The third edition of the College Football Playoff officially begins on Saturday in Atlanta, Ga., as Alabama takes on Washington in the Peach Bowl. The Crimson Tide are the defending national champs and have earned a trip to the CFB Playoff for the third consecutive year, while the Huskies are making their first appearance in the four-team playoff.
Washington has been on a fast rise under coach Chris Petersen. The Huskies went 8-6 in 2014 and played a handful of young players – including quarterback Jake Browning – in a 7-6 season last year. While Washington finished 2015 with only seven wins, this team won four out of its last six games and was clearly trending up entering spring practice. The Huskies continued to build off that momentum in 2016, finishing 12-1 and claiming the Pac-12 title for the first time since 2000. Under Petersen’s watch, Washington has emerged as one of the top defensive teams in the Pac-12. Additionally, the Huskies have developed a dynamic attack on offense. Quarterback Jake Browning threw for 3,280 yards and 42 scores, with receiver John Ross (missed 2015 due to injury) catching 76 passes for 1,122 yards and 17 scores. Washington’s only stumble came against USC and just two of the program’s 12 wins came by less than 10 points.
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Alabama has been a model of consistency at a high level under Nick Saban’s watch and sets the standard for the rest of college football. The Crimson Tide are the only team to reach the College Football Playoff in all three seasons and are attempting to repeat as the national champs after defeating Clemson in Glendale, Ariz. last January. Saban has guided Alabama to nine consecutive seasons of at least 10 victories, and this program has lost more than one game in SEC play just once since 2008. Considering the overall success and championship teams every year, Saban is always a contender for coach of the year honors. However, Saban has an even bigger argument for the award this season, as Alabama went 13-0 with a true freshman quarterback (Jalen Hurts) and only one victory came by single digits (Ole Miss). Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has played a huge role in Hurts’ development but is headed to FAU to be the program’s head coach. Kiffin will work as the offensive coordinator throughout Alabama’s postseason run, with Steve Sarkisian set to take over the play-calling duties in 2017. The personnel will change every offseason in Tuscaloosa. But with Saban at the helm, there’s another wave of talent ready to step in and lead the team into national title contention.
Alabama and Washington have played four previous times. The Crimson Tide own a 4-0 series edge over the Huskies, with the last matchup taking place in 1986. Washington is 3-3 over its last six bowl trips, while Alabama is 7-3 in postseason games under Saban.
Washington vs. Alabama (Peach Bowl – Playoff Game)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 31 at 3 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Washington’s Offensive Line
Washington’s hopes of advancing to the national championship hinge on the five players in the trenches. Alabama’s defensive front is the best in the nation and has dominated the line of scrimmage en route to a 13-0 record. The Huskies have one of the better offensive lines in the Pac-12 and limited opposing defenses to just 21 sacks through 13 games. Three players – Jake Eldrenkamp, Trey Adams and Coleman Shelton – earned postseason All-Pac-12 honors. However, this unit struggled in Washington’s only loss by surrendering six tackles for a loss and three sacks against USC. The Huskies also had trouble against another stout front seven in the Pac-12, as Colorado generated six tackles for a loss and two sacks in the Pac-12 Championship.
If Washington struggled to block USC’s defensive front, can this unit hold its own against Alabama’s defensive line and linebackers? The Crimson Tide ranked fourth nationally by recording 45 sacks and tied for sixth by generating 105 tackles for a loss. Additionally, Alabama ranked first nationally against the run by limiting opponents to just 63.4 rushing yards per game. End Jonathan Allen and linebacker Reuben Foster were two first-team selections on the Athlon Sports’ All-America team. Foster and Allen aren’t the only stalwarts up front for Saban, as sophomore Da’Ron Payne anchors the interior of the line, and linebacker Tim Williams is a nightmare for opposing offenses off the edge.
This is stating the obvious here, but Washington’s offensive line has to protect quarterback Jake Browning to allow the sophomore to take shots downfield to receiver John Ross, as well as help open up lanes for running back Myles Gaskin. If the Huskies can’t run the ball, this offense is likely to face third-and-long for most of the game. If Alabama dominates the Washington offensive line, this game could be over early in the first half.
2. The Quarterbacks
Two of college football’s rising stars at quarterback meet in this matchup. Washington’s Jake Browning generated some Heisman buzz this fall after throwing for 3,280 yards and 42 scores. Browning started 12 games as a true freshman in 2015 and ended the season with 2,955 yards and 16 touchdown tosses. There’s no question Browning was much more comfortable in his second year as the starter. The sophomore also had a better supporting cast at his disposal, with receiver John Ross returning from a knee injury that forced him to miss all of 2015. With Ross back in the lineup, Browning was able to stretch the field more often in 2016 and connect on five plays of 60 yards or more (ranked eighth nationally). Browning didn’t play well in the loss to USC and struggled in the Pac-12 Championship against Colorado. It’s no secret Washington needs Browning to play at a high level on Saturday afternoon. Will coordinator Jonathan Smith call for more quick passes to get the ball out of Browning’s hands and avoid the Alabama pass rush? Or will the offensive line provide adequate protection to help Ross and Dante Pettis stretch the field? Using tempo could work to Washington’s advantage, especially against a secondary that is not as deep as it has been in recent years.
On the other sideline, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts was one of the breakout performers from the regular season. Under the watchful eye of play-caller Lane Kiffin, Hurts started 12 games and threw for 2,592 yards and 22 scores. The freshman is still developing as a passer and has struggled to connect on the deep ball and with overall accuracy at times. Hurts is far from a finished product as a passer, but his rushing ability makes the offense go. The freshman has rushed for 841 yards and 12 touchdowns and posted four 100-yard games this fall. Just like Browning, Hurts faces a tough matchup on Saturday. Washington’s defense led the Pac-12 by holding opponents to just 17.2 points a game, and the secondary is one of the best in the nation. Cornerback Sidney Jones is a lockdown cover man, and safety Budda Baker is one of the best in the nation at his position. Hurts has plenty of targets at his disposal, as ArDarius Stewart (52 catches), Calvin Ridley (66) and tight end O.J. Howard (37) will challenge this secondary. Washington’s plan on defense should be pretty simple: Force Hurts to win this game through the air. Assuming the Huskies can hold their own in the trenches, how will Hurts fare against a tough Washington secondary?
3. The Running Game
Much of the focus in this game is on the quarterbacks and the two standout defenses. However, both teams want to establish the run behind a stable of talented running backs. As we mentioned earlier, Washington’s offensive line has to generate a better push than it did against USC to beat Alabama, but running back Myles Gaskin has the ability to make defenders miss to help out his front five. Gaskin ended the year with 1,339 yards and 10 scores (5.9 ypc) and backup Lavon Coleman (7.8 ypc) is another valuable weapon for Petersen.
Alabama doesn’t have the standout running back it did last season in Derrick Henry, but Saban’s team has a trio of talented rushers. Damien Harris (983 yards) is the team’s No. 1 back, while Joshua Jacobs (6.64 ypc) is a rising star to watch over the next couple of years, and Bo Scarbrough (539 yards) got stronger over the course of the season. Washington’s defense isn’t as stout as Alabama’s was against the run, but this unit still ranked 19th nationally (123.5 ypg) in rush defense. Despite missing two standouts in the front seven – linebacker Azeem Victor and end/linebacker Joe Mathis – the Huskies surrendered only 3.5 yards per carry. The Crimson Tide’s offensive line features two standout tackles in Jonah Williams and Cam Robinson, and these two anchored a ground attack that generated 5.7 yards per rush. Can Washington’s front seven win the battle up front and prevent Harris/Jacobs/Scarbrough from churning out yardage on early downs?
It’s dangerous to count out a Chris Petersen-coached team with a month to prepare. However, Alabama is the best team in the nation, and even if Washington can hang around for a half, the Crimson Tide simply have too much talent on both sides of the ball. The recipe for an upset for the Huskies has to start on offense. Will quarterback Jake Browning have enough time to throw and connect with Ross on downfield throws? Staying out of long-yardage situations is essential for Washington. On defense, the Huskies have to make Hurts beat them through the air. And of course, Washington needs to win the turnover battle and score touchdowns instead of field goals. Don’t be surprised if Petersen throws a couple of wrinkles early and perhaps a trick play or two at Alabama. The Huskies stay it until the third quarter, but the Crimson Tide pulls away and books a trip to Tampa, Fla. on Jan. 9 for the national championship.