ATLANTA, Ga. – Football fans will not be forced to wait all day New Year’s Eve for fireworks. The third annual College Football Playoff kicks off Saturday afternoon, and should offer plenty of excitement.
It all starts with the Washington Huskies and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta. The two teams have been in Atlanta since Dec. 26. Most of that time has been about business and focusing on practice, but some time has been allotted towards the overall experience of being in the semifinal game.
The two teams have gone on short field trips in the city, and competed with one another in basketball, go-kart racing, and a gridiron edition of family feud. But now play time is over. Saturday afternoon these two teams will compete in something more than meaningless games, and fight for the right to face either Ohio State or Clemson for a chance to win a national title in Tampa, Florida.
Tale of the tape
The fourth ranked Washington Huskies (12-1, 8-1) are coming off of a dominant performance in the Pac-12 championship game, defeating Colorado 41-10. This Washington team cruised through most of the 2016 season. Its only loss came to the hands of a very much improved Southern California team on Nov. 12. The Huskies knocked off four ranked teams on their way to the playoffs by a combined score 161-57. This is the Huskies first appearance in the college football playoff.
Washington is led by third year head coach Chris Petersen. During his tenure in Seattle he has posted a 27-13 record, and has led the Huskies into the conversation of elite teams. Overall Petersen has been a head coach for 11 seasons, eight of which he spent at Boise State. In those 11 seasons he has led his teams to a 119-25 record (.826). Petersen’s 100 wins in 117 tries in 2014 made him the fastest coach ever to reach the century mark in wins.
Unlike its opponent, No. 1 Alabama (13-0, 9-0) finds itself standing on very familiar ground. The Tide have yet to miss a college football playoff. Alabama lost to Ohio State in the inaugural playoff in 2014. Last season the Tide knocked off Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, and eventually pulled away from Clemson in the national title game. Alabama cruised through the 2016 season with one of the toughest schedules in college football.
Eight ranked teams tried and failed to knock off the Crimson Tide in 2016. In fact Alabama has won 15 straight games against ranked opponents dating back to the 2015 season. That is second best all-time trailing only Southern Cal teams from 2002-05 with 16. Alabama can break the record with a college football playoff win on January 9.
Head Coach Nick Saban will lead the Tide onto the field Saturday afternoon. In 10 seasons at Alabama Nick Saban has coached in 48 games as the top ranked team in America. Alabama is 43-5 (.896) in such games. Saban has won five national titles in his head coaching career. Four coming at Alabama, and one from his stint at LSU.
Alabama’s last performance came in the SEC title game against Florida. Like most opponents, Florida could not stand up to the Tide physically. After a few drives it was clear that Alabama was the better team, but in a game against a very talented Washington team the Tide will certainly line up against stiffer competition.
When Washington has the ball
The Husky offense is led by Sophomore Quarterback Jake Browning. Browning has thrown for 3,280 yards and 42 touchdowns this season. His 176.51 quarterback rating leads the Pac-12 and is fifth overall in the nation. On paper and on the field Browning will be the best quarterback Alabama has faced all season, and statistically he leads the best offense the Tide will face up to this point.
The Huskies are scoring 45.5 points per game which ranks fourth nationally. In 13 games this season Washington has scored 40 or more in 10 of them.
The player to keep an eye on for Washington is receiver John Ross. Ross has been Browning’s favorite target all season. He has reeled in 76 catches this season for over 1,100 yards and 17 touchdowns. When things break down for this Washington offense expect Browning to find Ross to get the offense back on track.
As good as the offensive numbers are for Washington, there is just one problem.
The Alabama defense.
Something will have to give in this game. The Alabama defense is allowing a mere 11.8 points per game. That ranks first in the country. The Tide does not allow many yards through the air either. The Alabama secondary holds its opponents to just under 185 passing yards per game.
The main problem for the Washington offense will be time. How much time will its offensive line give Browning to make reads and deliver a clean throw down the field? Most quarterbacks going up against this Alabama defense have not had sufficient time to distribute the ball.
Alabama’s pass rush led by Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams has gotten after the quarterback all season. Alabama leads the SEC and is fourth in the country in sacks with 45 in 2016.
When Alabama has the ball
The Alabama offense is one of the most prolific in school history. Lane Kiffin’s West Coast attack has kept opposing defenses on their heels all season. Alabama leads the SEC in points per game (40.5), and ranks second in the league in total offense.
The passing game for Alabama has been less than spectacular in 2016. While the overall offensive numbers look great, they would look very different without the extra dynamic that true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts brings with his legs. Hurts set the Alabama quarterback rushing record with 841 yards and rushed for a team-leading 12 touchdowns.
After a terrific freshman campaign in 2015, many thought Calvin Ridley would be the leading receiver for the Tide. That has not been the case. Ardarius Stewart leads the receiving corps for Alabama, and has clearly been the man Hurts wants to get the ball two this season. Expect the same in the semi-final game.
Expect the same committee approach that Kiffin used all regular season with the rusing attack. Expect to see Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs, Bo Scarbrough, and Hurts split carries throughout the game and wear down the Husky defense as the game goes on.
The Washington defense is stout, but gets overlooked in this match-up. The unit held nine of its 13 opponents to 18 or fewer points. Nationally the group ranks as good as any other team in the country, especially in scoring defense. The Huskies give up just over 17 points per-game.
This defense also leads the country in turnover margin. It has forced 33 turnovers this season, 14 fumbles and 19 interceptions. This could pose a problem for the Alabama offense considering the amount of times Hurts and others put the ball on the turf in the last few weeks of the year.
For Washington the x-factor has to be Chris Petersen’s play book. Petersen is not afraid to dial up a trick play up on any down or distance. Petersen has coached as the underdog throughout his career, and once again finds himself in the same situation.
Petersen’s most famous trick play came in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. After a touchdown in overtime Petersen declined to kick an extra-point and chose to go for two. Petersen called a successful statute of liberty that led to a win in walk-off fashion. He knows his team does not have the talent to handle Alabama for four straight quarters, but with a few wrinkles and a few play calls at the right time Petersen might steal a few points that will give his team a better chance to win.
Alabama’s x-factor in this game will be Shaun Dion Hamilton’s backup Rashaan Evans. With Hamilton out for the remainder of the season Evans will have to step up and be the starter alongside Reuben Foster at middle linebacker. There is no doubt that Evans has the talent to play the position, but with limited reps throughout the season Evans may not be mentally ready to step in and play the most important defensive position on the field.
The Peach Bowl feels like the Bible story of David and Goliath. One of these teams has been here before, and has bullied its way through college football since 2008. The other is a new face, but may have the formula to knock off a Saban coached team.
Yes, beating a Saban coached team is one of the most difficult tasks to achieve in sports, but it can be done. Washington has the quarterback and receivers to put pressure on the Alabama defense, but do the Huskies have the defense to stop Hurts and this Alabama attack?
If we had the answers there would be no reason to play the game, but the game will be played and one team will prevail.
If the past is any indicator of what will happen in this game the Huskies will leave the Georgia Dome with tails between legs. Alabama holds a 4-0 all-time record against Washington. The last meeting was Christmas day in 1986 which ended with a final score of 26-6.
The Peach Bowl will be nationally televised, and is set to kick-off at 2 p.m. central time on New Year’s Eve.
Jeremy Law for SylacaugaNews.com | © 2016, SylacaugaNews.com/Marble City Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.