It went chalk … mostly. After a week of anticipation and debate, the College Playoff Committee kept the same four teams as last week, with slight reshuffling. That doesn’t change the semifinal matchups though. No. 1 Alabama will meet No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl semifinal. Yet again, many are expecting the Crimson Tide to coast this postseason. Here’s a quick look at the matchup, which could very well be a defensive battle with minimal scoring.
What to know when Alabama has the ball
The Crimson Tide have a reasonably anemic offense, when you look at all of college football. Their 471.3 yards per game rank 26th nationally, but it has been the top offense in the SEC this season, and Alabama has a budding superstar in freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, who averages 197.2 passing yards and 64.7 rushing yards per game (statistically, Hurts is the Tide’s second best-runner behind Damien Harris, who averages 75.6 yards). Alabama also has five players who average 24 yards or more on the ground each game, which accounts for their 14th-ranked rushing offense.
Forever a pro-style team, we’ve seen the evolution of Alabama’s offense under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin the last couple seasons, incorporating more tempo and a mobile quarterback. In short: If you’re playing Alabama, you have to be ready for everything offensively. Also, don’t forget about tight end O.J. Howard. The 6’ 6", 242-pounder averages just 34.2 receiving yards per game but emerged as offensive MVP of the title game last year.
All that being said, Alabama hasn’t played a defense like Washington’s this season (unless you count practice, which we’ll talk about in a minute). The Huskies’ rapid rise under third-year coach Chris Petersen has been due mostly to a salty defense, one that ranks 10th nationally, allowing just 316.2 total yards per game and is tops in the nation in turnover margin. UW’s most impressive win this season came against Stanford, when the Huskies throttled the Cardinal 44–6 in Seattle on Sept. 30. (Important note: UW is built to stop a convention, pro-style team like Stanford. Running QBs have given the Huskies trouble).
But UW is a different team now compared to then, because it's missing two key players. Joe Mathis, one of the best edge rushers in the country, was lost for the season Nov. 7. At the time, Mathis was leading the team with five total sacks; that distinction now goes to Psalm Wooching, who has six sacks. The Huskies are also missing starting middle linebacker and tackle leader Azeem Victor, lost for the season Nov. 12 against USC. The Huskies’ secondary, led by junior safety Budda Baker, is packed with talent, too. Freshman Taylor Rapp earned MVP honors in the Pac-12 title game after collecting two picks.
Who has the edge?
Slight edge to the Tide because of Hurts’ mobility.
What to know when Washington has the ball
Much of UW’s success this season can be attributed to the maturity of sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, one of the most efficient passers in college football (176.5 passing efficiency, fifth-best in the country). Browning has been terrific all season, accounting for 46 total touchdowns (42 passing, four rushing) and just seven interceptions. Midway through the season, he was generating Heisman buzz for his play, though that petered out in November. Still, when he has time—which he might not against Alabama’s pass rush—Browning has been very good in the pocket.
UW has to establish the run to be successful, though; in the Huskies one loss this season, USC held UW to just 17 rushing yards and Washington sputtered from there. Getting Myles Gaskin (103 rushing yards per game) and Lavon Coleman (64.3) going early will be important. Good news for UW in the rushing game is that Gaskin and Coleman can both get to the perimeter. In the passing game, the Huskies have one of the most dynamic playmakers in all of college football with junior John Ross (86.3 receiving yards per game, 18 total touchdowns), who you probably remember for his crazy catch in the Pac-12 final against Colorado. (He is also one of the best and most explosive kick returners in the nation.)
And yet … Godspeed, Huskies. This might be the best defense Nick Saban has ever coached, and that’s saying something. The Tide is ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense (247.8 yards per game), rushing defense (63.4 yards per game) scoring defense (11.8 points per game), fourth-down conversion percentage defense (19%) and defensive touchdowns (10). Scoring on the Tide—heck moving the ball on the Tide—is a Herculean task.
To wit: In the entire month of November, Alabama didn’t give up a touchdown. The Tide’s front seven is downright terrifying. Its headlined by Jonathan Allen (56 total tackles, including 13 for loss and 8.5 sacks, 15 quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries), arguably the best defensive end in the country. And then there are guys like linebacker Reuben Foster (team-leading 94 total tackles, including 12 for loss) and DB Minkah Fitzpatrick (56 total tackles, team-leading 5 interceptions). No team has solved Alabama’s defensive riddle all season.
Who has the edge?
Alabama, theoretically by a lot.
One more factor
Alabama opens as an early 14-point favorite, and it’s easy to see why. But don’t discount Chris Petersen, who has had a lot of success when he’s had significant time to prep. At Boise State, which was a perennial underdog, Petersen pulled off upset after upset, starting with Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and later in preseason games against Oregon (2009) and Virginia Tech (2010). Many believe this is the beginning of another Alabama coronation ceremony, but don’t count out the Huskies just yet.