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Previewing Alabama vs. Washington: The Huskie defense

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The Huskies are more like Alabama’s vaunted defensive unit than you may think

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Colorado vs Washington
UW corner Sidney Jones is likely a first round pick.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The first-round match-up of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Washington Huskies seemingly pits two teams who are near opposites of one another, at least in terms of common perception. Alabama is the uber-talented defending national champion, a team that has dominated much of college football over the last decade under coaching legend Nick Saban. They have the best defense in all the land, and a newly-minted spread offense rife with options of attack that makes them almost unbeatable.

On the other hand is a Washington Huskie team that hasn’t been in the limelight for decades, a team that had become so irrelevant after a string of unfortunate coaching hires that its emergence in 2016 (after a seven win campaign last season) has been a shock to many. The Huskies are smaller at almost every position when compared to behemoth Alabama, with a roster loaded with three-star players far removed from the blue-chip classes Alabama signs like clockwork each February.

But despite these surface differences, the inner workings of both programs are not totally different from one another. Both teams win with defense, even though they possess high-powered offenses. In fact, like Alabama, Washington’s success in 2016 is built upon the shoulders of its defense, though many who are unfamiliar with the Pac-12 this year may assume that it is the offense is the lit fuse on the Huskies’ success. Sure, the Huskies sport a potent offense, with the fourth-ranked scoring offense in the nation. Both teams are led by two of the most successful coaches (in terms of winning percentage) in college football today, as both Saban and UW coach Christ Petersen run tight ships, respectively. But without the Huskie defense, UW would be all flash and no boom, and they’d likely be staring at a lower-tier bowl rather than the College Football Playoffs.

While Alabama is a two-touchdown favorite in most books in the opening round of the playoffs, such may be folly. The Tide is bigger and more talented, to be sure, but the Huskies will certainly offer more resistance than the Tide received last season from Michigan State. Despite the size differential, Washington is built to win using the same formula Alabama has used en route to several championships under Saban: play ferocious defense, generate turnovers, protect the ball, lean on the run game, and do enough offensively to win. Some would argue that’s the formula every team would like to use, but it’s the success of the defense of both the Tide and Huskies that their success is built upon.

Even though Vegas isn’t giving U-Dub much of a chance doesn’t mean Alabama is in for a cupcake party on Saturday evening. The Huskies are an extremely solid team by both raw and advanced metrics, and they have a win-loss record to further prove their worthiness as an opponent for the Tide. The two teams mirror each other (within a few spots in the national rankings) on almost every major stat point. This game will not be a Saturday stroll for the Tide, as they’ll have to be on top of their game to leave the Peach Bowl with their championship hopes intact.

Washington will challenge Alabama, and it won’t be the trick plays Petersen is known for that will be the difference in the game. Washington’s success is built upon the defense, with a confusing scheme up front loaded with quick, technically excellent pass rushers. Behind them is one of the best secondaries in college football, with at least two future NFL Draft picks as starters. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that Alabama will steam-roll the Huskie defense. They offer far more than token resistance, and they could be the difference in the game versus the Tide. Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

As a younger coach, Petersen made a name for himself at Boise State by taking cast-off, lightly-regarded high school prospects and turning them into NFL fodder within the finely-oiled machine of the Bronco program. The heights he reached at Boise were amazing given the talent disparity between his teams and those of his Power 5 opponents, but year after year, Petersen made a proverbial silk purse from a sow’s ear in terms of his roster.

While Washington has offered something of a talent upgrade, one still must admit that the talent base available to Washington (at least for the moment) is far inferior to those recruited by SEC schools. Football prospects in Washington are fewer to come by for sure, and those local prospects who do emerge are recruited by the likes of Oregon, Stanford, Michigan, Alabama, and other established topo-shelf programs. And though California is a huge recruiting base for West Coast teams, the competition for Cali recruits between UCLA, USC, Stanford, and Oregon is fierce, to say the least.

Despite that, Petersen has a rugged roster of defenders who have come together under coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski to create a top-10 defense nationally (according to defensive S&P+), and it is that defense that has propelled the Huskies into the College Football Playoffs and a Pac-12 title. The Huskies (like Alabama) suffered two critical defensive injuries during the season, including team sack leader Joe Mathis and Azeem Victor. Even with that attrition, the Huskies are still stacked with talent across the board.

Everything starts up front for the Huskies, as they run a complex scheme that requires intelligence and athleticism as opposed to brute strength. The system is multiple, but the base is considered a 3-4, mainly because the Huskies use a stand-up pass-rushing linebacker much of the time with two or three down linemen. (Some choose to call the system a 4-3 Over, but with only two or three downline o the majority of plays, it is technically a 3-4.)

While overall the roster is lighter than Alabama’s, that’s not so up front. The three starting defensive linemen all go over 300 pounds, and they are an athletic 300+ pound bunch at that. The Huskies have two of the Pac-12’s best interior linemen in sophomore Greg Gaines (6-2, 318 pounds) and junior Elijah Qualls (6-1, 321 pounds). Gaines worked his way into the rotation as a freshman last season amongst a talented group of veterans on one of the Pac-12’s best lines. This season, he’s built upon that progress, recording 32 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. Qualls has been equally as impressive as an interior pocket-crusher, generating 32 tackles, five tackles for loss, and three sacks.

The tackles are stout, and the Huskies are fortunate enough to have a bit of solid depth behind them. Steady senior Damion Turpin (6-3, 284 pounds) provides relief to Gaines, and he has been workmanlike with 15 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack. Behind Qualls is up-and-coming sophomore Shane Bowman (6-4, 287 pounds), who has three tackles in limited action this season.

The Huskies only use one true defensive end alongside the pair of tackles and an upright pass-rushing linebacker, and filling the end role this season has been another impressive sophomore, Vita Vea (6-5, 332 pounds). Vea is massive, and he has remarkable speed off the edge for a big man. In the Huskie scheme, the dedicated D linemen typically take on double-team blocks to open gaps for the linebackers to pursue the passer or destroy the run, and Vea is a key part of that strategy. He is extremely powerful with fantastic technique, and he will offer quite the challenge to either Cam Robinson or Jonah Williams. Vea has 35 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, a pass defended, and a forced fumble.

The Huskies use a linebacker/ defensive end hybrid similar in role to the Jack linebacker wielded by Alabama’s defense, or the “Buck” used by Will Muschamp defenses. This role was previously filled by the explosive (but now injured) Mathis, and he was a nightmare as a pass rusher in that role. In Mathis’ absence, the Huskies are relying on a combination of junior Connor O’Brien (6-3, 232 pounds) and freshman Benning Potoa’e (6-3, 270 pounds). O’Brien has been steady since taking over the role, recording 35 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and an interception. Potoa’e has added 16 tackles and two tackles for loss to the total. However, both players offer a sharp dropoff from the dynamic play-making and pass-rushing ability of Mathis.

The linebackers play a critical role in the UW defense, as they are the beneficiaries of the block-entangling work done by the linemen up front. Also, it is a unit that has endured most of the injury bad news for the defense, with both Mathis and Victor falling victim to season-ending injuries. The leader of the unit has been outside linebacker and senior Psalm Wooching (6-4, 234 pounds), a great pass rusher in his own right who has been the backbone of the Huskie corps. Wooching has 39 tackles, seven tackles for loss, six sacks, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. He is often tasked with delayed rushes that see him read the success of the Huskie front then pick through loopholes they create to find and pressure the passer. He is cerebral and athletic, and is extremely good at what Kwiatkowski asks him to do. Spelling Wooching is sophomore Tevis Bartlett (6-2, 230 pounds), who himself has recorded 24 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and three sacks.

The interior linebackers also have some pass rush responsibility, but they are hyper-focused on stopping the run. Junior Keishawn Bierria (6-1, 221 pounds) has been a monster in the middle, accounting for 61 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, two passes defended, five fumble recoveries, and two forced fumbles. Behind Bierria is Ben Burr-Kirven (6-0, 210 pounds), who has 39 tackles, a tackle for loss, and an interception this season.

At the other inside linebacker spot, the Huskies field a true freshman in D.J. Beavers (6-0, 216 pounds), and the young ‘backer has acquitted himself nicely. Beavers has 35 tackles, half a tfl, an interception, a foced fumble, and a fumble recovery on his ledger this season. Behind him is another freshman in Brandon Wellington (5-11, 216 pounds), who has seven tackles on the season.

As good as the UW front is, it is the secondary that is the strength of the team. The Huskies are loaded in the defensive backfield, with at least two surefire draft picks in junior corner Sidney Jones (6-0, 181 pounds) and junior free safety Budda Baker (5-10, 192 pounds). But it’s not a two-man show, as the secondary is absolutely loaded with experienced depth, creating a unit that will test Alabama’s offensive execution mightily.

Baker, despite his seemingly small measurables by SEC standards, is a ball-hawking play-maker in the mold of former LSU DB Tyrann Mathieu. Baker seems to be in on every play, as evidenced by his team leading 64 tackles in 2016. He is a big play generating machine in the deep center of the Huskie defense, as he has 8.5 tackles for loss (as a safety, mind you), two sacks, two interceptions, four passes defended, and a forced fumble. Baker will pose quite the challenge for the Alabama offense and freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, as Hurts cannot afford to be lazy in the passing game with Baker lurking in the shadows. Baker is spelled by junior Ezekiel Turner (6-2, 210 pounds), who has 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and an interception this season.

At the strong safety position is sophomore head-hunter JoJo McIntosh (6-1, 209 pounds), who provides a big body in the backfield who can play coverage or offer stout run support. McIntosh has been outstanding in 2016, accounting for 59 tackles, two passes defended, and two forced fumbles. Behind McIntosh is explosive freshman Taylor Rapp (6-0, 202 pounds), who has seen extensive playing time while accumulating 44 tackles, a team-leading four interceptions, two passes defended, and a forced fumble. Needless to say, the Huskies have depth to spare at strong safety, and both men will see extensive playing time against Alabama, especially when the Huskies for to a nickel or dime look (Rapp handles nickel responsibilities a lot of the time).

At corner, Jones is as good as they come at the position, with good size to go with excellent technique. Jones is the kind of corner offenses scheme around just to keep from challenging him…he is that good. Because of this, his stat line may not be as impressive as some other corners, but he is a legitimate, prototype lock-down corner who will be highly coveted by pro scouts come Draft time. Jones has 37 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, six passes defended, and a forced fumble on the season. Jones is spelled by sophomore Jordan Miller (6-1, 176 pounds), who has recorded seven tackles and an interception this year.

At the other corner position is salty senior Kevin King (6-3, 192 pounds), who provides great length on the edge. One of the challenges Saban noted in his opening Peach Bowl press conference was the length of the Huskie secondary, and King is a big contributor to that. Despite his somewhat lanky frame, King is explosive and athletic, and he single-handed negates the height advantage Alabama’s receivers usually have over opposing DBs. On the season, King has 35 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and 13 passes defended. Offering relief to King is freshman Austin Joyner (5-10, 190 pounds), who has 10 tackles and an interception this season.

How the Washington Defense Will Try to Stop the Alabama Offense

Kwiatkowski has an interesting scheme that he’s run in his few seasons at Washington under Petersen, and it’s a scheme that has gotten instant results. Even though the Huskies struggled offensively last season, they fielded the Pac-12’s best defense, which was a surprising departure for a team historically known more for its offensive prowess than anything else.

What Kwiatkowski does with the Huskie defense is complicated in a way, but it has worked well against Pac-12 opponents this season. In a league that is known more for finesse than power (at least outside of Stanford), the Huskies play a style of defense that is back-door brutal. Opponents think they are being finessed only to get smashed by a blind-side pass rusher running free. The units of the Huskie defense play to each other’s strengths, and that’s what has made them a top-10 squad nationally in defensive S&P+ under Kwiatkowski.

Let’s take a brief look at how the Huskies measure up nationally regarding the metrics. First, there are the raw data points. UW is 11th in total defense, giving up an average of 316.2 yards per game. They are 19th against the run (123.5 yards per game allowed), 21st against the pass (192.6 yards per game allowed), and seventh in scoring defense (17.2 points per game). They are 20th in the nation in sacks with 37 (or 2.85 per game) and 44th in tackles for loss with 81 (or 6.2. per game). The Huskies are also number one nationally in turnover margin with a +21, largely due to the ball-hawking ways of their defense, which creates nearly two turnovers per game on average.

The advanced metrics present and even more impressive picture of the Huskie defense as a unit. They are ranked 10th in defensive S&P+, seventh in rush defense S&P+, eighth in pass defense S&P+, and fourth in Iso PPP (a measure of successful “explosive plays” against a defense). In terms of the “Havoc” metric used by footballoutsiders.com (which divides tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles by the total number of plays), the Huskies are 29th nationally. The Front Seven Havoc rating is 56th, and the Defensive Back Havoc rating is eighth. The Huskies have the sixth-best defense on standard downs, with a success rate than ranks them at 10th nationally.

Statistics tell a portion of the tale…but how have the Huskies managed to generate such numbers? Kwiatkowski uses a familiar alignment in an unfamiliar way. The UW defense is a base 3-4 technically speaking, but it operates more like a 4-3 Over front. Most 3-4 defenses have a heavy nose tackle with two defensive ends backed by four linebackers. Before Saban created his current spread-killer defense, Alabama’s 3-4 would alternate personnel situationally (either a nose and two ends with a Jack linebacker, or an end, two tackles and a Jack) depending on the type of offense they were playing in a given week.

Washington’s defense uses a 3-4, but in a very different way. Kwiatkowski puts two tackles on the line at all times, often with a defensive end who is an end in name only. He also brings an upright linebacker in the pass rush routinely who functions as a proxy defensive end (similar to Alabama’s Jack), thus creating the appearance of a 4-3. The end (in name only) is currently the 332-pound Vea, who though athletic for his size, is still more tackle than end by most standards.

The reason for this heavy front is simple, though somewhat revolutionary in modern college football. While teams like Alabama have ends that aggressively pursue the passer, the main role of the three (sometimes two) down linemen (tackles and ends) is to act as a wrecking ball on opposing offensive lines by stepping into double-teams to occupy blockers. Most D lines want to get out of their blocks quickly and get into pursuit, or outflank the tackles outside to circle back to pressure the passer. Washington’s three big bodies all take on the traditional role of a 3-4 nose tackle: specifically, they want to eat blocks and disrupt blocking schemes up front to create spaces for the linebackers to attack the pocket and/ or seal off the run.

The Huskies also use a tactic similar to Alabama’s “nickel rabbits” scheme, which allows Alabama to put four pass rush specialists on the line to generate pressure while keeping the maximum number of defenders back in coverage. In fact, Washington’s tactic mirrors Bama’s nickel rabbits look in that it involves two down linemen and two upright linebackers on the ends. By using four elite rushers, Alabama knows the offensive front can only double so many without one creating a favorable match-up and for other rushers. Washington, however, seeks to tie up four blockers with its two tackles, thus creating man-on-man situations for their edge rushers, or even an uncontested look if blockers miss an assignment.

The Huskie front uses a variety of techniques in pursuit of the passer, but the primary goal is to create good match-ups for skilled rushers, whether through entanglement or subterfuge. Alabama will see a lot of stunts and twists from the UW front, and the Huskies will routinely try to generate pressure with four pass rushers.

The closest thing to Alabama’s style of play the Huskies have seen was in their game against Stanford. Against the Cardinal, UW had a tremendous defensive effort in the pass rush with minimal commitment up front. They recorded eight sacks against the Trees, and did so by rushing more than four on a single one of those sacks. Against Stanford, that minimal commitment of personnel up front resulted in tremendous advantages on the back end, as more defensive backs and linebackers were available for coverage.

Another look that Alabama will see from Washington is their various nickel and dime packages, and those are equally as unconventional. The standard nickel is a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5, but Washington is known to roll out a 2-4-5 nickel with only two down linemen. The Huskies also will use a 4-2-5 nickel with an Over front situationally, as it allows them to get more DB playmakers on the field while tying up blockers and creating lanes for the pass rushers.

The dime, typically 3-2-6 in a conventional defense, can become a 2-3-6 in Washington’s system. In practice, the outcome is similar in that both schemes offer additional support in the secondary on obvious passing downs. But the alignments up front create versatility for the Huskie defense, as they can use their linebackers in a variety of ways to keep offense off balance.

One of the Huskies’ favorite tricks up front to generate pressure is something called a tackle-end exchange stunt. In a nutshell, this involves the tackle and end swapping roles and positions after the snap, a tactic which lulls offenses into missed assignments by creating subterfuge up front. For example, against Stanford’s 20 personnel (two backs and a quarterback in the back field), the Huskies showed a Cover-1 look with three down linemen and four linebackers. Two defensive backs had responsibility for the Stanford RB and FB, and were aligned accordingly at the back of the box. At the snap, Stanford went into a max protect look, with both backs staying home. At that point, the Huskie defensive backs began to rush the passer, and the FB stepped up into the gap to meet one of them. Meanwhile, the tackle occupied two blockers by pushing them outside and downfield while the end lingered on a delayed rush. The effect was that with the right side of the line pushed upfield, and the fullback closing on a blitzing defensive back, the unblocked end merely had to loop around through the gap created to sack the quarterback unmolested.

This kind of tactic uses a team’s blocking strength against it by presenting false targets that draw blocks while the real rushers wait on delays before closing with deadly speed. It is a ruthless style that is hard to diagnose and sort out, because it relies upon whetting the aggression of zone blocking teams and letting them move themselves out of the way to create vectors for pass rushers.

Another example of the Huskies’ obfuscation up front involves a strongside tackle-weakside end exchange. In this case, instead of the end and adjacent tackle swapping spots after the snap, the Huskies lined up one of their upright linebackers as a weak-side end to make it look like he was going to drop. At the snap, the tackles engaged and locked up four offensive linemen, from the right guard to the left tackle. The strongside end pushed directly upfield as if rushing to engage the remaining tackle. The weakside OLB/ end stepped back as if to drop, then looped behind the tackles to the unblocked gap created and penetrated directly to the quarterback.

With less talented players, the tactic could be exploitable. But the Huskies’ front seven talent is excellent and technically sound, and they all play their roles with aplomb. By doing so, they are able to suck offensive linemen into their quicksand trap, then they use their explosive pass rush talent to take advantage of the holes the front has created.

The Huskies are also excellent against the run, in large part because of similar tactics that result in little room to run, or gaps that are shown then immediately filled once a running back has committed. The OLBs/ ends are typically used as forcers against the run, as it is their job to contain backs and keep them between the tackles, where the defensive linemen have undoubtedly created a maelstrom of bodies in the middle. If a gap does open, chances are the gap was not created by the opposing offensive line, but rather by the defense as it creates space for its linebackers to attack. That’s not to say that the scheme doesn’t break down from time to time, or that it is unbeatable. But the overall strategy against the run is similar to the tactic the defense uses in the pass rush: clog the middle by occupying blocks so that the athletic linebackers and safeties can shoot the gaps and shut down the play.

The Huskies defense is partially about scheme, but the hinge point that makes it work is the players. Not only are their skilled and technical in their respective games, they are also unselfish and team-oriented. It is this trait that makes their “cooperative rush” tactic work. “Cooperative rush” simply means that some players on a given play are dedicated to doing nothing more than tying up blockers rather than personally pursuing the quarterback or running backs. On each play, there are players who act as offensive linemen for their linebackers and safeties by engaging the opposing linemen and holding them in check to create gaps for the Huskies more athletic defenders to exploit. Think about the way a typical running game works: big bodies up front engage defenders and move them (either with power or leverage) to create gaps that running backs can use; or they lock up at the line of scrimmage and stalemate defenders to keep pressure off of the passer. Washington’s defense does the same thing, only their big bodies up front are moving linemen or stalemating them to keep gaps clean for their linebackers and safeties to penetrate.

To make such a tactic work, a defense must have unselfish players who are willing to fill those unheralded roles for the good of the team. The big guys up front may not post the best stat lines, but the play-makers behind them will benefit, as will the overall team. The Huskies have those kind of selfless team players up front, and combined with that cooperative rush tactic, they’ve been able to create havoc for opposing offenses in run defense and the pass rush.

The Result

The Huskies will present the Alabama offense with a greater challenge than many expect. Bama is a nearly two touchdown favorite heading into the game, but there are multiple ways that the Huskies can limit Alabama’s offense and keep them in check.

First, Washington’s run defense is pretty good. In fact, with a rush defense S&P+ ranked seventh, they are better than LSU (ninth) and Auburn (12th). And here’s a mind-blowing fact…the only rushing defense ranked higher than Washington that Alabama has played this season is Western Kentucky.

Sure, statistics are just numbers. And one could argue the Huskies’ numbers are artificially inflated by strength of schedule (or lack thereof). But these are advanced metrics, adjusted to factor in garbage time, SOS, etc. So, the UW defense isn’t ranked seventh by a fluke. They are legitimate, and they will present Alabama’s running game with quite a test.

Alabama’s running game is prolific to be sure, but much of it to date has relied on the ability of Jalen Hurts to inject himself into the game plan on the ground and make defenses account for him. The typical straight-ahead running game would struggle against the clog-first Huskie run defense. However, Alabama’s stretch running game could have success against the Huskies, in much the same way Alabama has strung out similar defenses throughout the season. Big men in the middle tire when made to run sideline to sideline chasing the action. If Alabama can get the zone read going and force the Huskies to abandon their typical strategy in the middle, then the Tide will have success on the ground. The Tide running backs and Hurts have a symbiotic rushing relationship: as one goes, so will the other. If Hurts has success and the defense has to key on him, the running backs see their lanes open up. If the running backs have success, Hurts’ change of pace scampers make for big plays. Alabama won’t be able to run over Washington, but they can run around them and between them.

Lane Kiffin has a habit of finding a weakness in an opposing defense, and then attacking it repeatedly to great success. Though the Huskie defense is strong overall, expect Kiffin to go after Beavers inside. The freshman has seen a lot of playing time this season, but he’s still a freshman in relief of Victor. He is out of position at times, and physically, his measureables are those of an SEC safety rather than a linebacker. And, he hasn’t faced anything like what he will see from Bama’s blockers and backs. Behind Beavers is yet another freshman. If Alabama can hit the Huskies in that soft spot, they can force the defense to pivot to accommodate, which will create weaknesses elsewhere. To be sure, Kiffin has diagnosed this weakness on tape, and will leverage it to Bama’s benefit.

In the passing game, if Alabama is bold enough to use it, McIntosh is the likely weak link that Kiffin can exploit with the game plan. Though the strong safety is lengthy, isolating him against the likes of ArDarius Stewart or O.J. Howard is likely to pay dividends for the Tide, as both men have an athleticism advantage they can level against McIntosh despite his height.

If the Huskies find a way to stuff Alabama’s run, if they can penetrate to the mesh point on the zone read or contain the edges and force Alabama to fight in a phone booth (to use boxing parlance), then at some point, the Tide will need Hurts to execute the passing game. That should certainly cause concern for Tide faithful, as Hurts has struggled with ball placement and timing as late as the SEC Championship Game against Florida. Sure, Kiffin has had a few more practices to polish Hurts’ passing skills, but Hurts will be facing one of the best (if not the best) secondary he has faced since the game with USC to open the season (with the possible exception of Florida). As previously mentioned, Jones and Baker are lethal coverage defensive backs, and the Huskie defense has proven itself opportunistic in takeaways this season. And the UW secondary is no two-trick pony, as they have legitimate skill and experience at every position, and a deep bench form which to pull reserves to keep their starters fresh for four quarters.

That said, the Huskies, despite all their talent, are ranked only 21st in pass defense (eighth in pass defense S&P+). Alabama had enough success against more highly-rated pass defense units (specifically Florida at seventh and LSU at fourth) to win games, with one of those victories coming in blowout fashion. In fact, Hurts threw for 138 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions against the heralded Gator secondary. Not eye-popping numbers, of course, but good enough to complement a prolific running attack and keep a defense honest.

Expect Kiffin to do with Hurts what he’s done for most of the season. He’ll call some early passes for the young quarterback, typically safe smash routes and screens, to get his quarterback acclimated and diagnose Kwiatkowski’s tendencies. The secondary will be aggressive, and they can afford to be with tremendous length and make-up speed. Alabama won’t have its typical height advantage against this secondary, so Hurts must have his ball placement on point, as contested balls are just as likely to result in turnovers as receptions.

As confounding as it can be for those watching the game, Kiffin likes a slow, grinding start. He likes to try a bunch of things early to feel out the opponent and set up later plays. Expect more of the same against Washington in the high stakes first round of the playoffs. Alabama should live up to its billing as the favorite in this game, but the first half may be close for comfort as the Tide offense winds its way through the playbook to find the tactic that will fully exploit the Huskies’ style of defense.

Alabama may indeed live up to the lofty spread in the Peach Bowl, but expect the Huskies to come out fighting like the underdogs they are. The key to controlling Alabama’s offense is controlling the lateral running game. If the Huskies can do that, their defense will give their offense a chance to break off a few explosive plays and possibly gain a toe-hold against the Crimson Tide. However, if Alabama can run to the edges and set up the option read game, it’s doubtful the smaller Huskie defensive will hold up to four quarters of abuse.