DALLAS (WCMH) — The No. 4 Cincinnati Bearcats look to shock the college football world once more when they face No. 1 Alabama at 3:30 p.m. Friday in the Cotton Bowl for a spot in the national championship.

This marks the first time a Group of 5 team will play in the College Football Playoff after Cincinnati finished 13-0, culminating in a 35-20 win over Houston in the American Athletic Conference title game. The Bearcats biggest win came on Oct. 2 when UC went to South Bend and beat Notre Dame, which finished one spot behind the Bearcats at No. 5 in the final CFP poll.

Defending national champion Alabama stumbled once this season — to Texas A&M on the road — and survived an Iron Bowl scare to Auburn in a four-overtime thriller on its way to another SEC Championship after beating previously unbeaten Georgia, 41-24.

Now, the Bearcats and Crimson Tide will face off in the college football equivalent of David versus Goliath.

“If you want to have a shot at the title, you’ve got to beat the champs,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “The best team doesn’t always win the game. It’s just a reality that the teams that play the best win the football game.”

Below are three things to watch for during Friday’s game.

Bama’s backfield

Alabama is stretched incredibly thin at running back with three players out for the Cotton Bowl. Brian Robinson Jr. and Jase McClellan split carries to start the season, but McClellan suffered a knee injury Oct. 2 against Ole Miss, leaving Robinson as the team’s workhorse in the backfield.

The Tide suffered two more setbacks at running back when sophomore Roydell Williams and true freshman Camar Wheaton suffered knee injuries, leaving them unavailable as well.

That left Robinson, a fifth-year senior, to carry the weight with only sophomore Trey Sanders available as a backup. Robinson tweaked his hamstring in the Tide’s narrow win over Auburn but returned the next week, rushing for 71 yards on 18 carries against Georgia’s top-ranked defense in the SEC Championship.

Alabama’s offensive line is below average in the Nick Saban era, ranking 80th in the country in rush yards per game (147.6). But the Tide had their best game of the season against Georgia, keeping the pocket clean for Heisman winner Bryce Young while creating holes for the rushing attack.

Robinson excels at the second level with 56.9% of his 1,071 rushing yards coming after contact and leads the SEC with 68 tackles evaded, per ESPN.

Cincinnati ranks 45th in the country in rush defense, allowing 137.5 yards per game. That’s pretty good. But the Bearcats will need to be great against Alabama in all facets of the game, especially stopping the run in order to make the Tide one-dimensional and, more importantly, predictable.

Air it out

Making Alabama one-dimensional is important because of how good the Tide is in the passing game. Aforementioned Heisman winner Bryce Young led an offense this season that ranks as follows:

  • #1 in fewest interceptions (4, Bryce Young)
  • #2 passing TDs (43, Bryce Young)
  • #4 team passing efficiency (173.9)
  • #6 total passing offense (4,523)

“He’s not the Heisman for no reason,” Cincinnati linebacker Joel Dublanko said. “He’s a really good ball player, he can throw the ball from many angles, he’s got a really good deep ball, and hardly misses on his throws.”

The Tide are going to put up big numbers through the air. That’s OK as long as UC prevents them from creating a balanced attack.

The matchup to watch is former Ohio State receiver turned Bama standout Jameson Williams versus Cincinnati’s two exceptional cornerbacks, Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Coby Bryant.

Williams was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation’s top receiver and is projected to go 14th overall by Pro Football Focus. The speedy wideout left Ohio State’s crowded receiver room for a team that lost Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith who were both drafted in the top 10 in 2020.

Gardner has not given up a touchdown this season and is ranked as the 27th-best player in the upcoming NFL Draft by Pro Football Focus.

“I’ve never been on a stage this big. I’ve been to championships in my younger days but never one like this,” Gardner said. “It would mean a lot for the program … to be able to show the world what we’re able to do.”

Bryant is not projected to be drafted but does have a better grade from PFF compared to Gardner.

“Both great football players, both great football IQ but they really balance each other out in terms of personality. Coby’s the type of guy that’s about business at all times,” Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. “Ahmad’s the type of guy who certainly on the field is locked in but has the ability to keep the room loose, keep the defense loose and make sure we have fun … I think their personalities complement each other, really help their position group, each of them, and our defense as a whole.”

Alabama will play without its other star receiver, John Metchie III, who’s out with a knee injury, so Gardner and Bryant will be able to focus on locking Williams down.

Start fast

It sounds simple enough but starting fast has not been UC’s forte this season. In seven of their 13 games, the Bearcats have failed to score more than seven points in the first quarter, including four shutouts.

A slow start against Alabama won’t be catastrophic if the defense holds its ground. That was made evident by Alabama’s poor offensive showing against LSU and Auburn. But if Alabama’s offense plays the way it did against Georgia, the Bearcats are doomed.

Cincinnati relies on a balanced attack with 45% of their plays coming on the ground and 55% through the air. UC is solid in both areas, averaging 180.9 yards rushing (47th in the country) and 248.7 yards passing.

UC’s rushing attack is led by junior Jerome Ford who transferred to Cincinnati from Alabama in the offseason.

“I’m a Bearcat and I would appreciate it if people stopped calling me the Alabama transfer. I’m a Cincinnati Bearcat but I’m thankful for everything Coach [Nick] Saban did for me,” Ford said.

But Ford and the Bearcats’ offensive line will have a tall task against a Crimson Tide defense that ranks fourth in the country in rushing yards allowed per game (82.8) and 18th in points allowed (20 per game).

“I think everybody along their defensive front does a great job with body position and leverage and understands their fit and where they’re supposed to be in the scheme,” Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said. “They’re well coached, they’re fundamentally strong in everything they do and their scheme is as solid as anything we’ve faced this year.”

As good as they are, the Tide are susceptible in the secondary, allowing 223.3 yards per game. That’s welcome news for UC quarterback Desmond Ridder who excels in a few key areas:

  • #11 pass efficiency (164.78)
  • #13 passing touchdowns (30)
  • #23 passing yards (3,190)

The winner of the Cotton Bowl will face the winner of the Orange Bowl, which pits No. 2 Michigan against No. 3 Georgia.