It’s easy to draw the line of comparison and mark it all the way to the Iron Bowl.

An aggressive Auburn defense causing problems for the Alabama offensive line. A struggling Alabama passing game, playing without star WR Jameson Williams, who had been ejected for targeting.

And more important, a game Alabama nearly – and probably should’ve – lost.

Here we are at the College Football Playoff semifinal, and Alabama faces a similar situation against Cincinnati. Tide coach Nick Saban has praised the Cincinnati defense, and raved about their athletic ability and quickness in the front six.

Now add in the loss of star WR John Metchie III (knee) for Alabama and how it limits what the Tide can do outside of Williams, and it’s easy to make those comparisons.

I asked three NFL scouts who have seen multiple Alabama and Cincinnati games (yes, the Bearcats have a handful of NFL Draft prospects) to explain the similarities.

“The big difference is Williams is a burner, and Metchie, while he has good speed, isn’t the type of guy that can run away from bracketed coverage,” one NFL scout said. “That will help Alabama, but Cincinnati will make it difficult for Williams. I expect them to jam him at the line immediately, and then bracket him over the top.”

And if Cincinnati tries to take away Williams?

“There are a lot of young receivers (at Alabama), and my guess is Nick has learned from what happened at Auburn,” another NFL scout said. “Look for them to get both of those tight ends on the field at the same time. You stretch (Jahleel) Billingsley outside, and Latu is your inside. Billingsley will be a matchup problem for Cincinnati’s corners; they’ll give up four inches to him. And he’ll run by linebackers.”

Another NFL scout said while Cincinnati could cause problems for the Alabama offense, the game will revolve around Tide QB Bryce Young.

“You’re talking about a Joe Burrow-type postseason from him,” the scout said. “We saw the beginning of it in the (SEC) championship game. A guy that can throw with accuracy and won’t get rattled by pressure. He’s really good at moving in the pocket and buying an extra second, or escaping and throwing accurately on the run. He just breaks your back, your will, with those plays.

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“He still has the one guy (Williams) who can take the top off. And if you have to, you go 4- or 5-wide, or use bunch sets, to force (Cincinnati) into man (coverage). There’s no one on that field that can cover (Williams) in man. If Alabama protects, it’s Burrow throwing raindrops to JaMarr Chase and Clemson helpless to cover it all over again. The same thing.”

How Michigan will bottle up Stetson Bennett

For those who believe Georgia QB Stetson Bennett’s struggles in the SEC Championship Game were an anomaly, consider this breakdown from two NFL area scouts – who specifically scouted Midwest teams.

Both insist that Michigan’s pass rush is much more than DEs Aidan Hutchinson (14 sacks) and DE/LB David Ojabo (11 sacks). Both credit unique and exotic blitzes from first-year DC Mike Macdonald, who uses concepts from his time as linebackers coach with the Baltimore Ravens to affect the quarterback.

Michigan led the Big Ten in sacks (38), and opponents completed just 56% of their passes.

“I keep hearing about (Bennett’s) ability to get yards in the run game when scrambling,” an area scout said. “Sean Clifford didn’t hurt Michigan, and neither, really, did Adrian Martinez. Michigan got after both of them in the pass game, and those are two guys that are athletic and can run. Neither hurt them with scrambles. That Michigan defense will not let Bennett get those easy yards.”

Another scout compares Bennett to Payton Thorne of Michigan State. Thorne had 7 carries for 0 yards, and threw 2 INTs – but Michigan lost because it couldn’t stop Spartans TB Kenneth Walker III.

“I can absolutely see Georgia running and wearing down (Michigan),” the scout said. “Michigan State just kept feeding Walker, and even though Thorne played poorly for much of the game, he was able to hit a couple of key throws in the fourth quarter because Michigan was so focused on Walker.”

The Cincinnati connection

Notre Dame needs a defensive coordinator, and don’t be surprised if new Irish coach Marcus Freeman looks to his former team (Cincinnati) to fill the spot.

He saw enough of it earlier this season in Notre Dame’s only loss.

Mike Tressel’s Cincinnati defense went into South Bend, Ind., and forced the Irish into their worst game of the season: 341 total yards and 3 turnovers.

Notre Dame completed 50% of its passes and averaged 3 yards per carry.

“They had a great plan,” former ND and current LSU coach Brian Kelly said. “They were aggressive, and they weren’t sitting back.”

Tressel, the nephew of former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, was a longtime assistant at Michigan State and left Mel Tucker’s staff after one season to join Luke Fickell at Cincinnati after Freeman left for the same job at ND.

Cincinnati is No. 4 in the nation in scoring defense (16.1 ppg.), No. 7 in total defense (305.8 ypg.), No. 1 in pass efficiency (100.47 rating), No. 1 in takeaways (33) and has 37 sacks.

The Bearcats are +12 in takeaways from Freeman’s final season at UC, +7 in sacks and incrementally better in points and total yards.

“There’s a reason there’s been no movement on the hire,” one industry source told me. “It’s the worst kept secret in the industry that (Tressel) is the No. 1 candidate.”

Stay or go?

Bill O’Brien is in a unique situation at Alabama, one that pays him well and affords him the ability to be patient when it comes to returning to the life of a head coach.

The question is, when does O’Brien make the move?

A coach who won 4 division titles in a 6-season span with the Houston Texans will get another shot in the NFL. He could also return to the college game, where his two seasons at Penn State went a long way in saving the program after the Sandusky scandal.

Staying at Alabama another season – with Young returning for his (likely) last season, and with a group of elite young skill players – isn’t a bad move. Even though Saban was the only job offer O’Brien had after getting fired from the Texans in the middle of the 2020 season, O’Brien already has been approached by college teams looking for head coaches — and will likely be considered by NFL teams at the end of the season.

One industry source said the NFL traction will pick up for O’Brien after the season, especially if Alabama wins the national title. O’Brien’s work with Young – a Heisman Trophy in his first season as a starter — can’t be ignored.

“When you’re in this profession and you start up and you start to climb the ladder, that kind of comes with the territory,” O’Brien said. “It’s really not my first rodeo. I’ve been very, very excited about the opportunity. I’m very grateful for coach Saban for the opportunity.”