ARLINGTON, Texas - The storybook tale of Cincinnati football, a program that resides outside the sport's top tier but earned an invitation to play among the giants, eroded to a gloomy end, because the reward for such a spectacular season was a playoff date against Alabama, the standard-bearers of the college game.

Brian Robinson Jr. is a redshirt senior running back for the University of Alabama. He was the 2021 Offensive MVP in the Cotton Bowl.

The No. 4 Bearcats arrived at the College Football Playoff with an opportunity none of their fellow schools outside the major conferences had ever received. But the top-seeded Crimson Tide, filled with talent, physicality and experience on this stage, upended Cincinnati's hopes with a 27-6 pummeling in Friday's semifinal game at AT&T Stadium.

Alabama pounded through Cincinnati's defensive line with a running game that exposed the Bearcats. Standout quarterback Bryce Young threw three touchdown passes, but the mismatch at the line of scrimmage meant Alabama didn't need a flashy day from its Heisman Trophy winner, who finished with 181 passing yards. Instead, the offense wore down its opponent on the ground, anchored by Brian Robinson Jr.'s career-high 204 yards.

Before this Cotton Bowl matchup, Cincinnati stood as the nation's only undefeated team in the Football Bowl Subdivision, so the Bearcats joined the exclusive club of playoff teams that had only featured 11 different programs in the previous seven editions. But Cincinnati's offense struggled here against a formidable Alabama defense and tallied just 218 yards, sending a familiar participant back to the championship game. The Crimson Tide, which has won six national titles under coach Nick Saban, will face the winner of Friday's other semifinal between No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Georgia in its quest for yet another trophy.

The Bearcats found a glimmer of hope in the third quarter when Bryan Cook intercepted a third-down pass attempt from Young - the first major mistake from either team with Cincinnati facing a 17-6 deficit. But the ensuing drive yielded no points and a sack on third and 16. Quarterback Desmond Ridder, a senior who has helped elevate the program through four years as the starter, faced pressure all afternoon, with the Crimson Tide registering six sacks.

Once Cameron Latu caught a 9-yard touchdown pass on the following series, another title-game appearance for the defending champions had been safely assured.

With his steady performance here, Young became Alabama's single-season passing leader with 4,503 yards and counting, exceeding the mark of Mac Jones, who set the record last season on his way to a national title. The Crimson Tide's reliance on the run game - particularly to start the game and then to drain the clock late - helped the team avoid the danger of Cincinnati's strong secondary and the elite cornerback tandem of Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and Coby Bryant.

The championship-generating factory that is Alabama football reels in the best high school players on an annual basis, creating a talent gap that few can other programs can rival. In the four recruiting classes that combine to make up this year's roster, the Crimson Tide has welcomed 16 five-star and 69 four-star players, according to 247 Sports' composite ratings. Meanwhile Cincinnati has brought in zero five-star prospects and just five players with a four-star rating. Just look at the starting quarterbacks: Young was rated the No. 2 overall player in the 2020 class, and Ridder stood at No. 1,657 in his 2017 class.

Yet that's what makes the rise of Cincinnati a remarkable tale. These unheralded high-schoolers, who were perhaps overlooked but may have also developed rapidly through their college careers, have become some of the nation's best players bound for the NFL. So the Bearcats believed they belonged here.

But the Crimson Tide bullied Cincinnati from the outset. Alabama started the game with 10 straight rushes, including one quarterback scramble, before leaning on the arm of its Heisman winner. Young slung an 8-yard touchdown pass to Slade Bolden, a junior who had scored just two times this season. That opening drive drained more than five minutes off the clock and presented the Bearcats with a troubling reality: This Alabama team could pound through Cincinnati's defense at will.

The Bearcats tried to muster an answer, but after they marched down the field, the offense stalled. Ridder missed his receivers twice, and then on a third-and-goal play, Leonard Taylor caught a pass behind the line of scrimmage and took a 6-yard loss. Cincinnati had to kick a field goal - and Cole Smith made the 33-yarder - but trading 7 points for 3 isn't the winning formula against a team this talented.

The Cincinnati defense had an effective pass rush that limited Young, and the Bearcats didn't let the Crimson Tide storm away early. But the offense slumped and couldn't capitalize. After Cincinnati's first drive ended with a field goal, Alabama's defense forced three straight three-and-outs that totaled 12 yards.

The Bearcats held on to their 7-point deficit, but then Young delivered a pair of key plays just before halftime. He showed off his vision with a nifty pitch to Robinson that gained 23 yards, and a few plays later, Young connected with Ja'Corey Brooks for a 44-yard score. Cincinnati, starting to slip into desperation mode, attempted a Hail Mary as time expired, but Alabama's star linebacker, Will Anderson Jr., sacked Ridder to scuttle the Bearcats' hopes of trimming the 17-3 margin. Even with Cincinnati receiving the ball after the break, Alabama's advantage already seemed secure.

The defending national champions had blemishes this season that made them seem vulnerable - at least more so than usual. The Crimson Tide still entered this playoff as the top seed, even though this group of players didn't steamroll SEC opposition the way Alabama typically does. There was that loss at Texas A&M - one that players now say could have been the turning point of their season - and then there were narrow escapes against Auburn in a game that required four overtimes and against Florida, a team that went on to fire its coach.

Yet now, the Crimson Tide is back to the place where it often finishes the season - in a national championship game.

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