Names change. Dominance doesn't. Alabama rides next wave of stars into another national title game
Alabama reminded everyone why it is the premier college football program in the nation.
Led by running back Brian Robinson Jr., the Crimson Tide showed off its best asset — depth — in a thoroughly routine 27-6 win against Cincinnati in the first College Football Playoff semifinal game Friday.
Robinson, a career backup until this season, ran for a career-high 204 yards in the Cotton Bowl because, well, he could. In the process, he broke the school record for most yards in a bowl game. He ran 26 times for a 7.8-yard average with a sledgehammer approach that the Bearcats’ quick — but smallish — 3-3-5 defense had no answer for.
Anyone aware of Alabama’s recent run of championships knows what Robinson did wasn’t what Bama coach Nick Saban would prefer. What Robinson did Friday was straight out of Saban’s 2009-2015 playbook. Now, blessed with elite quarterbacks, Saban would prefer to use a collection of weapons to outpace and outscore defenses. Even when Saban used to rely on the run, he often deployed a collection of tailbacks. That hasn’t been a luxury for most of this season. Even Robinson was slowed by a sore hamstring earlier this month before showing up at his best Friday.
Robinson wasn’t the only skill-position player to up his game when Bama faced its recent run of injuries, most notably to top receiver John Metchie III.
The Crimson Tide turned to receiver Slade Bolden and tight end Cameron Latu to help make up for some of Metchie’s productivity. Bolden caught Bama’s first touchdown pass, an 8-yard reception, to put some early pressure on the Bearcats. Latu caught a 9-yard touchdown pass that put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter. Bama led 24-6 and there was no looking back.
The lesser-known players weren’t the only ones who had major impacts in response to Bama’s offensive injuries. Crimson Tide receiver Jameson Williams modified his game with Metchie out. Known for deep routes and deeper completions, Williams filled the role that Metchie previously held: a possession receiver. Williams kept the chains moving throughout the game. He slipped, sprinted and even back-pedaled for key first downs. Williams finished with 7 receptions for 62 yards receiving. That’s 8.9-yards per catch, pedestrian by his standards. However, it’s exactly what Bama needed. He also acted as a decoy, occupying defenders that freed up Bolden, Latu and others.
But as much as Friday was about backups playing important roles, none of that would have mattered much if not for Robinson, who set the tone from the opening drive.
Bama drove 75 yards for an opening TD. Robinson gained 37 yards to set up Young’s TD toss to Bolden.
Robinson’s ascent is an example that Bama coaches can use in the future. The Tuscaloosa native signed with Alabama in 2017. He waited patiently behind more talented, older tailbacks, most notably Najee Harris, who was selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Robinson could have left Alabama long ago. There’s seemingly a transfer portal on every corner of every college town in the nation. However, Robinson stayed, succeeded and will play for a national title as a starter.
What does that say for Bama backups who may be frustrated by a lack of playing time? Is it better to leave to play sooner or stay and be best prepared for the NFL? At least that’s the argument that Bama’s coaches will use — again and again — for players who are considering transferring in the near future.
Alabama’s win against Cincinnati was vintage Saban because it could be. The Crimson Tide ran the ball early, often and never stopped. The Bama defense kept the Bearcats from creating any sort of real threat. It was more of a hammering than it was a high-flying offensive track meet that fans have become accustomed to. Sure, some of that was due to Cincinnati’s supremely talented defensive secondary, but there was no need to challenge the highly rated group.
The Bearcats were determined to keep Alabama’s offense in front of them. Mission accomplished. However, winning that aspect of the game didn’t do much for Cincy’s chances. Bama was fine with taking small and medium-size chunks of yardage. There wasn’t really a need to have quarterback Bryce Young throw the ball deep. Still, he was solid. He finished 17-for-28 for 181 yards and 3 touchdowns. In the process, he set single-season records for passing yards and TDs. He’ll enter the national championship game with 4,503 yards and 46 TDs.
Think of the names that stood out for Alabama. Williams was supposedly a malcontent who transferred from Ohio State. Bolden wasn’t mentioned among Bama’s top receivers. Latu was considered an above-average tight end before the season. Robinson was a career backup. There wasn’t a surefire star among that group this time last year. Yet there they were — beating Cincinnati and sending Alabama to yet another national championship game.
Alabama might not win the national championship. There’s no guarantee. This isn’t its best team under Saban — not even close. However, its depth is non-negotiable. That’s what continues to make Alabama the best program in the nation.