What Alabama can learn from Cincinnati's close loss against Georgia in Peach Bowl
Making accurate predictions on sporting events is tough. Making accurate predictions about bowl games is nearly impossible. Cincinnati proved that against Georgia last year.
It wasn’t that long ago that Georgia was just another good team. Yes, they were full of talent but they were just one of the many teams hoping to catch the bouquet from Alabama’s national championship celebration. The Crimson Tide were going to win a national championship last season. It was bound to happen. Bama was loaded — even by its standards.
Georgia was in the mix last season until November when the Bulldogs surprisingly lost to Florida 44-28. That, along with a 41-24 loss to Alabama earlier in the season, nixed any chance that Georgia had to be a part of the College Football Playoff. Instead of playing for a national championship, the Bulldogs were relegated to the Peach Bowl against an overachiever like Cincinnati — or so we thought.
The Bearcats were a great story. They were undefeated and in the College Football Playoff conversation despite not being in a Power 5 conference. However, the College Football Playoff committee passed on Cincinnati to include Bama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Clemson. That was understandable. Surely, those rascally Bearcats couldn’t match up against the traditional powers of college football. Right? Well, maybe not.
Cincinnati is once again undefeated. This time, the Bearcats will get their shot at a national championship. That starts when they play Alabama on Friday in the first College Football Playoff semifinal game of the day. Winning all of their games this season was the most important reason they’ll play with the big boys. Almost upsetting Georgia last year didn’t hurt.
Before we delve into what Cincinnati did correctly against Georgia last season in the Peach Bowl, let’s address the 800-pound Bulldog in the room. Georgia wasn’t in the College Football Playoff, was matched against a team that is named after a city and a program that is a far cry from being the best in its own state. Therefore, it’s fair to say that Georgia could have lacked motivation in Atlanta while more important games were being played elsewhere. That’s human nature. However, Georgia’s stars played. All of them. And played well. JT Daniels and George Pickens played so well that their performance drove much of the offseason narrative about how dangerous 2021 Georgia could be. Besides, questioning one team’s desire is no reason to belittle Cincy’s effort against Georgia in a game that they very easily could have won — and probably should have.
It’s easy to forget that Georgia trailed Cincinnati 21-10 in the fourth quarter before rallying to win 24-21. Georgia gave up 3 touchdowns in the first three quarters. This year, Georgia’s historically good defense didn’t give up 3 touchdowns in an entire game until they were trounced by Alabama 41-24 in the SEC Championship Game. Still, Georgia’s résumé was good enough to get into the College Football Playoff. They’ll play Michigan in the second semifinal on Friday.
Georgia’s close call against Cincinnati last season had a wide-ranging effect on college football. First, the Bearcats proved they could play with the stalwarts of college football. It was going to be incredibly difficult to make the argument that Cincinnati didn’t deserve a shot at the national title this season if they went undefeated in the regular season again, which they did. Primarily because doing so required winning at Notre Dame — which remained a Playoff contender the rest of the way — and at Indiana, an offseason darling after a breakthrough 2020 campaign. Indiana was ranked No. 17 in the preseason poll. Notre Dame was No. 9. Cincy won both road games by double digits.
Last year’s Peach Bowl should also give Bama fans some pause that might look at Cincinnati as a speedbump on the road to a national title. So how exactly did Cincinnati almost upset Georgia? Let’s look back.
First, Georgia threw — a lot. Daniels completed 26-of-38 passes for 392 yards, a touchdown and an interception. No coach would turn down that stat line — except for perhaps Georgia’s Kirby Smart, who built his team this season on running the football and playing exceptional defense.
Georgia never committed to the run against Cincinnati last year. The Bulldogs managed only 45 yards on 24 attempts in the Peach Bowl. (This year’s Georgia team could easily run the ball twice as many times in a ground-and-pound victory. Smart would be just fine with 50 rushing attempts in a win against Michigan on Friday.)
One could easily argue that Smart was trying to be more like the nouveau Alabama team that has dominated college football recently. Alabama scores a ton of points when things are going as coach Nick Saban would like. However, managing a game like that is more difficult than it might seem. Defensive substitutions become key to keep teams fresh when they don’t have the ball. Saban has mastered that art. Smart is still working on that and, frankly, may never be able to accomplish that goal. Smart may be the “boring” coach who depends on a strong rushing attack and a stout defense. That certainly worked for him this year.
Georgia fell behind Cincy and probably felt like it had to throw so much. Again, Daniels is better suited for that type of game, anyway.
Saban and Alabama like to throw the football, too — Bryce Young is virtually guaranteed of setting single-season school records for TD throws and yards Friday. Saban doesn’t have too much of a choice.
Yes, John Metchie III is out and that obviously will impact Bama’s passing game and force others to contribute, but the running back room isn’t a picture of health, either. Depth has been an issue all season.
Keeping the score low by design also has its challenges. Georgia needed a 53-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter to beat Cincinnati. The Bulldogs still could have lost the Peach Bowl if not for a strong defensive stand to end Cincinnati’s chances.
Offensively, Cincinnati returns most of the playmakers who made an impact against Georgia. QB Desmond Ridder is a 5th-year senior. He won at Notre Dame. He threw for 206 yards and 2 TDs against Georgia. He won’t be intimidated. Running back Jerome Ford is a former Alabama player. He’s quite familiar with the Tide. He ran for 97 yards — 79 of it coming on a TD run — against Georgia. He’s looking forward to the challenge Friday.
As for Cincinnati’s showing last season against Georgia, Alabama had better take notice. Cincy has proven it is not afraid to play with the big boys. They did so last year against the bulk of a Georgia team that also is playing for a national championship this year.
The Bearcats will likely do the same with much more to play for Friday.