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Can Cincinnati hold up against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl Classic?

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Georgia vs Alabama Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The season for Alabama would have gone much differently if Tank Bigsby had fallen down in bounds during the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide took full advantage of their new lease on life and thoroughly dismantled previously unbeaten Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. The Tide lost star wideout John Metchie III in the process, but still head into the Cotton Bowl Classic as almost a two-touchdown favorite against Cincinnati.

The Bearcats had some scares, namely against Tulsa and Navy, teams that Alabama would have run off the field. But, the Bearcats went 13-0, won their conference championship game and became the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff. After making history once, they’ll try to do it again.

There are a lot of storylines to consider for this game. The gap between the AAC and the SEC is one of them. And, please, don’t point to the SEC’s struggles during the bowl season. Alabama is a different animal and so is the magnitude of this game.

Desmond Ridder has had a fine season and his development at Cincinnati is a microcosm of what Fickell has done with the program as a whole. The senior from nearby Louisville has been a four-year starter and was a rough-around-the-edges prospect that has turned into a polished player that makes smart decisions with the football. His 30/8 TD/INT ratio was the best of his collegiate career, as he also set career-highs in completions and passing yards.

Unfortunately, the Heisman Trophy winner is on the other side in Bryce Young, who stepped into the big shoes of Mac Jones and posted a 43/4 TD/INT ratio with over 4,300 passing yards. Young will be missing Metchie, his top target with 96 catches, but this is Alabama. Four-star and five-star recruits play on special teams while just waiting for a chance to get in the game. Jameson Williams will be the focal point, but others are likely to rise up and make a name for themselves.

The hardest thing to do with a game like this is determine what’s real and what isn’t for Cincinnati. The Bearcats rank sixth in yards per play with 6.93, but also played the 77th-ranked schedule per Jeff Sagarin. Does that also mean we should downplay their 4.32 yards per play against, which ranks third nationally?

Alabama is battle-tested and a member of the best college football conference in the country. The Crimson Tide were almost +2 in yards per play differential against the 14th-ranked schedule. We don’t have to question their numbers, their metrics and their standing as a college football powerhouse. We have to wonder if Cincinnati can match the type of challenge only a team like Alabama can give.

The Bearcats have NFL-caliber talent on the field. They’d have to in order to be as dominant as they have been, even against the quality of competition that they have faced. They don’t have Alabama’s roster, recruiting riches or athletes.

With that in mind, is the 13.5-point spread too much, too little or about right? Personally, after seeing what Alabama did to Georgia and with the presence of some concerns about Ridder under the brightest lights of his career, it seems like too little to me.

Cincinnati is a great story. They’ve blazed a trail for Group of Five teams to strive for in future seasons. I just don’t think they can keep up with maybe the greatest program of all-time.

Pick: Alabama -13.5