Who wants Bama? Washington does. Huskies coach Chris Petersen did excellent work as an underdog at Boise State, and now his team will get the ultimate underdog experience against the undefeated defending national champ in the Peach Bowl. Alabama coach Nick Saban has told anyone who would listen since the playoff field was announced that Washington will be the best team the Crimson Tide have faced all season. Saban, who often speaks to his players through the media, does not want them to underestimate the Pac-12 champions. But he’s also telling the truth; Washington probably will be the best team Alabama has played so far.
Points of interest
1. Time for Jalen Hurts to take the next step
True freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has turned Alabama’s attack into one of the nation’s most versatile thanks to his running ability, but he hasn’t had a chance to run the full offense yet. “Once we realized how talented he was, we needed to play him right away,” Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. “We didn’t have two years to develop him, so how can we simplify the offense to do the things he can do best?” The extended break between the SEC title game and the Peach Bowl offered the first chance for Hurts to go back to basics at practice as the starter.
Hurts’s yards per attempt dropped by nearly a full yard (from 8.1 to 7.2) as Alabama faced better defenses in its last seven games, but his completion percentage remained high. He currently ranks No. 13 in the nation at 65.3%.
The Tide haven’t needed Hurts to win games through the air, but if he gets more comfortable in the offense and emerges as a more efficient passer, it could make Alabama’s offense impossible to stop. If Hurts struggles, though, the Budda Baker-led Huskies secondary could make Alabama pay.
2. Jake Browning’s mobility
Washington quarterback Jake Browning has been incredibly efficient through the air. He ranks No. 8 in the nation in yards per attempt (9.3) while completing 63.2% of his passes. Meanwhile, Crimson Tide players have noticed that Browning isn’t a statue. “One thing that Browning doesn't get enough credit for is his versatility,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “He's a very athletic running quarterback. So after breaking down the film time after time, you see linebackers and defensive backs missing tackles on him and they're making great throws down the field. That's something that I don't think he gets enough credit for. That's definitely something that we've been practicing for. We're going to have to be ready for.”
Browning’s ability to remain upright will be critical. The quarterbacks who have given Alabama the most trouble (Chad Kelly, Austin Allen) could keep plays alive with their feet. A quarterback doesn’t have to run like Cam Newton or Johnny Manziel to succeed against Alabama, but he must be mobile enough to escape pressure behind the line of scrimmage and deliver the ball.
3. Keeping the Tide’s non-offensive players out of the end zone
Alabama leads the nation with 14 non-offensive touchdowns (five interception returns, five fumble returns, two punt returns and one blocked punt return), and Washington’s offensive players understand how dangerous turnovers can be against the Tide. “You can’t give up turnovers. You can’t,” Washington tailback Myles Gaskin said. “Watching games, you notice that after [a non-offensive touchdown] happens, they tend to run away with the game. It gives their offense more energy. It gives their special teams more energy. And it definitely gives their defense more energy.”
Burning question: Can Washington get pressure on Hurts?
The Huskies had 24 sacks in their first six games and 13 in their last seven. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out why. The dropoff occurred after Washington lost top edge rusher Joe Mathis to a foot injury. Just before he had surgery in early November to repair a bone in his big toe, Mathis told The Seattle Times that he planned to return for the postseason if the Huskies won the Pac-12. But Petersen said earlier this month that he doesn’t expect Mathis back. That means linebacker Psalm Wooching and defensive end Connor O’Brien—who replaced Mathis—will have to find a way to create pressure against Alabama that they couldn’t create against the last seven teams on their schedule.
X-factor: Washington receiver and punt returner Dante Pettis
Pettis ranks 12th in the nation in punt return average (12.3), and he has returned two punts for touchdowns. One of those scores sealed Washington’s win at Utah. Alabama punter JK Scott is excellent at flipping field position, but if he kicks to Pettis, the Huskies may flip it right back.
Statistically speaking: 0.6
The Huskies averaged 0.6 yards a carry in a 26–13 loss against USC, which was the only team on their schedule with athletes that resemble the ones they’ll see against Alabama. The Tide have the stingiest run defense in the country, allowing 2.0 yards a carry. If the Huskies can’t figure out a way to move the ball on the ground and the Tide know Browning is dropping back to pass on every play, it could get ugly.
Alabama has the most talent and the highest expectations. Anything short of a national title will be considered a failure for this team. Washington has nothing to lose and plenty of offensive firepower. If Alabama has a weakness, it’s secondary depth following Eddie Jackson’s season-ending injury against Texas A&M. In Browning, the Huskies have the best quarterback Alabama has faced, so it’s possible Washington could do some damage through the air. But if Alabama’s defense makes Washington one-dimensional, the Tide can stop the Huskies and give the ball to their offense to ground out a win.