Even though Cincinnati is making history as the first team from the Group of Five to appear in the CFP and enter the Cotton Bowl as nearly two-touchdown underdogs, Alabama players have been discussing the “underdog mentality” and “disrespect” that has been targeted at the defending champions all season.
To be fair, that kind of motivation did seem to give a boost to Alabama heading into the SEC Championship Game vs. Georgia, but the Crimson Tide actually were underdogs in that game. After carving up the Bulldogs defense in a 41-24 win, Alabama (12-1) enters the playoff as the betting favorite not only to beat Cincinnati (13-0) but to win the national championship.
All week on CBS Sports we’ll be outlining the reasons why each of the four teams in the CFP will (or can) win it all, so while it shouldn’t be a controversial take let’s lay out the reasons the Crimson Tide can accomplish the feat for all those perceived disrespectful doubters who continue to light a fire under the No. 1 team in the country.
1. Alabama has the best player in the CFP
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way early. No single player from any of the four College Football Playoff teams can individually impact a game like Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. The 2021 Heisman Trophy winner emerged as the most outstanding player in the nation thanks to his combination of season-long production and his performances when the Crimson Tide’s season was on the line. Sure, those five-touchdown performances against Southern Miss and New Mexico State helped pad the 4,300+ yards and 43 touchdown season totals, but few yards gained in all of college football this season were more meaningful than those 97 against Auburn in the Iron Bowl en route to a game-tying touchdown pass to force overtime.
Young’s 421 passing yards against Georgia may have been a triumphant final act for his Heisman campaign but given the way Alabama’s young wide receivers have progressed late in the year I think it could be a preview of what’s to come in the playoffs. Look for freshman Ja’Corey Brooks to be a big factor in Alabama’s passing attack as he steps into the starting lineup for John Metchie III and keep your eyes peeled for a potential appearance from another talented freshman JoJo Earle, who has been working his way back from a midseason injury.
2. Crimson Tide are battle tested
This is where the comparisons are less between Alabama and the other playoff teams than the 2021 Crimson Tide to previous playoff squads. The on-field reasons why those disrespectful doubters started taking aim at Alabama was all the close calls throughout the season and inconsistent performances from week-to-week. But what I think is going to work out in the Crimson Tide’s favor is going to be how this group has won in different ways throughout the second half of the season.
When Alabama’s offense was kept in check against LSU and Auburn, Will Anderson and the defense was able to rise to the occasion with game-saving stops in low-scoring wins. Then when Arkansas was running the ball right through the Alabama defense we saw Bryce Young drop a 559-yard, five-touchdown performance with zero interceptions and 77.5% passing in a 42-35 win. The disbelief that Alabama was still one of the best teams in the country prior to the SEC Championship Game was rooted in part in the fact that the Crimson Tide weren’t winning by larger margins. But given the ups and downs and different kind of games Alabama has won, I think that path could provide an important foundation if things get tight in the semifinals or national championship game.
3. Don’t underestimate the favorable path
While Cincinnati does have ways to frustrate Alabama and prevent the offense, in particular, from reaching peak performance in the semifinals, the Bearcats are a more favorable semifinal matchup than facing either No. 2 Michigan or No. 3 Georgia on New Year’s Eve. But it’s not just the opponent but also the location, as the No. 1 seed gave Alabama some consideration between playing in the Cotton Bowl or the Orange Bowl. The Nick Saban Book on Eliminating Distractions has a chapter on his preference, and in it you’ll find the undeniable assertion that the Miami area around New Years Eve is a major concern for a controlling coach. There’s plenty of fun and/or trouble to be had around Dallas as well, but I get why Alabama preferred the option where the “business trip” mentality can exist with less conflict from the surrounding environment.
Meanwhile, Georgia and Michigan are going to clash in what should be a close, competitive and physically punishing game in the Orange Bowl semifinal. What Georgia and Michigan will have to accomplish is arguably a tougher task from game planning all the way to execution, and the smaller margins leave no room for looking ahead to the title game. Alabama will publicly say all its focus is on the Bearcats, but the analyst army has already begun work on possible title game opponents — an even more advantageous task considering the notebook on Georgia still has fresh ink and good results.