ARLINGTON, Texas -- No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Cincinnati battle on Friday afternoon at AT&T Stadium in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, in the first of two College Football Playoff semifinal games set to take place on New Year's Eve. The Crimson Tide, fresh off of an SEC Championship Game win over No. 3 Georgia, are two-touchdown favorites over the Bearcats -- the first Group of Five team to earn entry into the College Football Playoff field.
The Crimson Tide are looking to claim their second straight national title after topping Ohio State in Miami Gardens, Florida, last year. That path included a win over Notre Dame at AT&T Stadium in the Rose Bowl national semifinal that was moved from Pasadena, California, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are plenty of storylines to keep track of heading into the game, but let's break this matchup down to five keys for one of the most intriguing games in CFP history.
1. Will the real Alabama please stand up?
The Crimson Tide entered the SEC Championship Game vs. Georgia with the worst offensive line in the conference. They gave up a league-worst 69 tackles for loss and 35 sacks -- 12th in the SEC -- through their first 12 games. A funny thing happened against the Bulldogs, though. They only gave up four tackles for loss and quarterback Bryce Young wasn't sacked once in the 41-21 win.
Did Alabama fix the glitch or was the performance against Georgia an aberration?
"I think that we came out of the Auburn game, we made some adjustments," said Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. "We knew what we had to do to get fixed, and then we studied Georgia and we tried to do as good a job as we could. And now we've moved on to, obviously, Cincinnati. So it's one game at a time, and we've been working real hard on Cincinnati. And hopefully we'll coach and play well on Friday."
If Alabama can repeat the performance from earlier the SEC title game, this one will get sideways. However, if Cincinnati can replicate what multiple teams did during the regular season by shutting down the running game and pressuring quarterback Bryce Young, it'll give the Bearcats a chance to spring a stunning upset.
2. Cincinnati needs to stop chunk passing plays
The defensive back tandem of Coby Bryant and Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner leads one of the best secondaries in the country regardless of conference, and they will have their hands full against a Crimson Tide offense that loves to strike quickly through the air. They're fourth in the nation in passing plays of 20 or more yards with 72, and Young is sixth in the nation in yards per attempt at 9.4.
"They have two very strong corners on the outside," said Young. "It's something that right when we got done with the last game, we start preparing, something that immediately pops when you turn the film on. Those guys have been really consistent all year, which is hard at a position like that. You watch each and every game, you see how consistent they've been. Those are guys that are ball hogs, they always have an eye for the football, always around the ball."
Alabama will be without star wide receiver John Metchie III, who suffered a torn ACL in the win over Georgia. Biletniikoff Award finalist Jameson Williams will have his chance to shine on the national stage once again, however, and Ja'Corey Brooks came off the bench in the four-overtime win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl and made the play of the game at the end of regulation. The Tide tight ends can be used in a variety of ways as well.
If the Bearcats want to stay in it, they have to not only shut down the passing game but capitalize on mistakes generated on the back end.
3. Versatility of Desmond Ridder
Historically, Alabama's defense has had issues slowing down mobile quarterbacks, which exactly describes Cincinnati signal caller Desmond Ridder. The senior had 361 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns on the year, which includes yards lost due to sacks.
The threat Ridder poses on the ground is the added element to his development as a passer. He threw for 3,190 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior. Perhaps more important, though, is the fact that his experience as a starter suggests that he won't be surprised by anything that he sees from the Tide defense.vHis style and ability to come up big in the clutch on the ground makes him one of the biggest threats under center that this Alabama defense has faced.
"They've got a very good offensive scheme," said Alabama coach Nick Saban. "I think it starts with the quarterback. He's really smart. He puts them in the right play a lot. He changes the protections. He recognizes what the defense is trying to do and, for the most part, does a really good job of taking advantage of it. And he's done nothing but play better and better and better as this year actually wore on and he continued to develop."
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4. Cincy's strength vs. Bama's weakness
Cincinnati's run defense has allowed just 3.33 yards per carry through its first 13 games, which could be a big factor in this one. Alabama is only averaging 4.06 yards per carry, and has averaged under 3.2 yards per carry in three of their last five. That is a departure from the norm for the Crimson Tide, and is the most important individual statistical matchup in the Cotton Bowl.
Alabama escaped close games vs. Florida, LSU and Auburn -- all of which were games in which it rushed for 3.25 or fewer yards per attempt.
5. Lingering threat of COVID-19
The rise in cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the college football bowl season, canceling multiple games and limiting the available personnel for several teams. There has been no indication that any players on either team will be affected by it, but the Crimson Tide did lose O'Brien and offensive line coach Doug Marrone for a significant period of time during bowl prep.
"That's just the way it is," O'Brien said. "And everybody took care of us. We were able to coach virtually. And I think it's something that's been really, really emphasized here at Alabama, really from the moment I've stepped in here, is the health and safety of these players especially."
It doesn't sound like there is much to worry about as of Thursday afternoon. But as we, things can change in a hurry -- even on game day.