Here’s the Big Advantage that Pushed Alabama Past Cincinnati

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(AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Chase Kiddy @chaseakiddy Jan 06, 2022, 4:57 PM

The final round of college football championship odds are set, with No. 1 Alabama set to take on No. 3 Georgia on Monday night. 

As is the case every year, millions of people will tune into Monday night’s national championship. And naturally, whenever millions of people tune in to anything, you can expect a great many of them to be locked into the online sports betting component. 

If you’re a Lion’s Edge subscriber – or just a general consumer of The Roar – you know that I am definitely here for the football betting angle. I’ve spent a lot of time this past week rewatching the semifinals and breaking down the championship matchup from all angles.

This isn’t my official game preview – that’ll probably come down on Friday or Saturday – but I did want to offer some brief analysis on why Alabama’s offense was so successful against Cincinnati’s defense in the Cotton Bowl, as well as why that’s relevant against Georgia.

College Football Playoff Analysis: How Alabama Beat Cincinnati

To understand Alabama’s 27-6 semifinal win over Cincinnati, we have to talk about scheme and game plan. Under Luke Fickell, Cincinnati has primarily played a base defense with three down lineman and a nickel defensive back on the field – a 3-3-5 defensive set. 

To explain why this is an advantageous base for a team like Cincinnati would be to explain a sizable portion of modern college football history. The short answer, though, is best summed up like this: speed is a lot easier to recruit than power. 

Many of the great second-tier programs of the 21st century have sought to close the competitive gap with powerhouse programs through a base defense with five defensive backs – Gary Patterson, the mid-2000s West Virginia teams and the Fickell-era Bearcats, to name just a few. 

This alignment has only become more powerful as a counter to spread offenses and increasingly dynamic passing attacks. With fewer big guys near the line of scrimmage, defenses have more speed and flexibility in the second and third levels of their scheme. 

When Nick Saban’s staff began to plan their offensive strategy for last week’s Cotton Bowl semifinal, they correctly identified Cincinnati’s defensive backfield as an area of strength. Both in scheme and personnel, the Cincinnati DB’s are the strength of the team. 

A more self-involved coaching staff might have chosen to match strength for strength, putting the game on the shoulders of recent Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young. 

Instead, the Alabama brain trust wisely decided to plan around where they had the best advantage: playing through Alabama’s blue-chip offensive line, which would lock horns against a Cincinnati defensive front that routinely played with three down lineman.

The result was staggering: the Crimson Tide rolled up 301 yards on the ground, notching an impressive 6.4 yards per carry as a team. Running back Brian Robinson was unstoppable, posting a career-best 204 yards and 7.8 yards per carry.

This is not a vintage Alabama offensive line, mind you. The talent level is high, but the production has been staggeringly average at times. The unit has been criticized for much of the 2021 season for being below program standards – particularly when it comes to run blocking. But the offensive line found a new level of success this season against Cincinnati because of the schematic and personnel advantages it enjoyed over the Bearcats.

Saban referenced his staff’s game plan in the post-game press conference, alluding to the fact that the offense was happy to let the nature of Cincinnati’s defense dictate their own style of play.

“Sometimes, you’ve gotta take what the defense gives,” Saban said. “A lot of the run plays we had, they had RPO’s and passes attached to them, but by the way they line up on defense, it’s a give-read. So you don’t end up throwing the ball. And they play a lot of man-to-man, so sometimes they took the RPO’s away. I thought Bryce did a really good job of making good decisions and taking advantage runs when we had them, and a couple of advantage throws when we had them.”

Young, for his part, did not play his most impressive outing of the season. Against Cincinnati’s vaunted secondary, Young went 17-for-28 for 181 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. His passer rating of 143 was one of the lowest of the season – only the near-upset at Auburn and the loss in College Station were lower.

But the Young stat that’s most indicative of his understanding of the game plan was not his passer rating or his touchdown-to-interception ratio, but rather, his raw number of passes attempted. 

The Heisman winner’s 28 passes attempted were a full 20 percent below his season average of 35 pass attempts per game. He only had four games all season with fewer pass attempts, three of which were against opponents ranked outside the top 140 in Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings: Southern Miss, New Mexico State, and FCS Mercer.

All this paints a picture of an Alabama team that knew the optimal path to a win over Cincinnati leaned heavily on the run. Saban elected to run the ball early and often, and when Cincinnati kept its smaller personnel on the field, with DB’s and linebackers backed away from the line of scrimmage, Young continued to hand the ball off on RPO’s.

Georgia vs. Alabama in the National Championship Game

Understanding Alabama’s game plan for the Cincinnati game is an important element to predicting how the Tide will fare in a title game rematch against Georgia. 

Obviously, following the SEC Championship Game, we know that Alabama can beat Georgia. But many of the advantages that Alabama found in a matchup against the Bearcats will not be recreated on Monday night. 

Georgia – slapped from its stupor following the SEC championship loss and the end of its perfect season – looks to have regained its form as a dominant and potentially all-time great defense. Pour some out for Jim Harbaugh, who had the misfortune of standing in the way of a pissed-off Georgia team.

In a schematic rematch of the Georgia defense vs. Bryce Young, I would give the edge to Georgia’s defense. For one thing, Georgia plays a similar style to Cincinnati in that its trendy 4-2-5 base plays with a nickel on the field. Young will have to play much better against another loaded defensive backfield.

For those eager to point to Young’s first outing against the Georgia defense, it’s worth pointing out that his 98.1 QBR in the SEC Championship Game was his second-highest rated outing of the entire 2021 season. And given that the only performance with a higher rating was Southern Miss, I’ll go ahead and label the Georgia game as the best 60 minutes of his young football career. Some negative regression should be expected.

Perhaps most importantly, Georgia just has more guys that are going to see their names next to some NFL Draft odds than Cincinnati does. Cincinnati can match its athletes against almost any team in all of college football, but teams like Alabama are just on a different level. You need another S-tier roster of athletes to match that.

In short, Georgia matches up much better with Alabama than Cincinnati did, and Young is unlikely to ball out like he did in their first game. 

Of course, veteran handicappers will tell you that the number itself holds the best clue as to why Georgia is the right side for Monday’s championship game.

But that’s another post for another day.

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About the Author

Chase Kiddy

Read More @chaseakiddy

Chase Kiddy is a writer for BetMGM and co-host of The Lion's Edge, an NFL and college football podcast available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and everywhere else. He has also written for a number of print and online outlets, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post, Daily News-Record, and HERO Sports. His first novel, Cave Paintings, is in development.

Chase Kiddy is a writer for BetMGM and co-host of The Lion's Edge, an NFL and college football podcast available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and everywhere else. He has also written for a number of print and online outlets, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post, Daily News-Record, and HERO Sports. His first novel, Cave Paintings, is in development.