A top-5 offense coupled with a top-10 defense. A coach with a pedigree of beating Power 5 teams on some of the largest stages in the game. A program with a long-running history of performance at the highest levels of college football. A team with a legitimate chance to seize a championship based on excellence on both sides of the ball.
That description could seemingly apply to the defending national champions, Alabama. But in reality, it is applicable to the Tide’s opponent in the first round of the College Football Playoffs, the Washington Huskies.
While there have been criticisms hurled at the Huskies like so many hand grenades through their miraculous one-loss season, no one can deny that they did exactly what they needed to do to wheedle themselves into the thick of the playoff race: they won. Even after their lone loss to a resurgent USC team, they came back to win out, putting themselves in position to grab the fourth playoff spot over the likes of Michigan.
Sure, their schedule could have been tougher. Their out-of-conference slate was laughable. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Huskies are deserving members of the final four teams in college football. Some may argue that their statistical rankings, which place them in the top-25 in most major categories, are artificially inflated by poor strength-of-schedule. But even the advanced metrics, stats designed to filter out such discrepancies, have the Huskies as a top-10 unit both offensively and defensively.
So, despite the perception that the mighty Crimson Tide will roll over the lowly Washington Huskies, the numbers don’t necessarily bear that forecast out. Washington is a well-coached, offensively-explosive, defensively-stout team that will test every aspect of Alabama’s supposed strength. The Huskies are indeed undersized at some positions, but that didn’t keep them from curb-stomping a bigger, stronger Stanford team during the regular season. And unfortunately for the Tide, it is the Huskies’ strengths on both sides of the ball that play to some of the Tide’s exploitable weaknesses.
Will the Huskies win? Who knows? Alabama is a decided favorite, and Vegas isn’t in the business of losing money. One must take the prognostication from the western desert seriously. But it is hard to believe that U-Dub won’t make a game out of this first-round match-up, as they are uber-talented, have ridiculous team speed, and will undoubtedly be playing with an underdog’s chip on their collective shoulder. (And that’s the way Coach Chris Petersen likes it…just ask Bob Stoops.)
Can Washington pull off one of the greatest upsets in recent memory by knocking off the defending national champions? Can Alabama extend its nation’s longest winning streak and take another step down the Road to 17? Will UW quarterback Jake Browning slash Alabama’s heralded defense? Can Jalen Hurts find a way pass the ball against a top-flite Huskie secondary? Will he even need to pass, with Bama’s prolific running attack?
These answers and many more await…let’s take a closer look.
The Alabama offense versus the Washington defense
Everyone knows about the Alabama defense. The Tide defense is the best in the land, and the only argument that statistically makes any sense would involve Alabama and Michigan. But though not Alabama good, the defense fielded by the Huskies is potent as well, and has built quite a statistical reputation despite playing in the offense-happy Pac-12.
The Huskies may be undersized at spots on the defense, such as the safety position. But overall, they have SEC bulk up front, rigid linebackers, and long, tall corners. The scheme constructed by Pete Kwiatkowski in Seattle has been a boon for the Huskies, as he has the perfect personnel in place to execute his system. He has massive linemen who are tasked with moving blockers and creating lanes for his athletic linebackers to crash through (or around) in the pass rush and run defense. He has athletic, tall corners who can play any style of coverage warranted by an offense. He has ball-hawking safeties who create big plays and are adept in run support.
All of these moving parts have come together this year to create a monster of a defense that has stirred up havoc for Pac-12 opponents. The Huskies manhandled the historically physical Stanford Cardinal, and they mangled the once-potent Oregon offense. In the Huskies only loss of the season, this same defense fell prey to a balanced attack that featured an electric freshman quarterback, a potent running game, and a cadre of elite receivers who took advantage of size and strength disparities en route to a victory.
But overall, the Huskies have performed at a high level defensively, and they can create problems for a Tide offense that may appear balanced in terms of play-calling, but that actually skews heavily to the run. After all, many of Hurts’ passes are of the screen variety, and some passes are completed behind the line of scrimmage. Though these are technically passes, they are not of the downfield variety, thus run-first defense even though the play-calling paints a more balanced picture.
Washington has done a good job of stopping the run adequately in a pass-happy league, as footballoutsiders.com has them ranked seventh in run defense S&P+. They have accomplished that goal by allowing gargantuan 300+-pound defenders to play as offensive linemen themselves. They are charged with tangling up as many blockers as possible, sometimes moving them away from the play to create gaps that the able linebackers can crash and penetrate. The safeties are active in run support as well, darting down into the box to fill gaps, or to exploit creases created by the big men up front in their pursuit to make space for their athletic counterparts to run free in pursuit sans blockers.
It's an approach that has largely worked for the Huskies, but against Alabama, they may do well to amend their tactics. The Huskies run defense works best against teams that flow north and south, with between-the-tackles runs that are dependent on the offensive line creating space and preventing penetration. The 2016 incarnation of the Alabama running game is a different beast altogether. The Tide runs from every angle. They’ll try the middle, sure. They have plenty of experience running from Power sets, and they will run inside zone schemes a good portion of the time. But they also spread the run from sideline to sideline, whether with Hurts on zone read options or inverted veers, or with the bruising tailback combo of Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs, and Damien Harris. Lane Kiffin knows well when to use the quick, elusive Jacobs or the punishing Scarbrough. Alabama’s running game is not a between the tackles affair these days, as the Tide will make a run defense play the entire width of the field.
Earlier this season, when playing teams with monstrous bodies inside that like to bracket the run inside into traffic, Alabama made hay by stretching those same big men out and making them run sideline-to-sideline. By the third quarter, those linemen are no longer a strength, but rather a liability. Conversely, when those big men up front tire, the onus is on the linebackers and safeties to step in and put a shoulder into the running game. That’s where the size disadvantage will rear its head for Washington, as it’s hard to imagine Budda Baker (5-10, 192 pounds) or D.J. Beavers (6-1, 216 pounds) taking on the 235-pound Scarbrough (or Harris with a head of steam, for that matter) and winning more of those collisions than he loses.
In terms of the running game, Alabama is built to win a war of attrition, and their tactics further enhance that possibility. Alabama will poke and prod early with the running game to see what works, as Kiffin will search for the weak link. That weak link will be found at the edges, and in the center of the defense where Beavers and fellow freshman Brandon Wellington are taking up the torch of the injured former starter Akeem Victor at middle linebacker. There will be opportunities to exploit on the ground, and Alabama must keep the pedal to the metal well into the second half to gain an advantage and leverage it against the Huskies.
Much has been made of the passing game, as the Huskies will put two early-round draft picks on the field in Baker (the free safety) and future first-round corner Sidney Jones (6-0, 181 pounds). Fellow corner Kevin King (6-3, 192 pounds) is an athletic freak with ridiculous leaping ability, while strong safety JoJo McIntosh (6-1, 209 pounds) rounds out the base personnel grouping. The bench is deep as well, with active role players such as Jordan Miller (6-1, 176 pounds), Ezekiel Turner (6-2, 210 pounds), and Taylor Rapp (6-0, 202 pounds) filling out the roster in the secondary. When Alabama elects to pass, they will have their work cut out, as the Tide has only played a handful of units with equivalent secondary talent (USC, LSU, and Florida come to mind).
The Huskie secondary, ranked eighth in pass defense S&P+, is also opportunistic when it comes to generating big plays, as they lead the nation in turnover margin (+21) largely because the offense exhibits excellent ball security while the defense robs opponents blind with interceptions and fumble recoveries. For example, Rapp, a back-up safety who serves as the nickel back, leads the team in interceptions with four on the season. Three of the four starting defensive backs have two interceptions, and every defensive back on the two-deep (aside from McIntosh) has at least one pick. That is astounding, but speaks to the ability of the Huskie secondary to make plays.
Unfortunately for Alabama, the passing game is not a strength, as Hurts has struggled mightily (as any freshman would) against SEC defenses this season. His timing has been off, his reads have been slow at times, and his accuracy is a work in progress. This is not a knock against Hurts, as he has been phenomenal overall. But if one was to diagnose a weak point in his game, it would be his inconsistency as a passer. That plays right into the strength of the Washington defense, as they will hope to confound and slow his decision-making from the secondary to let the linebackers penetrate and apply pressure.
As has been the case throughout the season, Kiffin will attempt to find the soft spot in the secondary and attack it. For Washington, that weak link is McIntosh. He’s good enough to be a starter in a talented roster, of course, but he is the youngest starter in the secondary and has many weaknesses in his game, particularly in coverage. In watching game tape, it’s not hard to see that McIntosh finds himself out of position at times, and he bites on pump fakes and feints by offensive skill players. Expect Kiffin to try to get players like Stewart, Calvin Ridley and Howard isolated on McIntosh, as the young DB has neither the speed, technique, or explosiveness to hold Alabama’s receivers in check consistently.
When Hurts does air the ball out, the Tide faithful will hold their breath…and rightly so. As previously mentioned, the Huskies have one of the few secondaries the Tide played this season that can match talent and size (at most positions) with Alabama’s offensive skill players. Kiffin has had an extra month to polish Hurts’ passing skills, but only time will tell if the young QB can pass the ultimate test of his passing ability this Saturday.
On the upside, Alabama may not need to sling the ball around much to beat the Huskies. Alabama’s run game offers the Huskie defense something it is not accustomed to seeing: a spread power running attack chock full of five-start talent. Add in the dimension of a mobile, electric dual-threat quarterback, and the Huskies will indeed have their hands full, whether the Tide elects to toss the ball around or not. With a defense like the one Alabama has, the offense has the luxury of taking things slowly and being methodical in its attack on a given defense.
But if Alabama falls behind early, Kiffin may have to put the ball in Hurts’ hands and let the quarterback win the game with his arm. Against the Huskie secondary, that is an intimidating prospect. The Tide has all the playmakers it needs at wide receiver and tight end, but if the QB can’t get them the ball with consistency, it may not matter.
As has been the case against most opponents this season, expect Kiffin to take things slowly to open the game. He will prod the Huskie defense to find weak spots and pressure points. He will run the universally-despised jet sweeps and bubble screens. He will attempt to determine exactly what the Tide can do successfully while wearing out the Huskie big men. Once his hammer finds its nail, he will pound it repeatedly until stress fractures form in the Huskie D and the Tide begins its anaconda-like suffocation of yet another worthy opponent.
If the Huskies make enough plays to stay plucky heading into the fourth, it will be anybody’s game. But if Alabama’s defense plays to its standard and the offensive grinder gains momentum, that 14-point spread may not be so unrealistic.
The Alabama defense against the Washington offense
Though the Huskie defense is among the nation’s best statistically speaking, there’s no denying what Petersen has accomplished offensively at Seattle in a short period of time. Former Washington coach Steve Sarkisian stocked the cupboard with offensive talent to be sure, but Petersen has developed the UW offense into a lethal machine capable of eviscerating opposing defenses with both the pass and the run.
Everyone talks about Jake Browning (6-2, 209 pounds), and rightly so, as he is one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks. But lost in the excitement is the fact that the Huskies have a 1339-yard rusher in Myles Gaskin (5-10, 195 pounds), a scatback with quick feet and great instincts who averages over 100 yards per game. Bruiser Lavon Coleman (5-11, 228 pounds) has had a year as well, running for 836 total yards with a 7.8 yard per carry average. Together, they’ve accounted for 18 touchdowns, providing the Huskies with the perfect balance for their all-star laden passing game.
As good as the Huskies’ running game has been, it won’t matter much against Alabama. The Tide’s numbers against the run are the stuff of legend, as Alabama allows a mere 63.4 yards per game on the ground (compare that to the 123.5 yards per game the Huskies give up defensively for context). The Crimson Tide is so good at fitting the run, anticipating the trajectories of opposing backs, and getting penetration at the line, that even Heisman candidates have withered on the vine in the face of the Tide defense. LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M…all of these teams were potent run-based offenses until they clashed with Alabama. Expect no different when the Tide dashes the Huskies’ running game to dust this Saturday, as recent history has proven that the Alabama defense is impermeable on the ground when playing at the top of its game.
Fortunately for the Huskies, though they prefer balance, they don’t have to depend on their rushing attack to win games. Petersen likes to use the running game, of course, but with a weapon like Browning slinging the rock to the likes of 1,000-yard receiver John Ross (5-11, 190 pounds), Dante Pettis 6-1, 188 pounds), and Chico McClatcher (5-7, 179 pounds), he can afford to lean on the passing game. And if there is a perceived weakness in the Alabama defense at all, one could argue that it is the pass defense (though Alabama is ranked second in pass defense S&P+…not much of a weakness).
On standard downs, Alabama’s pass defense is fine. The Tide also handles explosive plays well, with a defensive Iso PPP rating that is tops in the nation. Bama’s team passing efficiency defense is sixth, and the DB Havoc rating puts Alabama at 13th. So where does this perception of weakness come from?
It largely stems from Alabama’s performances against Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Western Kentucky earlier this season. All three teams had quarterbacks playing at a high level. Despite Alabama’s excellence in the secondary, if the quarterback throws the perfect ball and the receiver runs the perfect route, there’s little any defensive back can do to stop it. Execution will generally win the play. Alabama has been the victim of a few high-profile, perfectly-executed passing plays, and under the microscope of Alabama fandom, the Tide has earned a perception as weak against elite passers, even though the overall numbers for the season don’t really bear that out as truth.
Unfortunately, Alabama will be playing a quarterback in Browning who is at the top of his game, who can make those perfect throws. Ross is a receiver who can execute his individual game plan. He’s a sharp route runner with speed and elusiveness to go along with flawless technique. The two form a potent tandem that will undoubtedly make plays against the best secondaries, Alabama among them. It doesn’t help matters that the Tide is without its best safety in the injured Eddie Jackson, or that future Draft pick Marlon Humphrey has spent much of bowl prep recovering from a hamstring injury. The Huskies can test the Tide secondary through the air, and when their running game fails, the added note of desperation will likely produce some offensive fireworks in the passing game.
The wildcard here will be Alabama’s incredible pass rush. No other team has the personnel to align four elite pass rushers at the line of scrimmage on a given down, but the Tide has that with Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, and Da’Ron Payne. The Tide’s “nickel rabbits” package will be money against a Huskie offensive line that allows 1.62 sacks per game (tied with Alabama at 35th). While the heart of the UW offensive line has a veteran presence with senior left guard Jake Eldrencamp (6-5, 297 pounds), senior right guard Shane Brostek (6-4, 289 pounds), and junior center Coleman Shelton (6-4, 293 pounds), they will also start two sophomores at the tackle positions in Trey Adams (6-8, 304 pounds) and Caleb McGary (6-7, 308 pounds).
One thing to note is the size and build of the Huskie linemen. They are smallish by SEC standards, with only two men (Adams and McGary) weighing in at over 300 pounds. And those two men are 6-7 or better, meaning that they are likely leaner than your average SEC tackles, with higher centers of gravity. Leverage wins the day at the point of attack, and the Tide would seemingly have the advantage there. Given the prowess of Alabama’s defensive line, it’s easy to imagine that the Tide defensive front will dominate the line of scrimmage, as Alabama has pushed around bigger stronger fronts this season. Statistically speaking, the UW O line has done a good job by most metrics, but they haven’t yet faced a full armed and operational Death Star defensive line like the one they meet on Saturday.
It will be critical for Alabama to get pressure with four pass rushers, as doing so will allow defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to flood the backfield with bodies and scramble coverages to obfuscate his tactics. Under Pruitt, Alabama’s secondary has become far more aggressive, and the ability to play nickel rabbits and get pressure with four gives the Tide a huge advantage. Browning is an excellent quarterback to be sure. But Joe Montana couldn’t have success while on his back, so the Tide pass rush will need to be potent to disrupt Browning’s timing and help the secondary against UW’s elite receiving corps.
Alabama averages 3.46 sacks per game, and if the Tide approaches or exceeds that average, the chances of the Huskies being able to string together enough plays to score consistently are low. Beating Alabama’s defense is not about breaking a big play here or there. It’s about consistency of performance. It’s about putting together multiple multi-play drives that confound the Tide defenders and take them out of their mental zone of domination. If the Huskies can repeatedly gut-punch Alabama early through the passing game, they may be able to get the Tide on their heels and put together the kind of draining drives that the Tide generally uses offensively to beat opponents. The UW offense certainly can strike with a big play through the air, and if Browning has a career day, Alabama will struggle to contain the passing game.
The Huskies, after all, have the fourth-ranked scoring offense in the nation, and that’s not by accident. While they’ll struggle on the ground against Alabama, they have enough firepower in the passing game to keep the game close.
Adam Griffith has once again had an ire-filled season of inconsistency early on, though his season has rounded into form over the last half of the campaign. It’s safe to say that Griffith can be counted upon inside the 40, but outside of that, he is erratic. Good enough. Washington has an excellent place kicker in Cameron Van Winkle, as he’s hit 16 of 20 field goal attempts this season, along with 74 of 74 PAT attempts.
The Tide has a decided advantage in the punting game, a factor which could come into play in a closely contested war of field position. Alabama is buoyed by the indomitable J.K. Scott, the punter with the mortar leg who is a true weapon for the Crimson Tide in its ongoing quest to win field position. Scott is averaging 47.7 yards per punt. The Huskies field punter Tristian Vizcaino, who averages only 39.6 yards per punt. Advantage, Alabama.
Returning punts for the Huskies is the uber-talented Dante Pettis, and Alabama will need to make sure coverage is on point to stop his explosiveness. Pettis has already returned two punts for touchdowns this year, and he averages 12.3 yards per return. Pettis can be a game changer, and the Tide’s coverage teams will need to be on top of their game to keep him in check. John Ross (26 yards per return) and Austin Joyner (12.3 yards per return) handle the kick returns for the Huskies.
Alabama has earned its reputation as the best football team in the land after a flawless season while running the SEC gauntlet. The Tide has playmakers at running back, quarterback, receiver, and tight end, and the Tide defense could be the best it’s been under Saban.
But is this enough to bullet-proof Alabama against a team like Washington? After all, Washington’s strengths play to Alabama’s supposed weaknesses. While the same is true to a degree in the converse, it’s not hard to imagine a situation in which the Tide offense struggles against a gritty Huskie D, or Alabama’s defense gets stung by enough explosive passing plays to keep the game close heading into the latter stages.
Both teams also have mental advantages. Alabama, after all, has been through the playoff song and dance before. They’ve been a part of all three incarnations of the College Football Playoffs, as a matter of fact, and they have been steady fixtures in the National Championship hunt under Saban. The Huskies haven’t sniffed the lofty heights they’ve reached this year in quite some time. Will that help or hurt Washington? After all, while seemingly a disadvantage, Petersen has proven that he knows how to motivate an underdog to achieve new heights. A win over Alabama on the game’s grandest stage would put the Huskies on the map, to be sure, and one can expect the Washington men will play the game of their lives.
If Alabama plays its game, establishes its run, and wraps its anaconda around the Huskies’ throats through the first half, then the likely outcome will be a Bama victory. However, if the offense falters, if Alabama is loose with the ball, if the defense falls prey to Washington’s explosiveness, if Browning has a career day, if the Tide fails to sniff out Petersen’s tricks when he chooses to wager them…well, therein is the setting for a tremendous upset.
Alabama should win the game, as they are the better team on paper. They have the blessing of Vegas pundits who earn a living from being right regarding such matters. But the Huskies are a good enough team to shock the world and knock off Alabama, make no mistake. There’s a potential for a dominant performance from Bama, and likewise, there’s potential that Alabama has underestimated the unfamiliar team from the far west.
Will Alabama’s defense rise to the occasion and make Browning’s life miserable for four quarters? Can the Huskies carve out some semblance of a running game to create much-needed balance against the Tide defense? Does Saban have an answer for Petersen’s trick plays, or better yet, does he have a couple of those game-changing gadgets of his own? Will the Tide offense be able to get the job done on the ground, or will they need to engage in the risk of passing against the Huskies’ elite secondary?
Those questions will soon be answered…hope for the best.