SEATTLE — “We want Bama!” the signs say, held up each week during College GameDay segments and at games across the country where one highly ranked team (or its fans, at least) think they have what it takes to upset the defending champs.
In this corner of the country, though, that sentiment has been met with mixed reactions. Washington coach Chris Petersen, who has some experience in knocking off Goliath, joked that he did not hold up those signs, and to be careful what you wish for. He also remarked that it’s a good thing the Huskies share a city with the Seahawks, because at least UW has a scrimmage opponent that could replicate what it’s like to go up against the giants of college football. The Tide are a 15-point favorite in their Peach Bowl game against UW, a huge margin for a national semifinal. (Ohio State-Clemson, by comparison, is predicted to be a 3-point game.)
And yet these underdog Huskies, winners of three in a row, are singing a different tune publicly than their coach. “We want Bama,” they say—and so should you.
“We want to win a national championship,” says leading rusher Myles Gaskin, who has rushed for 1,339 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, “and we know it goes through Alabama. They’re the best team in the country for a reason.”
A day after Gaskin made that declaration, linebacker Keishawn Bierra answered that question—do you really want Bama?—with a question of his own: “Would you want to play against the best?”
Well, sure, but … a common sense response would seem to be that no, no sane human being wants anything to do with that terrifying front seven that resides in Tuscaloosa. SI’s Andy Staples made that exact argument earlier this week, explaining that no, you really don’t want Bama. But you’ve gotta admit: at least the Huskies have some pluck.
They don’t feel like underdogs, Bierra said, with a shrug. Gaskin said the team isn’t putting too much stock in Petersen’s history in big bowl games, because that’s a narrative the media—and players’ parents, who actually remember the last decade of college football—is creating. Players are just trying to study the Tide, though it’s coming slowing. Quarterback Jake Browning is trying to pace himself, and not burn out with almost an entire month to prepare.
Almost every Washington player, to a man, agrees with this much: Alabama doesn’t have many, if any, weaknesses. The Tide have thumped every team they have played this season except for Ole Miss, which narrowly lost 48–43. Alabama’s next closest game was a 10–0 win over LSU. Other than that the Tide have rolled through conference and non-conference play, including a season-opening 52–6 demolition of USC on Sept. 3, the only team to beat UW this fall. But the transitive property is a waste this time of year, say the Huskies, so let’s play the game on the field and see what happens.
If one looks closely, they can find a few small advantages in favor of UW. Or, at least, reasons to believe it’ll be a game: For starters, all the pressure is on Alabama. Virtually everyone expects UW to get throttled even, it seems, some people who will be wearing purple and gold on Dec. 31.
“Somebody tweeted me and said ‘Hey, I’m a UW fan, I’m gonna root for you guys but when it comes down to game time, we know what’s gonna happen,’” Bierra said incredulously.
Scoring is obviously the chief concern for UW, considering Alabama’s typically lethal defense. But Alabama won’t have played a defense like UW’s either (except in practice). Defensively, the Huskies are No. 1 nationally in turnover margin, having picked off 19 passes and recovered 14 fumbles. Asked how much of forcing turnovers involves luck, Bierra, who has recovered five fumbles this season, says nothing is about luck but “all about hustle.”
Bierra added that it’s obvious in watching film that Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts is most comfortable with short passes and making plays with his feet. Forcing him into some long third-down situations could give the Huskies opportunities to snag interceptions. The trick is turning the turnovers into points. In UW’s only loss this season, the Huskies picked off USC quarterback Sam Darnold twice, but only managed three points off those two turnovers (their second field goal attempt was blocked).
Washington is also one of only two top 25 teams in the country to not allow 30 points (Ohio State is the other). But even those numbers pale in comparison to this number: 25. As in, 25 consecutive wins for the Tide dating back to last season. “They probably don’t have a weakness,” said UW wideout John Ross, who has totaled 1,122 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. “No disrespect to other teams, but they’re 130–0 for a reason.”
Players have started to sift through Alabama film and do some deep dives on the Tide, and the consensus is that what Alabama does it pretty simple. It just does it really, really well. And it has really, really good players, up and down the depth chart, all of whom can execute.
And yeah, the Huskies want all of ‘em.