Alabama football vs. Cincinnati Bearcats: Cotton Bowl scouting report, score prediction

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DALLAS – Alabama and Cincinnati couldn’t be further apart on the College Football Playoff experience spectrum.

The No. 1 seeded Crimson Tide (12-1) has missed only one CFP since its inception during the 2014 season. The No. 4 Bearcats (13-0) are making their first appearance.

The two teams will clash in the Cotton Bowl at 2:30 p.m. CT Friday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The winner will advance to the national championship, scheduled to be played on Monday, Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

Here’s a look at Alabama’s opponent in the Cotton Bowl.

Elite corners

Two of Cincinnati’s best players are in the secondary.

There’s Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound All-American. He has 35 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and three interceptions this season.

Then there’s Coby Bryant, a 6-1, 198-pound corner who won the 2021 Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back. He has 40 tackles, two forced fumbles, three interceptions and 11 pass breakups.

“Their two corners are long and are good players,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “They play a lot of man-to-man. They’ve got good ball skills. They’re good man-to-man players. They’re aggressive in the way they play. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They’re smart. They’ve got a lot of experience, even when they change it up and they play zone.”

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The two will be tasked with defending Jameson Williams, an All-America receiver. However, the duo won’t have to cover Alabama’s other top receiver, John Metchie III. He suffered an ACL injury in the SEC Championship Game.

A familiar face at running back

Alabama fans will recognize the main running back carrying the ball for Cincinnati: former Alabama running back Jerome Ford.

Dec 4, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats running back Jerome Ford (24) runs the ball in for a touchdown against the Houston Cougars in the second half during the American Athletic Conference championship game at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 4, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats running back Jerome Ford (24) runs the ball in for a touchdown against the Houston Cougars in the second half during the American Athletic Conference championship game at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

He played for the Crimson Tide in 2018 and 2019 before transferring to the Bearcats. Ford redshirted his first year after playing in four games before he scored three touchdowns on 24 carries in four games in 2019.

At Cincinnati, Ford became the lead back this season and was named to the 2021 All-AAC first team. He’s tied for sixth in the nation with 19 rushing touchdowns. Ford also has run for 1,242 yards and caught 18 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown.

“We thought Jerome was an outstanding player when he was with us,” Saban said. “He’s got great speed. He’s physical. He makes people miss.”

Pass rush ramping up

Cincinnati’s pass rush imposed its will on Houston in the AAC Championship Game.

The Bearcats finished with eight sacks, a season high.

They’ve averaged 2.85 per game, ranked No. 28 in the country. Alabama has averaged 3.54, which ranks third.

Curtis Brooks leads the way for Cincinnati with 7.5 sacks.

Strong secondary play leads to a better pass rush. So if Cincinnati’s elite corners play well, the Alabama offensive line will need to put together another strong performance.

Desmond Ridder should be focus of Alabama defense

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell, left, and Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) celebrate the victory in the American Athletic Conference championship football game, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats defeated the Houston Cougars, 35-20.
Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell, left, and Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) celebrate the victory in the American Athletic Conference championship football game, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats defeated the Houston Cougars, 35-20.

Ridder hasn’t quite had the season of Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, but he’s a had a strong year.

Ridder finished No. 8 in Heisman voting. Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral was No. 7.

Ridder has put together a strong career with the Bearcats after only receiving two offers out of high school. He’s Cincinnati’s all-time leader in touchdown passes. He’s thrown for 3,190 yards, 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season.

Young has 4,322 yards, 43 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Run defense more vulnerable than pass defense

The Bearcats have one of the nation’s best pass defenses. The run defense, however, isn’t as elite. Not bad, but not as good.

Cincinnati has allowed 137.5 yards on the ground per game, ranked No. 45 in the nation. The Bearcats have also given up 14 rushing touchdowns.

The pass defense ranks No. 2 in the country having given up 168.3 yards per game. Cincinnati has allowed 10 passing touchdowns.

So, Alabama might be wise to give running back Brian Robinson Jr. a fair amount of work.

Score prediction

Alabama 45, Cincinnati 20: What coach Luke Fickell has done with his program is nothing short of impressive. But competing against Alabama in the first College Football Playoff appearance for a non-Power 5 team will prove to be too big a task for the Bearcats.

Contact Alabama reporter Nick Kelly: nkelly@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly.

This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Cotton Bowl: Alabama football vs Cincinnati score prediction, scouting report