There could not be two more polar opposite programs meeting in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal game, set to be played in Dallas at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl.
In one corner, quite possibly the greatest college football program of all-time in Alabama, who boasts back-to-back Heisman winners, the greatest coach in the history of the sport, and a team looking for its 19th national championship.
In the other is Cincinnati, who has never been known as a power, but after knocking on the door of the playoff a year ago, stormed through the regular season and their conference championship game, going 13-0 to become the first Group of Five team to crash the playoff party.
While the Bearcats will enter as massive underdogs, it’s a big moment for the sport that a “outsider” is finally getting their shot at the big boys.
Coached by Luke Fickell, Cincinnati nabbed one of the signature wins of the season, and in their program’s history, when they went on the road and downed the first team left out of the playoff, Notre Dame, by a 24-13 margin.
While there were nailbiters along the way, including one-score wins over less than stellar Navy and Tulsa teams, the Bearcats found their stride late, rolling to a 15-point win that felt larger than that, over what will end up being a Top-20 Houston team who just beat Auburn in a bowl game.
While admittedly not against SEC competition, Cincinnati did it on both offense and defense, averaging just under 40 points per game, and giving up just 16 per game.
The biggest strength for the Bearcats on defense is their passing coverage, which held opponents to just over 2,000 yards on the season and 10 touchdown throws.
While the pass defense was stout, there were cracks in the run defense, which Alabama and Brian Robinson Jr. will hope to exploit.
Cincinnati gave up nearly 140 yards per game on the ground, but did hold opposing rushers to just 3.3 yards per carry.
Joel Dublanko led the Bearcats defense with 106 total tackles, including 11 for loss, while Curtis Brooks and his 7.5 sacks paced the pass rush.
On offense, quarterback Desmond Ridder, a possible first-round pick this coming spring, does it all for the Bearcats as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country.
Ridder completed 65 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,190 yards to go with 30 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. He also added another six rushing scores on the ground. While not a scrambler or major runner, his mobility made him tough to sack and allowed the offense to extend plays.
Ridder spread the ball around with six receivers catching more than 24 passes, led by Alec Pierce with 50 grabs and seven scores.
On the ground, Jerome Ford is one of the top rushing threats in the country, racking up 1,242 yards and 19 touchdowns, plus over an average of over six yards per carry on just under 200 attempts.
For Alabama, they’ll be looking to carry the momentum of crushing Georgia in the SEC title game that clinched their playoff berth.
After being questioned for much of the season, particularly down the stretch where the Tide found ways to pull out close wins to keep the season alive, Alabama put it all together in that win over the Bulldogs.
It eventually led to quarterback Bryce Young winning the Heisman, becoming the first Tide signal caller to earn that honor.
Since then, Alabama has racked up individual awards on both sides of the ball, and a well-deserved top-seed in the college football playoff.
Despite the two being in different worlds for much of their existence as college football programs, the Tide and Bearcats have met five times over the years, with Alabama winning all five games in blowout fashion.
The two teams first met in 1908 when Alabama claimed a 16-0 victory, with the most recent meeting coming in 1990 where Alabama rolled to a 45-7 win.
The game is set for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday, with coverage across the ESPN family of networks. The game can be heard locally on 92.7 FM of Arab.
Alabama enters the game as heavy favorites, and as of Wednesday were listed as 13.5 point favorites.
In the other semifinal game that will follow Alabama-Cincinnati, Michigan will take on Georgia in the Orange Bowl in Miami in a game of two teams who ended the season in polar opposite ways.
Michigan closed the season on fire, dominating rival and longtime playoff threat Ohio State to clinch the Big Ten West, then walloped Iowa in the Big Ten Title game to the tune of 42-3 to grab the No. 2 seed in the playoff.
The Wolverines, making their first CFP appearance, are led by Heisman runner-up Aiden Hutchinson, who set the school record for sacks in a season, and is viewed as one of the Top-2 picks in the upcoming draft.
For Georgia it was a season of dreams until Alabama brought them back to reality.
The Bulldogs defense had been historically dominant through 12 games before allowing over 40 points to Alabama, and being forced to settle for SEC runner-up and the No. 3 seed in the playoffs.
Despite the loss and the lower seed in the playoff, Georgia is viewed as the favorite in the game, and enters as an 8-point favorite.
That game is set for a 6:30 kickoff, and will also be shown across the ESPN family of networks.