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2021 Cotton Bowl Semifinal Preview: Q&A with Down the Drive

How do the Cincinnati faithful feel about the game today?

Syndication: The Enquirer Sam Greene/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s finally gameday, and Alabama and Cincinnati are set to clash in the Cotton Bowl to see who has rights to play for the National Championship. With the Tide favored by 13.5 points, the Bearcats are playing a heavy underdog role for the first time this season. How will they respond?

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

I talked with Ryan Randone with Down the Drive this week to get a feel for how Cincy fans are feeling about this game. You can check out my piece over on their site here.

1) Honestly, I thought the 2020 Cincinati Bearcats were good enough to be a legit playoff contender, and the fact that they’ve taken an encore year and actually made it has been pretty impressive. How do you feel this team compares to last year’s squad? Are they truly better... or is it more a product of the rest of the NCAA contenders not stepping up?

Truth be told, it’s a mixture of both.

Cincinnati needed help this season, and a lot of it. They needed the Big 12 to cancel itself out of the equation. They needed Clemson to have a massive down year in what still remains a weak conference. They even needed some things in the Pac-12 to go their way. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t improve.

The depth at the majority of positions is home to more experienced guys on offense and defense. Sure, there were a few losses here and there (Gerrid Doaks and James Wiggins the most notable), but not enough to hinder the team’s progress over the offseason.

Did Cincinnati need some help to reach the CFP? Yes. But the reason they’re playing on Friday is a result of returning talent, and I can’t say for certain that last year’s squad would have taken down Houston like this year’s did, nevermind Notre Dame.

2) Midway through the season, everyone threw an absolute tantrum about where Cincinnati was ranked when the first playoff rankings came out. Never mind the fact that they really don’t matter until the end of the season. At the time, though, I watched the Bearcats play some really uninspiring football against Navy, Tulane, and Tulsa. I was ready to count them out as a fraud. But they’ve since blasted their way through the final section of the schedule. What happened in that three game stretch... and how worried are you those issues come back in the final game (or two) of the season?

One problem I’ve noticed with this Bearcats squad is a lack of urgency in putting away opponents. They’ll be up two or three scores in the middle of the third, and then switch to a conservative-like approach. With Navy, the lead was 17 approaching the midway point of the fourth quarter. With Tulsa, Cincinnati expanded the advamtage to 16 five minutes into the second half and never managed to score another point. With even the Notre Dame game, it was a similar scenario.

For obvious reasons, I worry little about what could be Cincinnati’s inability to put away Alabama. As much as I would drool over such a prospect, it’s not going to happen. However, what if the Bearcats (more realistically) need to mount a comeback later in the second half? With UC looking predictable/sluggish on offense in each and every game in the fourth, I expect the task to be unexpectedly challenging as it was for Georgia in a new scenario.

3) On offense, Cincinnati is rushing 33 times per game at a 54% rushing rate. And while there’s been a whole lot of rushing production there from RB Jerome Ford and QB Desmond Ridder, it’s also been fairly boom or bust, with quite a few games this year being held under 3 yards per carry. If Alabama manages to be in that group that limits the Bearcat rushing game, will Ridder be able to pass his way to victory?

Cincinnati can’t expect to beat Alabama solely through Desmond Ridder’s arm. Ridder is much too vulnerable to pressure and his inconsistencies can come into play at any moment.

Sometimes, he looks like a top fifteen draft pick. Others, he seems to represent the type to go undrafted. The vet has certainly made some clutch throws, but the run game is going to have to be involved in order to keep up with ‘Bama.

4) Senior receiver Alec Pierce is the clear clubhouse leader in receptions, and then there’s 5 guys behind him with 24-32 receptions each. How do the Bearcats employ their receiving crew? Do different players do different roles, or are they mostly interchangeable in the scheme?

Aside from Pierce, there’s a very healthy consistency of takes among even six or seven guys that are similar statistically wise each game. Tyler Scott is the WR2 despite only producing 26 receptions throughout the season. Tre Tucker, who is just about the smallest guy in the Bearcat weapons corps at 175 pounds, acts as the main player in the slot. Sitting behind him is Michael Young Jr., but he hasn’t taken the field since early November.

The tight ends — Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor — qualify as some of the most athletic guys you’ll get on the roster and reflect off each other statically and on the field. I would say Whyle is still the definite TE1, as he can be extremely dangerous in the red zone and on play action.

5) Speaking of Jerome Ford.... Tell us how he’s looking, from your perspective! He was a speedy guy in 2019 for the Tide, but fumbled in his one chance to get playing time while Najee Harris was out for a game.

To say Jerome Ford is the flashiest player on Cincinnati’s offense would be an understatement. Aside from his FBS seventh highest 19 TD’s, the guy is one of the most explosive backs out there when at full health. His numbers proved to drop towards the back end of the regular season (he suffered an ankle injury against Tulsa), but the AAC Championship Game reaffirmed the pure talent from the Alabama transfer the Cincinnati running back in arguably his second best performance of the season statistically wise for the Bearcats.

6) Moving to defense, your cornerback group is all the rage. But tell me about the safeties. Since it’s a 3-3-5 defense, they’re kind of the engine that should make that scheme go.

In terms of the heart of Cincinnati’s 3-3-5, you’ve got Bryan Cook and Ja’von Hicks playing the more traditional safety roles with nickelback Arquon Bush bridging out as more of a corner. Cook leads the secondary statistically wise in overall tackles (87) while also bolstering his resume through five tackles for a loss and nine pass deflections. Bush, who is a bit more inconsistent than his counterparts, fits in nicely between Coby Bryant and Ahmad Gardner on the leaderboard with 36 total tackles and may as well be grouped with the two in other categories. Hicks closes it off with 48 tackles, three pass deflections, two interceptions and some pretty good damage to opponents when it comes to the ground game.

7) And moving to the front seven, give me a couple of players who might make a big play, and a spot that Alabama can take advantage of.

Look out for Curtis Brooks and Joel Dublanko. Brooks, who serves as the most voracious piece of Cincinnati’s front lines, leads the team in sacks at 7.5. He’s one of the Bearcats two All-AAC defensive lineman and tends to be the most consistent on the team with his pressure. Dublanko serves as the premier linebacker on the squad with 106 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception to show for.

In terms of players I’m nervous Alabama can take advantage of, it’s Myjai Sanders at the end of the defensive line. Sanders joins Cook as the second guy on the line to earn All-ACC honors, but his underwhelming size at 255 pounds and dropoff in production compared to the past isn’t something to be fond of. He trails Brooks and Jowon Briggs on the line in terms of overall sacks (2.5) and tackles (34).

8) Are there any true freshmen on the team that have broken out and look like they may be a superstar of the future?

At Cincinnati, it’s not easy to come around young stars in a sea of veteran domination. Remember, guys aren’t nearly ready to go up against the big boys fresh out of high school. They’re undeveloped, three-stars at best usually who don’t see adequate action until they’re upperclassmen.

If I’m choosing one player, it would have to be linebacker Jack Dingle. He received a ranking of No. 6 in the state of Kentucky last year and has yielded seven total tackles — the most for a true freshman at Cincinnati — thus far. The Louisville native also owns legacy status within the program due to his father being senior captain and NFL player in the ‘90’s, so it’s the most tempting pick.

9) Seriously, just how fun has this season been for you guys? Must be exciting to get to the playoffs for the first time! I can barely remember what that was like :)

It’s been a rollercoaster-like ride, and covering every game for Down the Drive has made the journey all the more fun (and nerve racking). After all, the last time we were in a position like this, Nick Saban was on a collision course with his first national title as Alabama’s head coach.

Does that ring a bell by any chance? (Seriously though, can you imagine how much better the world would be had Colt McCoy held onto that football for one more second?) :(

10) Who wins the Georgia-Michigan game?

I really, really was hoping for some divine intervention to allow J.T. Daniels to start on Friday (I picked Georgia to win the national championship at the start of the season, and am one of those people who stand convinced that Daniels is the top QB on the roster). However, Kirby Smart seems to have instead chosen to let Stetson Bennett duke it out against a very scary Michigan defense, one that could certainly pull off the upset.

It creates a scenario in which I feel a bit iffy about my pick, especially with Smart’s track record of managing QB’s. But when push comes to shove, I can’t pick against that UGA defense. Not the one with All Americans across the board. Hassan Haskins and the Michigan O-line can tear up if you give them space, but there’s no getting past the Dawgs when they’re at the top of their game, much less when your offense is fairly one-dimensional.

Prediction: Georgia 23, Michigan 14

11) Feel free to give any game predictions if you like doing that. I usually give everyone the option to do so or not, depending on your levels of superstition, etc.

This is the first time this season in which Cincinnati has qualified as the underdog. Likewise, this is the first time I’ll be picking against them. Don’t get me wrong, the Bearcats match up well enough against Alabama to complete. That’s not the problem. The reason I’m picking ‘Bama to win and cover is the Nick Saban factor. Maybe that sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s near impossible to beat a team coached by the GOAT on a month’s worth of rest, and if there’s one thing I learned from last year’s national title game against Ohio State, it’s to never bet against the king of the CFP.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Cincinnati 17