The Alabama Crimson Tide and Cincinnati Bearcats will meet in this year's iteration of the Cotton Bowl. The Bearcats will look to continue playing spoiler as the first team to defy the odds stacked against them by reaching the College Football Playoff from a non-Power 5 conference. They'll encounter a Nick Saban-led Crimson Tide squad that, unlike Cincinnati, finds itself in awfully familiar territory. It's really just another year for Alabama, who enter this intriguing contest as nearly two-touchdown favorites.
Cincinnati didn't reach the playoff by mistake. There was no error made by the ever-controversial selection committee. No, the Bearcats earned the right to compete on the backs of an uber-talented roster that is hungry to prove themselves on college football's grandest stage. The outcome of this exciting contest will be determined by the execution of the plethora of talented players on the field. We've identified three player-versus-player matchups we’re particularly excited to monitor.
JAMESON WILLIAMS VS. AHMAD “SAUCE” GARDNER
Wide receiver and cornerback showdowns don't get bigger or better than this. Alabama's Jameson Williams has served as a phenomenon in 2021 while stunningly emerging as Bryce Young's favorite target in Alabama's passing game. The former Ohio State transfer is an electric talent that exploded for 68 receptions, 1,445 yards, and an astounding 15 touchdowns. Williams' average of 21.3 yards per reception accurately captures his big-play ability on any given snap. A smooth operator that wins deep with relative ease, Young will undeniably look to feed Williams early and often as Alabama looks to jump out to a commanding lead in what many expect to be a lopsided contest.
There aren't many collegiate cornerbacks capable of slowing down Williams, but Cincinnati's Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner belongs on the shortlist. The 6-foot-2 cover-corner possesses first-round talent in abundance and may serve as the key to slowing down Williams (and Alabama's offense as a whole). A long and athletic corner that competes at the catch point like no other, Gardner's talent will be on full display in his biggest challenge of the season. If Gardner can successfully blanket Williams while effectively eradicating him from Alabama's game plan, the entire game changes and Cincinnati's chances of pulling off the unthinkable becomes all that more realistic.
MYJAI SANDERS VS. EVAN NEAL
This matchup also promises to put two exciting NFL draft prospects on display. Cincinnati's Myjai Sanders returned to the program in 2021 with hopes of achieving more team-related goals while simultaneously boosting his draft stock. Sanders has done just that, as his defensive efforts have helped power Cincinnati to their first playoff berth under the current format.
A fearless pass rusher that combines an explosive first step with excellent length that he understands how to best utilize, Sanders has terrorized quarterbacks to the tune of 13.5 career sacks as a Bearcat. Sanders serves as one of Cincinnati's most important defenders and he'll be facing a tall task on Friday, both metaphorically and literally.
When Sanders takes his stance over the left tackle, he'll encounter Evan Neal, college football's most talented offensive lineman. Neal is largely expected to be the first offensive tackle selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. A 6-foot-6, 360-pound specimen, Neal's ideal length and overall body mass make him an excellent blindside protector in pass protection.
Both of these draft-eligible talents will be playing on Sundays soon enough. Friday's showdown gives them an elite opportunity to showcase themselves and their intriguing skill sets. This is a must-watch heavyweight battle.
DESMOND RIDDER VS. ALABAMA’S DEFENSE
Cincinnati’s hopes of reigning victorious largely rest on the shoulders of the quarterback that helped them get here. A dual-threat phenom, Desmond Ridder has hopes of being the first quarterback selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. A strong performance against Alabama on the largest national stage would go a long way toward him potentially achieving that goal. Ridder has been outstanding in 2021 while accounting for a career-high 37 touchdowns.
A highly intriguing quarterback prospect that possesses the size, mobility, arm talent, and big-play ability to be successful at the next level, watching Ridder compete against a stingy Crimson Tide defense that features several future NFL players is an exercise worth partaking in. The outcome will be studied by NFL evaluators for months to come as Ridder faces the stiffest test of his collegiate career.
Ridder's ability to escape the pocket and pick up chunks of yardage with his legs or deliver the football on time and with precision outside of structure are special tools he must utilize on Friday. There's no denying that Ridder will face an extremely difficult challenge versus the Crimson Tide. His ability or failure to maneuver through that pressure will say a lot about him as a prospect.