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Cotton Bowl Semifinal Preview: When Alabama has the ball

How will Bill O’Brien and the Crimson Tide offense look to exploit Cincinnati’s 3-3-5?

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

As you might expect from a head coach that made his name as a top-tier defensive coordinator, Luke Fickell’s defense at Cincinnati is one of the best in the country. His defensive coordinator, Mike Tressel, was a defensive coach for Michigan State from 2007 to 2020, which is a very, very long time to sustain a job at a strong program. The two have combined to bring a very Big-10-esque performance to the Bearcats this year en route to only allowing 16 points per game.

The Bearcats employ a true 3-3-5 stack defense with an entire starting roster full of seniors, 5th year seniors, and 6th year seniors. Philosophically, they run a lot of asymmetrical cover-6 cloud type coverages and try to mix in a 4th rusher as a blitzer from all different angles. The defensive line features two smaller defensive tackle types in Curtis Brooks and Jowon Briggs with Myjai Sanders playing an undersized defensive end lined up over the tackle. Brooks leads the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, and Sanders has 7.5 TFLs of his own, with both being named to the All-AAC conference team.

Behind them, the trio of linebackers Joel Dublanko, Darrian Beavers, and Deshawn Pace are tasked with covering a whole lot of space as well as doing work against opposing offensive lines, as one of the two is almost always blitzing. The two have combined for nearly 270 tackles, 29 TFLs and 9 sacks, and Pace has the team leading 4 interceptions. Dublanko and Beavers are both graduate players who have played their way into All-AAC selections.

The safety group is led by senior Bryan Cook, who uses his 210 pound frame to be a tackling machine, racking up 87 tackles, 5 for loss, and 9 pass deflections, and his running mate, Ja’von Hicks, is a similarly built player who’s a force in run defense.

The main element of a 3-3-5 defense, though, is the third safety/nickel player. For Cincinnati, that’s Arquon Bush, who’s the most likely player to be picked on as a mismatch. Barnes is a smaller player who’s really more of a traditional 3rd cornerback than a hybrid safety, and can struggle with tackling as well as matching up with bigger tight ends and running backs.

Outside corner, though, is where the Bearcats are clearly the most talented. Sauce Gardner is a two-time All-American, and his running mate, Coby Bryant, was awarded the Thorpe award for the best defensive back in the country this year. The duo are both opportunistic zone coverage players with a lot of length that prey on QBs who make bad decisions against the Bearcat’s many zone blitzes.

The DraftKings sportsbook is expecting the Tide to score about 35 points in this game. The Bearcat defense is built on allowing longer drives, limiting bigger plays, and trying to confuse opposing QBs into giving them freebies with exotic zones. It’s a powerful strategy against most teams, but one that Alabama’s offense seems poised to take advantage of.

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Bill O’Brien, for his faults, has built a career on patient offenses that work to exploit linebackers in the 7-10 yard range of the field. Meanwhile, Bryce Young has been extremely averse to risky throws all season long. The combination of the two should see the Tide with a number of excruciatingly long drives and a big day from Brian Robinson, Jr. against an undersized 3-man front.

The sticking point, though, will be when Alabama is in pure passing situations. Cincy’s defense will limit Bryce Young’s scrambling ability while also attempting to confuse his offensive line with some weird blitzes. If Young can stay patient and continue to work the middle of the field in those situations, it won’t be pretty for the Bearcat defense. However, Bryce has absolutely had issues against heavy blitzing in games against Texas A&M, LSU, and Auburn this year, and if that raises its head again, it could turn this game into a heart attack for Alabama fans.