Bowl preview: Alabama to tackle undefeated Cincinnati in playoffs, Auburn goes bowling in Birmingham, UAB in Independence vs. BYU

Nick Saban isn’t sorry for being good, even when some thought his Crimson Tide might not be as good as it has been.

“I’m not apologizing for trying to have a program like a lot of people have tried to have, a program that can get in the playoffs as many times as possible,” he said Sunday. “I’m sure that’s the goal of a lot of folks.”

Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams (1) runs the ball in the Tide’s 41-24 victory over then-No. 1 Georgia. (Evan Pilat / Alabama Athletics)

But not everyone has been able to accomplish the goal the way Saban and Alabama have, again beating back challengers to earn the top seed in the College Football Playoff. The No. 1 Tide (12-1) will face No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0) in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31 for a chance to defend the national championship it won to end the 2020 season.

That meeting – at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on ESPN – is the most prominent of the state-connected bowl games that will be played during the next several weeks.

Auburn, fresh off pushing the top team in the land through a four-overtime contest, will play No. 21 Houston in the 2021 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl at 11 a.m. on Dec. 28 at the new Progressive Stadium in downtown Birmingham.

UAB, which plays its home games at Protective Stadium, heads to Shreveport, Louisiana, to play No. 13 BYU in the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl on Dec. 18 at Independence Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on ABC.

Ball State and Georgia State are set to meet in the eighth annual TaxAct Camellia Bowl at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 25, on ESPN. The game will be played in historic Cramton Bowl in Montgomery.

Liberty and Eastern Michigan are set to meet in the 23rd annual LendingTree Bowl in Mobile on Saturday, Dec. 18, at 4:45 p.m. on ESPN. The game will be played for the first time at the new Hancock-Whitney Stadium on the campus of the University of South Alabama.

Alabama defensive back Jordan Battle (9) and Alabama defensive back Kool-Aid Mckinstry (1) move in for a tackle vs. Georgia. (Skylar Lien / Alabama Athletics)

Coach Luke Fickell’s Cincinnati Bearcats are the first team from the so-called Group of Five to earn a spot in the playoffs. But that’s not the identity he wants them to have.

“We don’t want to feel we’re carrying some flag for the non-big schools,” Fickell said. “We just want to be us. Our guys have done an unbelievable job all year, just handling all the distractions we’ve gone through. More than anything, our guys are excited to be challenged by the No. 1 team in the country in coach Saban and the Crimson Tide.”

Alabama is again just who and what it has been – the standard by which other college football programs are judged.

“Even though I think that (having Cincinnati in the playoff) might be healthy for the sport because it’s healthy for fans, as competitors, as coaches, we’re all trying to get our team in the playoff,” Saban said. “That’s sort of the standard of college football right now.”

Many openly doubted that Alabama would be in this position after outlasting in-state rival Auburn Nov. 27 and then having to face the then-unquestioned top team in the Georgia Bulldogs.

But those negative assessments fueled a fire that drove Alabama to a 41-24 victory in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

“You guys gave us really positive rat poison,” Saban said of the prominent predictions of pundits. “The rat poison you usually give us is usually fatal. But the rat poison that you put out this week was yummy.”

No. 3 Georgia (12-1) takes on No. 2 Michigan (12-1) in the other semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Florida, on Dec. 31 on ESPN. The semifinal winners face one another in the National Championship Game at 7 p.m. Jan. 10 in Indianapolis, Indiana, on ESPN.

Auburn back in Birmingham

Auburn defeated Memphis 31-10 in the 2015 edition of the Birmingham Bowl. Now the Tigers are back for the 15th edition, which shifts from Legion Field to Protective Stadium.

Colby Wooden (25) gets a tackle during the Tigers’ four-overtime loss to Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium. (Todd Van Emst / AU Athletics)

This will be the Auburn’s 46th bowl appearance and the seventh meeting between the Tigers (6-6) and Houston (11-2). Auburn holds a 5-1 advantage in the series with the most recent meeting being a 7-0 Tiger win in 1973 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

“Auburn football has a long history of playing in Birmingham,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “Now we have a chance to continue that against a nationally ranked Houston team that has won 11 games this year.”

Auburn’s all-time bowl record is 24-19-2 and the Tigers will be making their ninth consecutive bowl appearance, tying the longest stretch in school history. The Tigers went to nine straight bowl games from 1982 to 1990.

“Our mindset is to end the season with a win as we build momentum for 2022, while allowing our guys to enjoy a great bowl experience,” Harsin said. “This game is an opportunity for a number of our players to play close to home and many of our fans to easily attend after Christmas. We want the Auburn Family to turn the new Protective Stadium in Birmingham orange and blue, creating a home-field advantage on game day.”

Houston went 11-2 during the regular season, losing the American Conference Championship game at Cincinnati on Saturday.

UAB headed to 4th straight bowl

The Blazers (8-4) are playing in the program’s fifth bowl game and their fourth since returning to action in 2017. UAB has been bowl-eligible all six seasons under head coach Bill Clark (2014, 2017-2021).

UAB enters bowl season with the nation’s 15th-ranked defense and a ground attack featuring sophomore DeWayne McBride, who has the fifth-most single-season rushing yards in school history with 1,188.

BYU is 10-2 overall, which includes a win over Pac-12 champion Utah. The Cougars rank 17th nationally in total offense with an average of 457.1 yards per game. Running back Tyler Allgeier headlines BYU’s offense with 1,409 rushing yards and is tied for the national lead with 20 rushing touchdowns.

“UAB has been one of the best programs in Conference USA over the past five years, and this year is no different, as they have had a great season,” said Missy Setters, executive director of the Independence Bowl. “We look forward to hosting coach Bill Clark, Mark Ingram and their entire program, and we are excited to provide them with a great bowl experience.”

Tickets for the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl are on sale and can be purchased by clicking here. Seat locations will be allocated based on the Blazer Boosters Priority Point System.

Georgia State, Ball State in TaxAct Camellia Bowl

Ball State (6-6) is one of eight bowl-eligible teams from the Mid-American Conference. All six teams in the MAC West Division finished with a .500 record or better. Ball State clinched its second straight bowl berth with a 20-3 win over Buffalo in the regular season finale.

Georgia State (7-5) won six of its last seven games to close the regular season. The Panthers finished 6-2 in Sun Belt Conference play, with the losses coming to division winners Louisiana and Appalachian State.

GSU pushed Auburn before falling 34-24 on Sept. 25 in a game it led in the fourth quarter. Georgia State launched its football program in 2010 and reached full FBS status in 2014, and the Panthers have earned bowl berths in five of the past seven years.

Flames, Willis play again in Alabama

Liberty quarterback Malik Willis began his college career at Auburn. He and the Flames will conclude their 2021 season back in the state where they played – and won – twice before. They won 21-13 at Troy on Sept. 11 and beat UAB 36-12 in the first-ever game at Protective Stadium on Oct. 2.

Liberty (7-5) is the first FBS independent team to play in the LendingTree Bowl. The Flames will join Conference USA in the 2023-24 academic year. Liberty is making its first LendingTree Bowl appearance.

Eastern Michigan (7-5) is one of eight bowl-eligible teams from the Mid-American Conference. Eastern Michigan is playing in the LendingTree Bowl for the first time and becomes the 10th different MAC team to play in Mobile.

Liberty is making its third bowl appearance in just its third full season at the FBS level under head coach Hugh Freeze.

The Flames have played in the Cure Bowl each of the past two seasons. Liberty defeated Georgia Southern 23-16 in 2019 and knocked off No. 9 Coastal Carolina 37-34 last year.

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