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Cotton Bowl 2021: Alabama overpowers Cincinnati to advance to national championship game

And now, the Crimson Tide — with arguably their most flawed team in years — is just 60 minutes away from adding another big trophy to the collection.

ARLINGTON, Texas — On so many occasions this season, the notion of Alabama winning a national title appeared relatively far-fetched. Even with all the talent, the championship pedigree, the coaching acumen at Nick Saban’s disposal, it seemed for this particular team in this particular year like the message wasn’t going to get through.

But for Saban, no problem is unfixable as long as the clock hasn’t run out on Alabama’s championship hopes. And now, the Crimson Tide — with arguably their most flawed team in years — is just 60 minutes away from adding another big trophy to the collection. 

Maybe the biggest of Saban’s entire tenure. 

It’s at once utterly predictable and somewhat shocking that Alabama will play for Saban’s eighth national championship (seventh at Alabama) after beating Cincinnati in Friday’s College Football Playoff semifinals, 27-6.

Predictable because this is Alabama, a death star of a football program that is so perfectly designed to play for titles that it typically seems inevitable. Shocking because this particular Alabama team was not inevitable at all, having struggled against some less-than-stellar opponents on at least five occasions. 

In fact, had Alabama not somehow escaped in four overtimes in the last game of the regular season — a game that Auburn wins if a running back merely stays in bounds — the entire narrative of the college football season turns to whether Alabama should even be in the playoff with a second loss. 

Instead, here we are again with the Crimson Tide headed to Indianapolis — blemishes and all — to face either Georgia or Michigan on Jan. 10. Same as it ever was. 

"I’m really, really proud of our team, our players," Saban said. "I think they showed great competitive character out there in this game. It was a tough game, we knew it was a tough game, guys showed a lot of resiliency all year long to have the opportunity to get to this game. It was a great team win for us, and now they’ve created the opportunity to play for a national championship which I’m extremely proud of this group for that."

Of course, this version of Alabama has not traveled the same path as the ones that came before. This still isn’t the Alabama of 2020 that dominated college football like few teams before them. This isn’t the defensive beast we saw from 2009-2012 that squeezed the life out of opponents or the offensive juggernaut of the last half-decade that stacked ridiculous amounts of skill.

Alabama players celebrate after tackling Cincinnati wide receiver Tyler Scott in the second quarter during the College Football Playoff semifinal game at the 86th Cotton Bowl Classic.

In fact, even in a semifinal that Alabama more or less dominated physically, Cincinnati had plenty of opportunities to put the pressure on deep into the third quarter. The Bearcats just weren’t quite good enough to do it.

For Cincinnati, the first team from outside the power conferences to crack the playoff, the task against Alabama was always going to be monumental. The difference in size and athleticism on the line of scrimmage was notable. The Bearcats found it difficult to tackle running back Brian Robinson Jr. (26 carries, 204 yards), and senior quarterback Desmond Ridder had a mostly miserable game, throwing for just 144 yards on 17-of-32 passes. Despite being 6-foot-4, Ridder had at least four passes tipped at the line of scrimmage and struggled against the rush. 

"We showed a lot of physicality," Robinson said. "We knew they'd come out fired up and we proved we were the most physical team with the run game, the defensive front, the offense overall. We proved we were the most physical team."

Still, until very late in the game, it was never as much of a blowout on the scoreboard as it was in the box score. Alabama had a 483-218 advantage in yards, and yet there were a handful of plays that Cincinnati can legitimately point to that might have turned the game had the Bearcats made them. 

One of them occurred right before halftime when Alabama’s JoJo Earle muffed a punt at his 6-yard-line only to see teammate James Williams come out of the scrum with the ball instead of Cincinnati securing it with a great chance to score. A few moments later, Alabama took a 17-3 lead when quarterback Bryce Young, the Heisman Trophy winner, found Ja’Core Brooks for a 44-yard touchdown. 

Still, Cincinnati wouldn’t go away. After adding a field goal on its first drive of the second half, the Bearcats’ defense got an immediate stop and put the ball back in Ridder’s hands with a chance to get the game back within one score. Instead, Cincinnati went three-and-out. 

Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. finds room as Cincinnati defensive lineman Curtis Brooks (92) tries to make the tackle.

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On the following possession, Young made his only major mistake of the game, throwing an interception off his back foot under pressure that gave Cincinnati the ball right at midfield. Presented with that golden opportunity, Cincinnati was called for an illegal shift on the first play, then went backwards again with Alabama’s wrecking ball linebacker Will Anderson sacking Ridder for a 10-yard loss to snuff out that possession, too. 

It was not breathtaking football for Alabama or for Young, who only completed 17-of-28 passes for 181 yards, but it was more than enough to get them within one win of the national title. 

The way Alabama played most of this season, it seemed like someone would slam the door shut on that possibility. But all they needed was to keep it cracked open, and now the Crimson Tide has an opportunity to walk through — again.

Follow colleges reporter Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

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