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Alabama vs Cincinnati: Psychological Edge

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Alabama Crimson Tide has rat poison issues. The Bearcats will be working the underdog angle.

Georgia Bulldogs v Alabama Crimson Tide
Cool under pressure.
Photo by Steven Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images

As long as human history has been recorded, competition has filled the chapters of many history books. Whether it be for a struggle for a crown, a piece of land, the hand of a woman, or the last slice of pizza, mankind has seen its share of conflict. Brute force usually wins the day. However, psychological warfare is often a key component to coming out victorious. Sometimes, the psychological weaponry is one originated from within one’s own camp and works against a favorite. In other words, being overconfident and “looking past” an opponent.

David Victorious Over Goliath 19th-Century Print
Biblical rat poison.
Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

Everyone knows the story of David and Goliath: the undefeated behemoth warrior against the shepherd boy armed with only a rock and a sling. More recently came the story of a bunch of US college hockey players defeating the seemingly invincible Soviet “Red Army” for Olympic gold in 1980. Then there was journeyman boxer Buster Douglas’s knockout of Mike Tyson. And who could forget little Division I-AA Appalachian State knocking off mighty Michigan in 2007.

Goliath, the USSR hockey team, and Tyson all had similar traits. They were the biggest baddest dudes on the block who could not be beat and had been swatting opponents aside for quite awhile. The Russians, “Iron Mike”, and most likely Goliath were all facing what they saw as a “preliminary” adversary before facing a more threatening one [people often forget that the USA-USSR game was a semifinal]. They saw their unimpressive opponent as a lesser foe, one that could be defeated with ease before a weightier challenger came to call.

You see where I am going with this right? You probably did before the end of the first paragraph. The question at hand is:

Who has the psychological edge? Cincinnati or Alabama?


The best weapon that the Cincinnati Bearcats have against mighty Alabama is one they have no control over: the potential for overconfidence by the Crimson Tide. A few Saturdays ago, Bama was in a similar circumstance of being the heavy underdog against dominant undefeated Georgia. While some observers thought Alabama would win, nobody – and I mean NOBODY – predicted the rout going the way of the Tide. After the SEC Championship Game, Coach Nick Saban spoke of “rat poison”, a phrase he coined a few years ago, to mean sports media types talking and writing glowingly about his team in previews before a game had been played. Only this time, the rat poison was “yummy” as Saban put it. In other words, all the talk was about how the Bulldogs were going to mop the floor with the Tide. In this rare instance, he was able to use it in his favor.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 SEC Championship Game - Georgia v Alabama
The rat poison was “yummy”.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Fast forward to today and the rat poison is back to working against the Crimson Tide. Headlines across the web contain very few thoughts of the impending Cotton Bowl playoff game going the Bearcats’ way. Most of the click-bait articles entitled things like “How Cincinnati Can Beat Bama” include quips like the possibility of the Alabama bus getting lost on the way to the stadium. This is the kind of narrative that concerns Saban the most. Is he justified in his concern? The short answer is “oh hell yes”.

Despite being a repeat SEC Champion, this Alabama team is much different from last year’s “greatest team ever”. While the 2020 squad defeated opponents pretty handily in almost every game, this season’s team has had more than a few struggle wins and the sole defeat. As for Cincinnati, they have gone undefeated but in an inconsistent fashion.

CINCINNATI’S PSYCHOLOGICAL EDGE

Date Opponent Spread Result Pt Margin Spread Difference
Sat, Sep 4 vs Miami (OH) -23 Won 49-14 35 12
Sat, Sep 11 vs Murray State n/a Won 42-7 35 -
Sat, Sep 18 @ Indiana -4 Won 38-24 14 10
Sat, Oct 2 @ Notre Dame -2 Won 24-13 11 9
Fri, Oct 8 vs Temple -30 Won 52-3 49 19
Sat, Oct 16 vs UCF -21.5 Won 56-21 35 13.5
Sat, Oct 23 @ Navy -29 Won 27-20 7 -22
Sat, Oct 30 @ Tulane -28.5 Won 31-12 19 -9.5
Sat, Nov 6 vs Tulsa -23 Won 28-20 8 -15
Fri, Nov 12 @ South Florida -24 Won 45-28 17 -7
Sat, Nov 20 vs SMU -10 Won 48-14 34 24
Fri, Nov 26 @ East Carolina -14.5 Won 35-13 22 7.5
Sat, Dec 4 vs Houston -10.5 Won 35-20 15 4.5

There is not much to glean from the Bearcats’ track record as they have yet to be an underdog all season, including their games at Indiana and at Notre Dame. Yet, many of the talking heads did not give the ‘Cats much of a chance at wins in either of those two games.

UC had a stretch of four games against pushovers who they should have dominated but instead played a bit flat. Conversely in their biggest games, they showed up strong. They defeated Indiana, Notre Dame, SMU, and Houston each by double digits. This playoff game with Alabama is the Bearcats’ first time as an underdog. In addition, it is a point spread of 13.5. It is uncharted waters for them, but they have proven a tendency to step up in more challenging games. Luke Fickell will certainly use this underdog emotion to his advantage.

ALABAMA’S PSYCHOLOGICAL EDGE

Date Opponent Spread Result Pt Margin Spread Difference
Sat, Sep 4 vs Miami * -19.5 Won 44-13 31 11.5
Sat, Sep 11 vs Mercer -54.5 Won 48-14 34 -20.5
Sat, Sep 18 @ Florida -14 Won 31-29 2 -12
Sat, Sep 25 vs Southern Miss -45 Won 63-14 49 4
Sat, Oct 2 vs Ole Miss -14.5 Won 42-21 21 6.5
Sat, Oct 9 @ Texas A&M -19 Lost 38-41 -3 -22
Sat, Oct 16 @ Mississippi State -17.5 Won 49-9 40 22.5
Sat, Oct 23 vs Tennessee -25 Won 52-24 28 3
Sat, Nov 6 vs LSU -29 Won 20-14 6 -23
Sat, Nov 13 vs New Mexico State -50.5 Won 59-3 56 5.5
Sat, Nov 20 vs Arkansas -21 Won 42-35 7 -14
Sat, Nov 27 @ Auburn -20.5 Won 24-22 2 -18.5
Sat, Dec 4 vs 1 Georgia * 6.5 Won 41-24 17 23.5

* Neutral site game.

Being 7-6 against the spread this season, the Crimson Tide’s performance history appears to be all over the place. However if you look at the three November SEC games, Bama was favored by 20+ and won each game by a touchdown or less. From a psychological standpoint, Alabama was a heavy favorite and then underperformed. Against Cincinnati, the Tide is a -13.5 favorite. The smallest spreads the Tide faced in the regular season were two touchdowns against Florida (struggle win) and Ole Miss (blowout win). Being an underdog against Georgia now seems like an outlier. Alabama responded in the right way, but how will they react in the new scenario?

INTANGIBLES

GAME LOCATION: Alabama has played in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, also known as Jerry World, five times since 2012 and have won all five. However, four of those games were 2016 or before. Their most recent appearance in Arlington was the curb-stomping of Notre Dame last January 1. Cincinnati has never played in the stadium and has never participated in a Cotton Bowl. The ‘Cats do play at SMU in the Dallas area every other year, but not this year. Bama played two neutral site games this season versus none played by Cincy.
PSYCHOLOGICAL ADVANTAGE: Alabama.

SPOTLIGHT: Who is more used to the bright lights and frenzy that goes with big-time college football games than Alabama? As close as Cincinnati has come is last season’s Peach Bowl that they led 21-10 entering the fourth quarter but ended up losing.
PSYCHOLOGICAL ADVANTAGE: Alabama.

RAT POISON: Outside of a few folks residing in southern Ohio, nobody is giving the Bearcats a chance of winning this game. You know Fickell is doing everything in his power to drive that notion into his players’ skulls. For the Tide’s part, they have struggled this season against teams that the experts thought they would crush. Saban has been handling his team with kid gloves all year. He will need to break out one heck of a motivational speech as they face this dangerous team.
PSYCHOLOGICAL ADVANTAGE: Cincinnati.

According to DraftKings sportsbook, Alabama is currently favored by 13.5 with an Over/Under of 58.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.

Poll

Bama by -13.5 is

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    Too big.
    (161 votes)
  • 32%
    Too small.
    (201 votes)
  • 41%
    Just right.
    (262 votes)
624 votes total Vote Now