In No. 1 Alabama's seventh appearance in the College Football Playoff, the sport's dominant power over the last decade defeated No. 4 Cincinnati, the playoff's first non-Power 5 team, 27-6 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
The win puts Alabama (13-1) in the title game for the fifth time in six years and one step closer to winning their fourth title since the introduction of the playoff system. The school will try for a seventh title since Saban became the program's head coach, against No. 3 Georgia on Jan. 10.
Behind Bryce Young's three touchdowns, as well as Brian Robinson Jr.'s 204 rushing yards (an Alabama bowl record), and a defense that held the ninth-best scoring offense in the nation to single digits, Alabama outgained the Bearcats 483-218 and controlled the pace of the game from start to finish.
"We knew the battle in the trenches would be a big deal," Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. "That's where the game was won."
Said Robinson Jr.: "We just proved we were the more physical team."
The Crimson Tide are now 6-0 at AT&T Stadium under Saban.
Alabama established the winning formula for this matchup early by monopolizing the ball for 10 of the first quarter's 15 minutes and rushing for 106 yards on 18 carries. It would go on to finish the game with over 33 minutes of possession.
"We've had a couple games like that this year," Saban said. "A lot of these running plays we had, had [run pass options] and passes attached to them. But the way they lined up on defense, it was a give read. They took the RPOs away sometimes. I thought [Young] made really good decisions."
With the Heisman-winning quarterback Young under center, the Tide ran the ball 10 times for 62 yards on their first drive. It was the most rushing attempts on a first possession since a 2008 game against Arkansas State. Cincinnati's defensive line looked helpless as Robinson Jr. and Alabama's running backs gained 6.2 yards per rush on what became an 11-play, 75-yard drive that ended when Young threw his first pass of the game -- an 8-yard toss to wide receiver Slade Bolden.
Young's first touchdown pass was his 44th on the year, which broke the record of 43 touchdowns Tua Tagovailoa set in 2018.
Cincinnati (13-1) countered with a balanced attack, moving the ball down the field to the tune of short passes to four different receivers and a pace that appeared to confuse the Alabama defense. But once the Bearcats entered the red zone, Alabama called a timeout and their defense -- which had only allowed one touchdown in their opening defensive drive all season vs. LSU -- held Cincinnati to a field goal.
When Young finally dropped back to pass downfield more often, the Bearcats were able to pressure him, but he still completed crucial passes on multiple third downs and one fourth down to keep drives alive. In the second quarter, the Cincinnati defense was finally able to get a stop on a third down when Young's scramble for a 12-yard run on third-and-goal was short of the end zone, setting up a field goal that put the Tide up 10-3.
The first drive was all the Bearcats had to show for their efforts. Cincinnati's offense punted on three straight drives in the first half as quarterback Desmond Ridder was pressured on seven of his 21 first-half dropbacks and was sacked three times. Cincinnati's front line kept getting to Young too but couldn't do anything to stop the run.
"We knew we were going to have an opportunity to run the ball," Robinson Jr. said. "I didn't think I was going to be the spotlight."
As the Alabama offensive line opened gaps at will, Robinson Jr. ran all over a Cincy defense that had been allowing only 137 rushing yards per game. Robinson Jr., who had 63 yards after contact in the first half and 95 yards after contact all game, eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground with six minutes left in the first half and had 134 by halftime. He had never gone above 99 yards in a half before. Robinson Jr. would finish the game averaging nearly 8 yards per carry.
"Whatever his role was on the team, he was willing to do it," Saban said of the redshirt senior who has been in the program since 2017. "He made some tough runs tonight, he got lots of yards after first contact ... he embodies what we try to get our players to do, create value for himself in whatever they do."
At first, the Tide's dominance on the ground made their decision to keep throwing the ball questionable. Even though they were averaging over 6 yards a carry as a team, O'Brien continued to opt for Young's arm. After a couple of incompletions, two punts and a missed 44-yard field goal, Young finally delivered. With less than two minutes until halftime, he deposited a perfect 44-yard touchdown pass to Ja'Corey Brooks to put them up 17-3.
Alabama, which entered the game 109-1 when leading by at least 14 at halftime under Saban, did not look back.
Cincinnati's offense once again started things off in the second half with another impressive, five-minute drive that looked promising but stalled after the Bearcats entered the red zone. Instead of opting to go for it on fourth-and-5, Fickell passed up the opportunity to get six points on the drive and decided to kick another field goal. On cue, their ensuing drive ended in a three-and-out punt.
"So many of those plays were just inches away," Cincinnati linebacker Joel Dublanko said. "A couple of missed tackles here and there that really cost us. I think we absolutely belong in this game."
In the third quarter, Young overthrew a receiver on third down; it was only his fifth interception all season. The pick would be inconsequential -- Alabama's defense batted another Ridder pass down (it downed five all game) then sacked him on third down to force yet another Cincinnati punt.
All game, the Alabama defense made life miserable for Ridder, sacking him six times, and prevented the Bearcats from extending drives. Cincinnati converted its first two third downs of the game and then went on to go 0-for-10 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth down.
"I'm so happy ... we practiced our butts off for a few weeks," linebacker Will Anderson Jr. said. "We were ready for anything they threw at us."
Ridder completed 17 of his 32 passes and finished with only 144 yards, by far his worst game of the season.
"We weren't carrying the flag for anyone but ourselves," Ridder said. "We wanted it to end differently, wish it could've ended differently. I'm hoping there are other so-called Group of 5 teams or teams from any conference that can make it in the playoffs and show they can compete with the best of the best."
Young's poise, meanwhile, led to a 5-of-13 success rate on third downs for the Tide. His third touchdown pass of the night, a 9-yard toss to Cameron Latu, pushed him over 4,500 passing yards on the season, breaking Mac Jones' school record from last season.
Earlier this week, Saban talked about how it had taken this particular Alabama team a little longer to get on track. On Friday after the game he mentioned how his approach to motivating the team all season had been a little different.
"I don't want to call it nurturing, but I felt like we needed to do that with this team," Saban said. "Getting on these guys all the time was not going to help their confidence, was not going to help young players develop."
Alabama's semifinal win, much like its SEC championship game win over Georgia, seems to indicate that Saban's approach has worked. Some of the numbers in Friday's win tell the story of a blowout. Though Alabama didn't dominate in its usual fashion, it showed that even if Saban's team this season isn't one of the very best, it's still good enough to win it all.