengths

  • There is literally no one in the country better at forcing turnovers, in both +/- and overall TOs, the Bearcats are first. While UC was just +1 in two games vs. P5 teams, the Bearcats were still quite good overall against better teams — they forced 11 in 7 contests. And they do it home and away with equal acumen.
  • The special teams aren’t exactly sterling overall, but the kick-block team has been very active — UC has blocked 6 this season. That is T-1st in the nation. While none occurred vs. Power 5 teams, 5 of 6 were against teams that are going bowling. As with the TO stats, the Bearcats kick pressure travels well: 3 at home, 3 on the road.
  • It’s hard not to rave about the secondary (and, honestly, the LBs may be the best coverage group that Alabama will have seen all year) — Cincinnati is 2nd in YPG (146), 1st in QBR allowed, has forced 18 INTs (3rd overall), has surrendered just 10 passing scores (T-5th), is 3rd in YPA allowed (5.7), and is 4th in completion percentage (53.5). In their two games against IU and ND, the secondary was even better: a national best 42.5% completion percentage, 3 TDs / 5 INTs, just 224 YPG allowed, and 2nd overall in QBR (91.4). Admittedly, this was against a bad IU team and vs. a Notre Dame team that was pretty terrible through the air all season. But, even so, UC made them look even worse.
  • The defense is outstanding on points per drive metrics. While UGA gives up the least amount of points overall, UC has seen the lesser per-drive opponent scoring (about 1.3 PPD). This tells you that the opponents are getting the ball more often, but UC is holding opponents when they do get the ball.
  • As good as the per-drive defense has been, the redzone scoring allowed has been even better. UC allows opponents a RZ score just 66% of the time (3rd overall), and has forced 7 RZ turnovers (T-1st). The downside is that forced FGs aren’t really a thing — just 1 in 8 RZ attempts against the Bearcats has ended with a kick: the rest have been TOs or TDs allowed (and teams convert a TD about 54% of the time).
  • Offensively, the Bearcats don’t do anything that scares you. But they do have the 13th most efficient offense, one that has thrived off of the passing game, although UC runs the ball in a 56-44 split. As you would expect from a run-first PA passing offense, it has not been particularly explosive (just 29th), but they make teams pay isolating their wideouts vs 7- and 8-man fronts.
  • Ridder’s mobility undoubtedly is what also drives the run-first Bearcats offense. While not the go-to first option, he averages about 7 carries a game in a combination of designed runs, RPOs, and particularly scrambles. The latter is especially dangerous: His 100 carries on the year are second on the team, but 3 of those 6 rushing touchdowns have come by way of scrambles. When the play breaks down, he can make things happen.
  • As a result of Ridder’s ability to scramble, the offensive line is greatly helped out. UC just doesn’t take many sacks; 20 allowed all season (1.54 PG). Nor does the offense suffer many TFL (just 45.0).
<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 American Championship Game - Houston at Cincinnati

We could have used him this season, for sure.

Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

  • Though the focus is on Ridder, Jerome Ford is the engine that makes it all work. In every contest where he was not injured, Ford got at least 15+ carries. The ‘Bama transfer is averaging 103 YPG, over 6 YPC, and has notched 19 TDs on the ground.
  • As you’d expect with that outstanding secondary, converting 3rd downs against the Bearcats is an iffy proposal — UC is 20th overall and permits just a 33.67% conversion rate. They were even good against the P5 opponents, allowing just 11 of 33 on 3rd down.
  • Because UC forces so many 3 and outs, and is so good on 3rd down, they put their limited-but-efficient offense into good position by being among the nation’s best in starting field position. The average Cincy drive begins at their own 38-39 yard line (5th in the country).

Cincinnati Weaknesses

The problem with discussing anything related to Cincinnati is that their body of work overall is very soft. Last year, UC had a SOS of 69; this season, despite adding road trips to Indiana and Notre Dame, it plummeted to 103rd. The culprit? An AAC that was as down as it’s been in years. So, we have to dig a bit deeper here and look beyond the good numbers. And, even against a soft schedule, there are some things that should concern a UC fan.

  • Cincy’s ground game in general, and Ford’s rushing numbers in particular, should be taken with a whole shaker of salt. It is a run-first offense, but Ford has been a boom-bust player. There were several games where he went well over 10 YPC...and an equal number where he was at 3-4 YPC. In the two games against Power 5 teams, he was very much Just A Guy: 37 carries for 137 carries (3.7 YPC), and just two TDS — neither of which were against Notre Dame.
    In fact, UC underperformed the average rushing output by all opponents of ND and IU, both in YPA and YPG.
  • The performance of the running game against P5 opponents hints at an offensive line that is very average at its heart. The Bearcats allow a 16% play-disruption rate, which has resulted in a rushing efficiency of just 24%. And, when only 1/4th of your running plays are efficient ones, you run the ball 56% of the time, and yet 1 out of evert 6 plays are no-gainers or losses, then you see a fairly high negative-drive offense (for a playoff team); one that sits at just 44th.
    That is a whole lot of negative drives. This means the Bearcats are geting behind the chains a great deal. For a team that wants to win by controlling the LOS, RTDB, and making manageable throws, that is brutal. This is by far the worst negative-drive efficiency offense of the 2021 playoff field, and narrowly edges out the 2015 Washington Huskies and 2017 Clemson Tigers for the worst of the playoff era.
  • With all of these negative drives putting UC into bad spots, it’s no surprise then that the Bearcats are fairly mediocre on 3rd down. They sit at just 41% on the year (57th). Against teams with winning records, that number falls to 39%. Against the two Power 5 teams, Cincy was simply awful: 28% conversion rate. And against two ranked teams on the schedule, UC was indescribably bad — just 10.53%.
    It goes without saying that all of these marks are lows for the 2021 playoff field, and the very worst of the playoff era. In fact, until Participation Trophy Expansion begins, I don’t think we’ll see a worse output.
    Alabama BTW? Second-best in the nation in creating disruptive plays on 3rd down — 51% of all 3rd down snaps are going for no-gain, losses, batted passes, sacks and the like. Godspeed, Bearcats.
  • Has the offense seen enough troubles? Nope. The UC offensive line is heavily penalized. Cincy takes about the same number of penalties as Alabama (7.2, which is NOT good), but about 4.4 of the UC flags per-game have occurred on the offensive line. Contrast that with Alabama, where the opposite holds true — about 4.6 penalties per game are coming on flags against the Tide’s aggressive (sometimes dumb) defense. Alabama gives up more yards with their hankies to keep offenses on the field, but UC are killing their own drives — and it shows in their output: just 33 PPG.
  • Special teams giveth (field position, blocked kicks), and it taketh away too: UC has only generated three explosive returns all season (though, two did go for scores), and it gives up about 32.6 YPR, has put 6 out of bounds, while only generating 48% touchbacks. A kicker who can’t get it in the endzone plus a pedestrian kick-coverage team is a definite advantage for the Crimson Tide here. I’d be stunned if UC doesn’t kick out of bounds every single time they see JaMo. A special teams score for the Tide is not out of the question if they don’t.
  • We done with the bad news? Nope. Cincinnati has the nation’s worst kicking game, and the worst of the playoff era, hitting just 41.7% of their attempts. Against IU and ND? Even worse — 33%. Against all teams above .500? Even worse — 12.5%. #CollegeKickers, amirite?
  • And, man, we have to talk about those turnovers. As good as Cincy has been with forcing TOs, they’ve been just as bad at giving it away — 19 on the season, overall. Against teams with winning records, the Bearcats have forced 12 turnovers...and given it away 11 times. That means 22 of their 33 TOs have been against soup cans. The +1.08 TOM is very deceptive unless you look at their play against the better teams on the schedule. That margin drops to a meager +.14, a practical draw — just 54th. Contrast that with the Tide, who are 7th in TOM vs. teams over .500 and have committed just 9 gaffes all season.
  • Where does that blame lie? It’s equally apportioned, but we can start with Ridder who is, on third down, everything that Bryce Young is not. He completes just 44% of his tosses on 3rd down, has not thrown a score on 3rd and long all season, and has generated just two explosive passing plays of 25+ on third down...all year. In addition, his passer rating drops fully 60 points overall when 3rd down arrives. There is a reason he has has a 34:9 TD:interception ratio.
  • The other person we can blame is well...again, Ridder. He fumbles a bunch. He’s gacked up 6 balls, and lost 3 of them. He’s not alone though: Cincy has fumbled an ungodly 15 times this season (106th), and lost 10 of the them. That 66% lost-fumble rate is “good” for 115th, alongside such luminaries as Duke and Southern Miss. Needless to say, alongside a lot of firsts with this Cincy team, the Bearcats’ output here is the worst of the CFP era.

So, what do we make of Cincinnati?

It is a team that plays within its limitations, especially on offense, where their first down passing in particular is effective. It doesn’t try to be more than what it is. And on defense at least, it is very disciplined, efficient team that plays above its head and talent level.

The real problems lie with the other 2/3rd of the game.

There are some glaring deficiencies on the roster, and those have been very apparent against talented teams. The offensive line, in particular, is just not very good at day’s end, nor is the playcalling effective. Coupled with Ridder’s limitations, you see a team that must win the LOS on 1st and 2nd down, because it has practically no shot at converting on 3rd down against quality teams. It is also an offense that shoots itself in the foot repeatedly with silly presnap penalties and an appalling number of turnovers. You simply cannot leave points out on the field, nor can you give the Alabamas or Michigans of the world freebies with bad turnovers. And don’t underestimate what kind of damage can be done by the speed of the big boys in the return game.

Let’s not even talk about that field goal kicking or return coverage.

I don’t want to slag Cincinnati, I really don’t. But in terms of efficiency and overall play, last year was the season UC earned consideration. Matched head-to-head, 2020 Cincinnati would be approximately a 6.8-point favorite. But this iteration, which seems like throwing UC a bone for a lifetime achievement award of sorts, is not up to playoff snuff as we have been accustomed to during the past 7 years. It has one of the most limited offenses, is easily one of the sloppiest teams, and certainly the most athletically limited.

That they got here at all is a testament to the job Luke Fickell has done (coupled with an unquestionably weak schedule). You folks know how hard I stan the G5. There are a lot of quality teams in the midmajors, and a lot of good football played outside of the majors. But this just isn’t a playoff team, and I’m sorry to say that. Is it a Top 10 team? Let’s call that a definite maybe. But is it one of the four best? The numbers don’t think so, and in reflection, neither do I.

Have a Merry Christmas, we’ll back Monday with Giving Away Money, and our picks for the semifinals.

Alabama is sitting at -13.5 (-$525), as of Christmas morning 2021, but 55% of the action the last 48 hours has been on the Bearcats.

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