Cincinnati, meanwhile, was trying to justify that it belonged on the same field.
The Bearcats (13-1) were also carrying the banner for schools outside the so-called Power 5 conferences — the Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast and Pacific-12 — and the independent Notre Dame. No school outside of that privileged class, where most of college sports’ millions stream, had reached the playoff, which was instituted for the 2014 season. Central Florida was shut out twice despite back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons.
If the Bearcats left the field having acquitted themselves well, they also carried with them some regrets: settling for a field goal early when Ridder fired a pass over the head of Alec Pierce in the end zone; not being able to jump on a fumbled punt deep in Alabama territory and doing little with safety Bryan Cook’s interception near midfield.
Mostly, though, Cincinnati will rue not being able to get Alabama off the field on decisive downs. The Crimson Tide converted five of nine plays on third and fourth downs during the first half, and got out of a third-and-16 hole late in the third period when Young connected with Jameson Williams for 20 yards over the middle.
As much as the teams have spent the last month preparing for each other, they have also been preoccupied with avoiding the latest burst of coronavirus cases, which had caused seven teams to pull out of bowl games. Two Alabama assistant coaches, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and offensive line coach Doug Marrone, had to isolate for more than a week before rejoining the team this week. The universities did not say that any players had tested positive leading up to the game.
If the teams were vigilant, restricting media access to video calls among other measures, little else about the environment hinted at a pandemic.
Some bars and restaurants around the country require that patrons show proof of vaccination, but it was hard to find any in local entertainment districts that even required masks to enter. The same was true of AT&T Stadium, where mask-wearing fans were a small fraction of the capacity crowd and a sign outside the press box read: “Masks are encouraged.”
“I don’t think it’s a concern for people here,” said Christy Schmidt, who along with her husband, Mark, had driven from Cincinnati for the game. Each time they stopped for food or gas on the nearly 950-mile drive, they ran into fellow Bearcats fans, who outnumbered Alabama fans by a noticeable margin on Friday. (Their fans roared when the Cincinnati alum Travis Kelce, the Kansas City Chiefs tight end, appeared on the stadium’s video screen alongside his quarterback Patrick Mahomes; receiver Amari Cooper and cornerback Trevon Diggs, former Alabama stars now with the Dallas Cowboys, watched from the Tide’s sideline.)