Two teams with drastically different College Football Playoff backgrounds, the Cotton Bowl classic featuring the No. 1 ranked team in the land, the Alabama Crimson Tide, and the undefeated No. 4 Cincinnati Bearcats, will showcase the much overdue progression of the CFP’s selection process.
A playoff known for its bias toward the country’s most prestigious Power 5 programs, Cincinnati’s inclusion into this year’s final four is a step in the right direction for future institutions who enjoy the level of success similar to that of Luke Fickell’s group this fall. A powerhouse unit out of the American Athletic Conference, the Bearcats enter their showdown against the high-powered Crimson Tide as losers of just two of their last 24 games (bowls included) since the start of the 2020 season. While quarterback Desmond Ridder will be looked upon to carry a versatile Bearcats offense against Nick Saban’s stingy defensive group, a matchup on the opposite side of the ball could solely swing the pendulum on whether Cincinnati can stay within reach of the Crimson Tide who are making their seventh appearance in the CFP.
If you’re not familiar with the aptly nicknamed Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner, well, it’s time to make you come out from under your rock. One of CFB’s most dynamic, shutdown defenders the last few seasons, the soon-to-be first-rounder in April is the alpha for a Bearcats defense with pro pedigree at all three levels. Yet to declare for April’s NFL draft, his skill set will be put under the lights of a national stage he’s yet to face in his college career. With the ability to shut down his entire side of the field, his impact against one of the country’s most electric wide receiver talents currently skyrocketing up draft boards will remain ever important to Fickell’s group.
A pass-catcher that dominates at the onset of a route due to his explosive quickness and short-area burst, Ohio State transfer Jameson Williams’ ability to couple his isolation skills with sure hands and YAC ability is unmatched by many in college football. With an eerily similar frame to that of former Crimson Tide standout and Denver Broncos first-rounder Jerry Jeudy, Williams’ streamlined build allows him to blow past defenders at a moment’s notice while also touting the necessary footwork and route-running prowess to break off his routes in the blink of an eye.
Following his disappointing tenure as a Buckeye where his path to snaps looked cloudy in a room crowded with names in Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Williams made the move to Tuscaloosa in hopes of earning a breath of fresh air. With DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle off to the NFL as day-one selections last spring, Alabama was the premier spot for Williams, who saw an opportunity to not only compete, but earn his long-sought-after starting job. And while the presence of John Metchie III (out for season), Slade Bolden, and exciting first-year talents in JoJo Earle and Agiye Hall were obvious competition in spring practice, iron sharpens iron, and the dynamic skill set laced within Williams’ wiry 6-foot-1 frame has progressed the once looked over pass-catcher in Columbus into WR1 for a program overflowing in historic prestige on the boundary.
Williams aligned on the outside opposite Gardner is a matchup of heavyweights. Two superstars with day-one draft skill sets at their respective positions, it’s a preview of two Sunday starters who crave competition and the pressure that comes with playing under a national spotlight. With Metchie III ruled out for the rest of Alabama’s season, the onus on Williams to carry the Crimson Tide passing attack as Bryce Young’s top target will remain paramount to the Tide’s ability to continue to post gaudy scoreboard totals. With Gardner in his face from start to finish, while they’ll surely enjoy their individual wins, whoever is able to come out on top in their positional showdown as the final whistle blows will have a major impact on the overall result of the highly-anticipated clash.