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AP photo by Brynn Anderson / Alabama football coach Nick Saban and quarterback Bryce Young celebrate the team's 41-24 win against Georgia at the SEC championship game Saturday in Atlanta.

If there's one thing on the college football landscape Alabama coach Nick Saban doesn't control, it's how long he can play the role of David.

After admitting how much he enjoyed being the underdog leading up the Southeastern Conference championship game against Georgia — "The rat poison that you put out there this week was yummy," he said after Saturday night's 41-24 surprise whipping of the Bulldogs — Saban was back to being Goliath on Sunday.

Saban's Crimson Tide (12-1) claimed the top seed in the College Football Playoff and will face fourth-seeded Cincinnati (13-0) in the Cotton Bowl on the afternoon of New Year's Eve. That evening, second-seeded Michigan (12-1) will meet third-seeded Georgia (12-1) in the Orange Bowl.

This marks the seventh time in the playoff's eight-year history that Alabama has been in the field, while the other three teams have one combined appearance — Georgia in 2017.

"I think the whole atmosphere of college football changed when we started this whole playoff, because I thought we would minimize the importance of bowl games, which we have succeeded at," Saban said Sunday. "Now everybody just talks about the playoff and who's in the playoff. It used to be that if you had a good season, you would go to a bowl game, and everybody would be excited. The players all wanted to play, and that doesn't happen anymore.

"You only have four spots, and I'm not apologizing for trying to have a program like a lot of people try to have that can get in the playoff as many times as possible."

Alabama is the playoff's top seed for the fifth time, while Cincinnati is the American Athletic Conference champion and the first program from a Group of Five league to be invited. The Group of Five is the AAC, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt, which includes programs such as Akron, Arkansas State, Eastern Michigan, Middle Tennessee State and Old Dominion.

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Crimson Tide photos / Alabama sophomore quarterback Bryce Young threw for 421 yards and rushed for 40 during Saturday's 41-24 surprise thumping of Georgia in the SEC championship game.

The Tide opened Sunday afternoon as 13-point favorites, with the line shifting to 13.5 by Sunday night.

"I played at Kent State, and I like to think of myself as a major college player," Saban said. "I know it was the Mid-American Conference, but we played and tried to be the best that we could be. Cincinnati certainly deserves what they have accomplished this year. They beat Notre Dame and they beat Indiana, and I have a lot of respect for the teams in their conference.

"How many undefeated teams are there out there? It's a very difficult thing to do, so you've got to have a special mindset and a special group of young men."

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell spent Sunday downplaying any significance, saying: "We don't want to think that we're carrying some flag for the non-big schools, so to speak. We just want to be us."

The Orange Bowl pairing is certainly unique for Georgia, which hasn't capped a season in Miami since 1959, when the Bulldogs of Wally Butts topped Missouri 14-0.

"That's a long time, so I know our fans will be excited," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.

Georgia opened as a 7-point favorite against Michigan, which became the first team to make the CFP field after beginning the season unranked. The Wolverines were just 2-4 in last year's pandemic-shortened season.

The four New Year's Six bowl games not involved in the playoff's national semifinals have Michigan State versus Pittsburgh in the Peach, Notre Dame versus Oklahoma State in the Fiesta, Ohio State versus Utah in the Rose and Ole Miss versus Baylor in the Sugar.

A record 13 SEC teams qualified for bowls, with the rest of the league lineup Kentucky versus Iowa in the Citrus, Arkansas versus Penn State in the Outback, Texas A&M versus Wake Forest in the Gator, Tennessee versus Purdue in the Music City, Mississippi State versus Texas Tech in the Liberty, LSU versus Kansas State in the Texas, South Carolina versus North Carolina in the Duke's Mayo, Auburn versus Houston in the Birmingham, Florida versus the University of Central Florida in the Gasparilla and Missouri versus Army in the Armed Forces.

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AP photo by John Bazemore / Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (31) and defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis hold the team's trophy after Saturday's rout of Georgia at the SEC championship game in Atlanta.

A topic Smart may have to address a time or 20 between now and New Year's Eve is the quarterback competition between Stetson Bennett and JT Daniels. Bennett threw two interceptions against Alabama, and Smart said Sunday there were no conversations about making a change.

"We never discussed that on the headphones last night," he said. "Obviously we have to play better in a lot of areas, and to put any part of that blame or all that blame on Stetson — there is a lot more to it than that. We've got to play better around him. We've got to play better on special teams and on defense and in all facets of the game.

"There were some really, really good throws last night from Stetson, some throws where only his guy could catch the ball. We have to continue to work on the poor decisions and a couple of throws there that were picked off."

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Alabama has apparently produced memorable locker room celebrations the past two weeks, with one at Auburn and one in Atlanta.

"The locker room was wild," sophomore outside linebacker Will Anderson said Saturday night. "We were the underdogs and people were saying we were going to get whipped, whupped and blown out. We're Alabama, man. We ain't no D-III team. We ain't none of that."

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Some stats to ponder: Alabama is now 17-1 in Atlanta with 16 consecutive wins under Saban, with the lone setback against Florida's 2008 national champions in that season's SEC title game. Georgia has lost 10 games within these past five seasons, with seven of those at the hands of SEC West teams. Texas A&M beat only one Power Five team this season currently with a winning record — CFP top seed Alabama.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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