By Keith Whitmire
Cincinnati earned the historic invite to the playoff party, but it was Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. who owned the dance floor in the 86th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
Robinson, a fifth-year senior, rushed for a career-high 204 yards in a 27-6 victory on New Year’s Eve at AT&T Stadium. Robinson averaged 7.8 yards per carry while earned offensive MVP honors of a Cotton Bowl that also served as a College Football Playoff semifinal.
Cincinnati (13-1) was the first member of a Group of Five conference to earn its way into the four-team College Football Playoff. Unlike the Power 5 conferences, Group of Five conferences do not have their own automatic berth to one of the six major New Year’s bowls.
Cincinnati, the American Athletic Conference champion, was the last remaining undefeated team in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
While Cincinnati was a newcomer to the national semifinals, Southeastern Conference champion Alabama (13-1) was making its seventh College Football Playoff appearance in the eight years of the format.
Alabama’s offense totaled 482 yards, including 301 on the ground, while the Crimson Tide defense did not allow a touchdown in holding Cincinnati to 218 yards. Outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. was named the game’s defensive MVP with two sacks.
The Crimson Tide set the tone from the start by running the ball on the first 10 plays of the game’s opening drive.
Alabama finally went to the air on the 11th play of the 75-yard drive when Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young tossed an eight-yard touchdown pass to Slade Bolden for a 7-0 lead.
Cincinnati responded with a long drive of its own to the Alabama nine-yard line. A loss of six yards on third down forced the Bearcats to settle for a 33-yard field goal by Cole Smith.
After Cincinnati gained 60 yards on its first drive, the Bearcats gained just 16 yards the rest of the first half.
Alabama began the second quarter with a 26-yard field goal by Will Reichard, for a 10-3 lead. Then Young connected with Ja’Corey Brooks for a 44-yard touchdown pass late in the half for a 17-3 lead at intermission.
Alabama outgained Cincinnati, 302-76, in the first half and held a 15-5 edge in first downs. The Crimson Tide rushed for 172 yards in the half while averaging 6.9 yards per carry.
Cincinnati opened the second half determined to change the script, but the Bearcats’ drive stalled at the Alabama 19. The resulting field goal trimmed Alabama’s lead to 17-6.
However, Cincinnati’s next two possessions went nowhere and Alabama took a three-score lead, 24-6, with 13:52 left when Young found Cameron Latu for a nine-yard touchdown pass.
Cincinnati drove to the Alabama 22, but the Bearcats’ hopes were dashed when quarterback Desmond Ridder was sacked on fourth down.
The Crimson Tide added a 43-yard field with 6:20 left for the final 21-point margin.