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Cincinnati vs. Alabama prediction and pick for this weekend's CFP semifinal. Alex Kirshner picks the first Playoff semifinal bowl of 2021, and you may be surprised which side he ends up on for this one.
ANALYSIS

Cincinnati vs. Alabama Prediction, Pick Against the Spread, and Latest Odds

Cincinnati Bearcats vs. Alabama Crimson Tide - CFP Semifinal

Cotton Bowl

Spread: Alabama -13.5

Total: 58.5

Game time: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET

Where to Watch: ESPN

Cincinnati vs. Alabama odds

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Cincinnati vs. Alabama Prediction

The College Football Playoff semifinals are set for New Year's Eve and will go ahead as planned unless one of the teams can't play because of a COVID-19 outbreak. As long as the games remain on the schedule, the worsening pandemic reintroduces what had been a major variable in the 2020 season but hadn't come up often in 2021. It's possible that someone's game day roster looks significantly different than anticipated, and that would mean a similar late change to spreads, totals, and the like. A heavy degree of uncertainty will be the cost of doing business if you're interested in betting on the Playoff bowls, even more than it usually is in the volatile world of sports gambling.

With that disclaimer in place, let's talk about what should and hopefully will be an excellent game. It's a history-making affair, as Cincinnati shows up in North Texas as the first Group of Five team to ever appear in the Playoff. The Bearcats will have their work cut out for them against the best quarterback in the country, Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young. Oddsmakers (and, really, markets) have been skeptical of Cincy's ability to hang with Bama's powerful offense, and the Tide have been around two-touchdown favorites since the matchup became clear at the beginning of December.

You might not have the stomach to bet against Young and company covering, but I see the Bearcats as the best value proposition in the field this week. I think markets are underrating them for the simple reason that they're a non-power-conference team going up against the Nick Saban death star, and not because Bama is really two TDs better on a neutral field. If you're looking for action on this game, I think Cincinnati is the smartest place to look.

The Tide's offensive outburst in the SEC Championship against Georgia, which previously looked like it might have the best defense ever, could understandably spook you into thinking Cincinnati's defense won't hold up either. The risk exists. But I think Cincinnati matches up pretty well against Alabama, at least to the extent anyone can. Defensive ends Myjai Sanders and Curtis Brooks are some of the best edge rushers in the sport and seem well equipped to cause disruption against an offensive line that's been weaker than Saban's typical unit. The Bearcat secondary, led by cornerback Sauce Gardner, has been elite for years and has played effectively in its last two appearances against high-end receiving and tight end talent: Georgia in last year's Peach Bowl and Notre Dame earlier this season. Bama's offensive talent certainly exceeds either of those groups, but it will sting the Tide not to have John Metchie, one of their two star receivers. Metchie tore his ACL against Georgia and won't play. That lightens the Cincy defense's burden a lot.

Cincinnati's offense will probably struggle with Alabama's defense. While Luke Fickell's defenses have fared well in recent games against blue-blood programs, the offense has slowed down considerably, which you'd expect given the jump in competition from the AAC to the Notre Dames, Georgias, and especially Alabamas of the world. But the Bearcats have real talent on this side of the ball, too, and it's important not to understate their abilities. Receiver Alec Pierce is an intermediate and deep threat with the talent to get touches on a team like Alabama. Running back Jerome Ford did play for Alabama before transferring out of a stocked depth chart and becoming a star at Cincinnati. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is going to play in the NFL himself, even if he's a backup. And the offensive line dominated for most of the season and played fine against Notre Dame.

So you might expect the Bearcats to have one of their lowest offensive outputs of the season, but I don't think it's unreasonable at all to expect them to score well into the 20s. That would give the Tide a lot of work to do against a star-studded defense in order to cover a 13.5-point spread. COVID might throw a wrench into this game, some way or another. But given everything we know about both of these teams, we should expect a closer game than the odds suggest. That leaves Cincinnati as the value play.

Cincinnati vs. Alabama Pick

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Article Author

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NCAAF

Alex Kirshner covers college football for the Moon Crew newsletter. He is a co-author of The Sinful Seven: Sci-Fi Western Legends of the NCAA, and he lives in Washington, D.C.

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