Alabama needs two wins in order to claim back-to-back national titles, and coach Nick Saban’s team is a heavy favorite to take the first step of that journey in Saturday’s game in the Peach Bowl against Washington. While the Crimson Tide are nearly a two-touchdown favorite, the Huskies aren’t going to go away quietly. Coach Chris Petersen has plenty of experience in getting teams ready as an underdog in a big environment. Additionally, Washington has one of the nation’s best quarterbacks (Jake Browning) and a standout defense at its disposal.
When the Peach Bowl kicks off on Saturday, it’s no secret most of the spotlight will be focused on Browning, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, Washington running back Myles Gaskin and a couple of defenders from both teams (Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster from Alabama and Sidney Jones and Budda Baker from Washington). The superstars and All-America players are no secret, but a handful of under-the-radar players could make a big impact. Here are five to watch this Saturday:
Five X-Factors for Alabama and Washington in the Peach Bowl
Trey Adams, OT, Washington
Washington’s offensive line was arguably the best in the Pac-12 this season. This unit allowed 21 sacks in 13 games and paved the way for rushers to average 5.5 yards per carry. However, this group struggled against USC and surrendered two sacks and six tackles for a loss in the Pac-12 Championship against Colorado. Alabama’s front seven is the best group the Huskies have faced this year and protecting quarterback Jake Browning is essential to pulling off the upset. Adams protects the blindside for Browning and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors after starting all 13 games in 2016. Can Adams successfully hold off talented edge players like Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams to keep Browning upright in the pocket?
Related: Peach Bowl Preview and Prediction
Keishawn Bierria, LB, Washington
Despite losing two key players from the front seven, Washington’s defense still led the Pac-12 in scoring (17.2 ppg) and fewest yards per play allowed (4.58). The absence of linebacker Azeem Victor and end/linebacker Joe Mathis will be felt in this game, but the Huskies still have enough talent to hold their own against Alabama’s offense. And in order for Washington to pull off the upset, the defense has to make quarterback Jalen Hurts a pocket passer and not allow the freshman to win this game with his legs. Bierria will be a key cog in that gameplan, as the junior ranks third on the team with 63 stops and has forced two fumbles in 13 games. Bierria also earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors for his 2016 performance. Containing Hurts isn’t a one-player assignment, but Bierria needs to have a huge game for Washington’s defense.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
After catching five passes for 208 yards and two scores in last year’s national championship victory over Clemson, all signs pointed to Howard taking on a bigger role in Alabama’s offense in 2016. However, the senior only caught 37 passes for 445 yards and two scores. Howard’s numbers and overall production in the passing game probably suffered a bit due to the philosophy shift on offense, but the senior is still a key cog in the offense. Could Howard be another major factor in the passing game during the playoffs for the second year in a row?
Da’Ron Payne, DT, Alabama
Payne’s impact on the stat sheet is pretty minimal. In 13 games, Payne recorded 27 tackles (three for a loss), one sack, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery. On first glance, those totals wouldn’t be worthy of All-SEC consideration. However, Payne’s impact goes beyond the stat sheet and is a bigger factor than the numbers would suggest. At 319 pounds, Payne is the perfect size to plug the middle of Nick Saban’s 3-4 scheme. Additionally, the sophomore helps to stuff the run and is a big reason why the Crimson Tide rank first nationally in rush defense.
Dante Pettis, WR, Washington
John Ross is the go-to target for quarterback Jake Browning, but Pettis quietly had a strong season on the other side. The junior caught 50 passes for 796 yards and 14 scores and averaged a healthy 15.9 yards per reception. Alabama’s secondary isn’t as deep as it has been in previous years, but this unit is still among the nation’s best against the pass. With the Crimson Tide aiming to contain Ross and his big-play ability, Pettis needs to come up with a steady performance to help his quarterback against the nation’s No. 1 defense.