Underdog gets its day, but Cincinnati football can't collapse vs. Alabama football | Toppmeyer

·4 min read

Six inches or so let the College Football Playoff selection committee off the hook.

When Oklahoma State’s Dezmon Jackson's fourth-down lunge for the goal line came up short at the climax of Saturday's Big 12 Championship, you can bet Cincinnati Bearcats fans breathed a sign of relief. The Cowboys’ loss became even more important for Cincinnati after Alabama beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, ensuring two bids for the nation’s most powerful conference.

I bet selection committee members didn’t mind, either, that Jackson’s dash ended shy of the end zone. It kept the committee from having to choose between undefeated Cincinnati or one-loss Oklahoma State for the final playoff bid. We’ll never know whether the committee would have selected the Bearcats if forced to make a difficult choice.

After weeks of controversy, the committee enjoyed an obvious selection Sunday for the four-team field: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Cincinnati.

Finally, a spicy four-team bracket after years of the playoff growing stale. First-time playoff qualifiers in Michigan and Cincinnati. A true blue blood in Alabama. A Group of Five darling in Cincinnati, which already defeated one member of college football’s elite class, Notre Dame, and now has a chance to upset another.

Selection committee chair Gary Barta said the seedings were not arranged to create or prevent any particular matchup, but three cheers for not serving an Alabama vs. Georgia rematch in the semifinals.

Who wants to see that game less than a month after the Crimson Tide just beat the doors off the Bulldogs, 41-24?

Instead, the committee gave America what it wanted: Alabama (12-1) vs. Cincinnati (13-0) in the Cotton Bowl (2:30 p.m. CT Dec. 31, ESPN).

The empire vs. the people’s choice.

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Cincinnati represents the spirit of past Group of Five unbeatens like 2004 and ’08 Utah, 2006 and ‘09 Boise State, 2010 TCU and 2017 UCF.

Those teams weren’t granted a chance to play for a national championship and settled for culminating their seasons with triumphs in marquee bowl games.

For the sake of future Group of Five playoff candidates, Cincinnati cannot collapse under the weight of this opportunity.

The four-team playoff isn’t designed to give the little guy a chance, but this season's chaos took care of that. No team from the ACC or Big 12 has fewer than two losses, which is better than the Pac-12, where every team has at least three losses.

The committee couldn’t turn to independent Notre Dame, either, considering Cincinnati beat the Fighting Irish 24-13 on their field in September.

The Bearcats weren’t so much invited to the playoff. They forced their way in after a slew of Power Five teams fumbled their path.

“We know it's going to be an incredible challenge for us – and I think that's what gives us the best opportunity, is our guys have done nothing but step up to challenges,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said on ESPN following the selection.

The Bearcats will face a challenge unlike anything they saw in the American Athletic Conference.

Bryce Young almost certainly is going to become the first Alabama quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy after he accumulated 461 yards of offense and four total touchdowns in dismantling Georgia. Outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. is assembling of one of the most disruptive seasons ever by a defensive player. Jameson Williams is an All-America-caliber wide receiver and one of the nation's fastest players.

The concern for Alabama should be this: It performed best when facing doubters and the then-No. 1 team, Georgia. As Saban said afterward, his team relished the “yummy” rat poison served by experts who predicted it was finally Georgia’s time to reign over Alabama.

Now, the Crimson Tide has regained the pole position. This program is familiar with that place, but 2021 Alabama hasn’t done its best work from the top perch.

When ranked No. 1, Alabama had its hands full against Florida in September, then lost to Texas A&M in October. Alabama was favored by four touchdowns against LSU and three touchdowns against Arkansas and Auburn but won each of those games by a single score.

And Cincinnati will enter this semifinal with the fight of a two-touchdown underdog aiming to prove it belongs.

“We know there's a long road ahead,” Young said.

This is it. The committee gave college football fans what they craved.

Cinderella gets a shot against the sport’s greatest dynasty.

It’s Alabama vs. the world.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Alabama football vs. Cincinnati is Crimson Tide against the world

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