It’s college football. Anything can happen.
This feels like one of those, “Do it, you won’t,” moments. I’ll do it and court failure.
All season long I’ve touted Alabama as unbeatable. I even wrote about it. But college football is nothing if not unpredictable. Look at last year’s National Championship Game. Who would have thought Alabama’s title hopes would hinge on a Nick Saban onside kick? It was the antithesis of Crimson Tide success. They don’t need trickery. They crush opponents by executing their game plan to perfection over and over again until spirits break and souls flee bodies. But after years of punching teams in the gut thousands of times, Saban finally turned to the slow knife, the one that cuts the deepest, to steal his fourth ring. Then he unleashed the smirk of the century and razed the rest of the Alabama-hating country to ash.
Did I just use Alabama to illustrate a point as to why Alabama will fail in this year’s playoff? Yes. But that’s the point. In its own convoluted way, college football never ceases to give us the unexpected. The Crimson Tide might be a two-touchdown favorite over the Huskies in the Peach Bowl. But it won’t matter come game time, because between those four lines and in those 60 minutes, there is space for the impossible.
Alabama’s defense is loaded. It’s probably Saban’s best ever. Despite losing star safety Eddie Jackson for the rest of the season, the Tide once again outshine the rest of the FBS on that side of the ball, allowing just 247.8 yards per game and 3.94 yards per play.
They feature three premier pass-rushers in Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson. Each rank among the top eight in the country for their positions in pass-rush productivity. Williams is especially disruptive off the edge as a blitzing linebacker, causing eight sacks and 34 hurries in 217 snaps as a pass-rusher. Meanwhile, Allen is a consensus top-three selection in this year’s upcoming NFL Draft and probably should’ve had a seat in New York as a Heisman finalist. For example, this is obscene:
At the second level, the Tide have Reuben Foster. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound two-time All-American is Nick Saban’s wet dream. Last year, he outperformed second-round pick Reggie Ragland out of the gate, showcasing elite run defense and excellent cover skills. This year, he’s unquestionably the best linebacker in the country. Even without linemate Shaun Dion-Hamilton (out due to injury), Foster packs enough punch to keep opponents running scared from the middle of the field. Just ask Leonard Fournette.
So how can Washington skirt the Tide’s juggernaut?
Well, for one, the 12-1 Huskies boast one of nation’s best downfield passing attacks. Quarterback Jake Browning is at his best when he’s looking deep, and he’s got two deadly weapons at his disposal. John Ross led all Power Five wide receivers with 17 touchdowns this season, and Dante Pettis wasn’t far behind with 14 of his own. Both are playmakers, but Ross is especially tricky, given his speed and ability to create with the ball in his hands. He’s proven time and again his potency as college football’s most explosive offensive threat.
If there’s one weakness on the ‘Bama defense, it’s the secondary. Marlon Humphrey is an exceptional ball hawk on the outside, but he’s struggled to defend the deep ball this season, allowing 16.8 yards per catch. He’s given up a reception of 30 or more yards in six games this year, which could prove fatal against a downfield threat like Ross, who has six TDs this year on balls thrown further than 20 yards.
Of course, the key for Washington will be giving Browning enough time in the pocket to make these throws over the Tide’s secondary. Easier said than done. The Huskies’ O-line averages 300 pounds and has remained a capable bunch throughout the season in the Pac-12. But ‘Bama is an entirely different beast. Misdirection must become coach Chris Petersen‘s best friend, particularly in the run game. Sophomore halfback Myles Gaskin went for 1,339 yards this season, but he likely won’t touch 100 yards in the game. Instead, he needs to run purposefully enough to keep the Tide off balance on play-action and flex his muscle as a blocker in the passing game. Chipping Anderson and Williams will be a must. And he’ll also have to help against Allen in some slide protection schemes as well. Blocking up front against the ‘Bama rush will be a total team effort, but if Washington executes properly, they will put points on the board behind Browning and Co.
On defense, the Huskies’ game plan is simple: put pressure on Jalen Hurts. The true freshman QB has had a dream season, showcasing maturity and confidence beyond his years. However, he remains susceptible to errant throws under pressure, like most young signal-callers. The formidable Tide offensive front has kept him clean on 288 of 402 drop backs, but in the other 114, Hurts completed just 33.3 percent of his passes and threw four interceptions. Washington’s front seven must pick and chose its moments to send extra men. It’s complicated, especially considering Alabama’s three-pronged rushing hydra of Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs. But as long as the Huskies don’t break contain and funnel Hurts and Co. into the middle of the field, they can focus on breaking down the Tide passing game.
The real keys to slowing down Lane Kiffin’s offensive attack lie in the Washington secondary, namely Sidney Jones and Budda Baker. Jones is the Huskies’ best corner, and he’ll likely be tasked with marking the Tide’s Ardarius Stewart. If Jones can lock Stewart down in one-on-one situations and let the Huskies use their safety help on tight end O.J. Howard and WR2 Calvin Ridley, it will help open up the pass rush. From the hybrid safety position, Baker must make his presence felt on the blitz. He was the third-best pass-rushing defensive back in the Power Five. Hurts hasn’t seen a zone blitzer like Baker all year and he’s the perfect weapon to force costly mistakes.
The X-factor for this matchup wanders the sidelines for the purple and gold. Petersen has engineered some of the best game plans in college football history. Can he do it once more against a fellow mastermind? Ask Oklahoma:
It’s easy to say Alabama is unbeatable this season. They’ve stood as the consensus No. 1 team in the country all season long. From their Week 1 thrashing of USC, to their dismantling of SEC-rival Florida in the conference championship, the Tide have left no doubt in anyone’s mind as to why the trophy will stay put in Tuscaloosa in 2017.
But maybe Washington is 2014 Ohio State—the team that didn’t deserve a bid in the inaugural College Football Playoff, only to shock the world and snatch the championship. Or maybe they’re 2013 Auburn—lucky and good enough to cause lots of chaos.
Odds don’t matter. Stats don’t matter. All-Americans don’t matter. The past doesn’t matter. Anything can happen.
And that’s what makes college football great.