Top-ranked Alabama starts its postseason quest for a second straight national championship when it opposes College Football Playoff barrier-breaker Cincinnati on Dec. 31 in the Cotton Bowl at Arlington, Texas.
The Crimson Tide (12-1) are old hands at the CFP, making their seventh appearance in the eight years that the current title-deciding format has been in place.
In addition to a 52-24 win over Ohio State in the 2020-21 title game, Alabama won it all in 2015-16 and 2017-18 but took championship-game losses in 2016-17 and 2018-19.
In contrast, the No. 4 Bearcats (13-0) are the first non-Power 5 conference program to be selected for the College Football Playoff.
"There's a reason they've been in the playoff seven out of the eight years," Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said of Alabama. "This is not just a top-five program; this is the top program.
"It's an incredible measuring stick on an incredible stage with an incredible opportunity."
It might seem like a formidable challenge for Cincinnati, but the first step is overcoming the Alabama mystique.
"Our players know who they're playing," Fickell said. "They know what (Alabama) is all about, what that program is all about. Now we have to try to find ways to humanize them and bring ourselves back into doing what we need to do.
"The reality is we're not the best team, probably. But that doesn't really matter, because on the 31st, it's really going to be about who is going to play the best."
The Bearcats will rely on the nation's second-best pass defense (168.3 yards allowed per game) to contain Heisman Trophy-winning Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.
While Young threw for 4,322 yards and 43 touchdowns with just four interceptions, Cincinnati has 18 picks (third in the nation in the regular season) and 37 sacks (tied for 19th).
"They don't make a lot of mistakes," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of the Bearcats. "They have some very talented guys. They have a good secondary. They have some guys up front that can rush and have some quickness, and their linebackers are very good players. All around, this is a very good defensive team."
Young has guided Alabama to the nation's fourth-best scoring average, 42.5 points per game.
"As a sophomore in his first year playing, the way he commands, the patience and poise he plays with, a lot of guys will think he can run and is a good athlete, but really for a young guy, I've never seen somebody who uses his feet to take off but does it to throw the ball down the field," Fickell said.
Cincinnati counters with Desmond Ridder, who passed for 3,190 yards with 30 TDs and eight interceptions and rushed for 361 yards with six scores.
He will face All-America linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who leads the nation with 15 1/2 sacks.
Cincinnati's leading ball-carrier, running back Jerome Ford (1,242 yards and 19 touchdowns this season), transferred from Alabama after the 2019 season.
The Crimson Tide are 5-1 in national semifinals, with the loss coming in the inaugural CFP in 2014-15. That 42-35 setback came against Ohio State, which had Fickell as its co-defensive coordinator.
The Cincinnati-Alabama winner will play the Orange Bowl winner, No. 2 Michigan or No. 3 Georgia, for the national title on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.
--Field Level Media