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Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide have played in all but one of the College Football Playoffs since the introduction of the CFP in 2014. But they still had a first-time experience in their recent semifinal game against the Cincinnati Bearcats: They played a Group of Five school.

Cincinnati became the first non-Power Five program to ever make the CFP after going undefeated in a second consecutive regular season and beating Notre Dame on the road in the process. The Bearcats, however, lost to the reigning national champion Tide 27-6 in the semifinals.

The result likely forced Group of Five doubters to instantly wonder whether Cincy belonged, but Nick Saban’s recent comments revealed the absolute truth about the Bearcats.

The Cincinnati Bearcats kept it close with the Alabama Crimson Tide through three quarters in the College Football Playoff semifinals

While the final score may indicate that it was a lopsided contest, Cincinnati was actually in striking distance for the majority of its College Football Playoff matchup with Alabama.

The Bearcats played Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young tough the entire game as cornerbacks Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Coby Bryant helped hold him to only 181 yards. And with 4:54 left in the third quarter, and with Cincy only down 17-6, the defense forced Young into an interception near midfield. The Bearcats offense, however, couldn’t capitalize and later punted.

It was the second time UC couldn’t capitalize on a Bama miscue in the game as JoJo Earle muffed a punt return deep in Crimson Tide territory during the second quarter, but Cincinnati couldn’t come up with the ball and what would have been great field position.

UC then went into the third quarter only down 11, but Alabama scored 10 fourth-quarter points to clinch the 27-6 victory.

All in all, while Cincinnati played Bama tough, the Tide’s CFP experience proved crucial. And Nick Saban knows that just a couple of plays could have changed the game drastically.

Nick Saban believes Cincinnati belonged in the College Football Playoff

Luke Fickell and Nick Saban talk before the Cincinnati Bearcats and Alabama Crimson Tide's College Football Playoff semifinal matchup.
Head coach Luke Fickell (from left) of the Cincinnati Bearcats and head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide before a College Football Playoff semifinal on Dec. 31, 2021. | Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

After the win, Nick Saban had nothing but praise for Cincy.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they belong in the Playoff,” he said, per CBS Sports. “I think they gave us all we could handle in this game tonight. If we don’t stop them on fourth down a couple times in the red zone, this game could have been a lot closer.” 

He then added that head coach Luke Fickell “has done a fantastic job” with his UC program.

“Anybody that looks and watched their team play — even playing us tonight — their team plays with a lot of toughness,” he said. “They play hard. They’re very well-coached. They play together as a group. They’re sound and solid in what they do in every phase of the game.”

It seems Saban was impressed with Cincinnati. And whether you agree with him or not, he revealed the truth about the Bearcats: They absolutely belonged in the College Football Playoff.

The Cincinnati Bearcats absolutely belonged in the College Football Playoff

Anyone fully against Group of Five schools making the CFP will point to the fact that Alabama beat Cincy by three touchdowns, but they won’t look at the game as a whole. However, even that argument isn’t a good reason for saying the Bearcats didn’t belong.

Look at these past blowouts in the CFP:

  • 2014: Oregon 59, Florida State 20
  • 2014: Ohio State 42, Oregon 20
  • 2015: Alabama 38, Michigan State 0
  • 2016: Clemson 31, Ohio State 0
  • 2018: Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3
  • 2018: Clemson 44, Alabama 16
  • 2019: LSU 63, Oklahoma 28
  • 2020: Alabama 31, Notre Dame 14
  • 2020: Ohio State 49, Clemson 28
  • 2020: Alabama 52, Ohio State 24
  • 2021: Georgia 34, Michigan 11

Several teams have performed significantly worse than Cincinnati, and some have played in the CFP multiple times. Even Alabama has lost a CFP game by a larger margin.

So, the margin-of-victory argument carries no weight, and it’s really the only one UC haters have.

Everyone who watched the Bearcats this year saw they had talent all over the field. They had one of the best defenses in the country and proved it against Bama (don’t forget that the Tide scored 41 against Georgia’s tough D). They also had talented skill players who just couldn’t quite find success against the Alabama dynasty.

If the loss was anything, it wasn’t proof that Cincinnati didn’t belong. The team proved that with how hard it played. The game was a measuring stick for the up-and-coming program, as Luke Fickell and his staff now know what they must do to get better and win the whole thing.

Sure, Cincy fell short in this year’s CFP. But with the complete transformation the school has seen under Fickell — and the fact it is in the process of moving to the Big 12 — the Bearcats have a great chance to avenge this loss in future seasons.

Stats courtesy of ESPN