CFP: Bearcats break through and top-seeded Tide awaits

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Cincinnati’s Bryon Threats (10) celebrates after defeating Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Cincinnati is the first outsider to make the College Football Playoff. Alabama is the standard bearer.

The two will meet in a semifinal game deep in the heart of Texas on New Year’s Eve in the Cotton Bowl.

American Athletic Conference champion Cincinnati (13-0), the only remaining undefeated team, was fourth in the CFP rankings released Sunday to become the first non-Power Five confernce team to make the final four. Top-seeded Alabama (12-1) is making its seventh appearance in the eight seasons of the four-team format and will play its 12th playoff game.

“I can’t say that I’ve studied much of anything that they’ve done, but obviously just watching from afar this year at times, you know they’re a great football team,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said of the Crimson Tide on ESPN. “They’ve got great talent across the board.”

The Bearcats finished fourth even with only two victories this season over Top 25 teams, though one of those was 24-13 on Oct. 2 at Notre Dame. That was the only loss this season for the Fighting Irish, who were fifth in the CFP, the first team left out of the playoff. Cincinnati won the AAC title game Saturday 35-20 over Houston, which had an 11-game winning streak.

“We certainly think Cincinnati belongs in the playoffs and they’re a really good team, based on their resume, who they beat, whether it’s Notre Dame, Indiana,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told ESPN. “We have to have the proper respect.”

Alabama has won six national titles under Saban, three of those coming in the short CFP era. This is the fifth time the Crimson Tide is the No. 1 seed.

The Tide won the SEC championship game 41-24 over previously unbeaten Georgia, which is the No. 3 seed and will play Big Ten champion Michigan in the Orange Bowl, the other playoff semifinal. The championship game is Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.

This will be the third CFP semifinal game Alabama will play inside AT&T Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, after winning the first two during national championship seasons. The Tide beat Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl six years ago, and last Jan. 1 beat Notre Dame 31-14 in a Rose Bowl game that was relocated from California because of the pandemic.

It is Alabama’s ninth Cotton Bowl overall, though that semifinal shutout of the Spartans on Dec. 31, 2015, was its first in 10 years.

Cincinnati is playing in the Cotton Bowl for the first time, but will playing in its second New Year’s Six game in 2021. Last New Year’s Day, the Bearcats lost 24-21 in the Peach Bowl when Georgia kicked a 53-yard field goal with three seconds left in the game in Atlanta.

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