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Initial Impressions from the Cotton Bowl

Alabama won a physical contest over Cincinnati.

Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Cincinnati v Alabama Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Alabama took care of business in the Cotton Bowl, using a physical brand of football to send #4 Cincinnati home by a score of 27-6. It was far from a perfect performance, but it was ultimately dominant and, most importantly, a win.

First, let’s start with the good. For one game, the defense looked as strong as it has in a decade. Cincinnati’s 76 first half yards were a record low for any half in the College Football Playoff. and they didn’t have much more luck in the second. The Bearcats were able to find a bit of running room at times, but the pass rush was ferocious and there didn’t seem to be much separation against Alabama’s depleted secondary. Brian Branch played like a man possessed, delivering big hits, deflecting passes, and tackling reliably all night.

Will Anderson was his usual, terrifying self. When he wasn’t sacking Ridder he was scaring him to death. DJ Dale and Phidarian Mathis both made some noise pushing the pocket and batting balls down, and the LB duo of Henry To’o To’o and Christian Harris had probably their best games of the season. Cincinnati came in trying to live on short passes over the middle, and there just wasn’t much success to be found there.

Outside, it’s tough to complain about the effort from Kool Aid McKinstry and Khyree Jackson. They filled in admirably for injured starters Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis, combining to hold leading WR Alec Pierce to only two catches for 17 yards. Potential first round QB Desmond Ridder was held to only 4.5 yards per attempt, and the Bearcats managed a paltry 218 total yards on 3.75 per play.

Offensively, the running game was the best it’s been all season. Brian Robinson set an Alabama postseason record with 204 rushing yards, an amazing feat for a young man who came back for a sixth season just to have such an opportunity. So many assumed in the preseason that he would be passed up on the depth chart, but as the season wore on the Tuscaloosa product became one of Alabama’s most indispensable players. B Rob is yet another in a long line of stories of perseverance in the Saban era.

Bryce Young understandably struggled at times against a defense featuring a pesky pass rush and a pair of lockdown corners. It was somewhat curious how the Bearcats decided to keep safeties deep considering the talent they have outside and the difficulty that Alabama has had with the zero blitz at times, but that’s exactly what they did. As a result, Jameson Williams had to settle for shorter catches in this one.

The offensive line was outstanding in the run game, but struggled with the speed of the smallish Cincinnati pass rushers. The right side of the offensive line looked like a weakness again after a stellar game against Georgia. To add injury to insult, Chris Owens went down late and we don’t yet know the severity. LG Emil Ekiyor went down earlier in the game, prompting five-star freshman JC Latham to enter. Latham seemingly acquitted himself well. Needless to say, the Tide will need to protect Young if they are to win another national title, regardless of opponent.

Special teams narrowly avoided abject disaster. There was a missed field goal and a couple of returns that were longer than they needed to be, but luckily McKinstry was able to recover JoJo Earle’s muffed punt and Will Reichard’s kickoff that could have gone out of bounds decided to roll straight down the sideline. Williams also got rocked on a kickoff return and missed one series on offense. The entire fanbase let out a sigh of relief when he returned.

So, that’s about it. Alabama was able to beat a good team with its defense and running game, and it was a welcome sight. We now wait to see whether it will be Georgia or Michigan joining us in Indianapolis.

Roll Tide.