As Alabama and Washington ready for their Peach Bowl meeting in Atlanta, who has the edge at each unit on the field and on the sideline? Here’s a tale of the tape for the semifinalists.
Can anyone dethrone defending national champ Alabama, the only Power Five program without a loss this season? Washington gets its shot at the unbeaten Crimson Tide in this Saturday’s Peach Bowl in Atlanta. The Huskies are prohibitive underdogs for reasons that become clearer after diving headfirst into an evaluation of how each team’s units stack up side-by-side.
Jake Browning is the more advanced passer, a heady second-year Husky who reads defenses like an upperclassmen. But Jalen Hurts puts more pressure on defenses, because he can tuck it and take off like a running back. And the unflappable poise he displayed throughout his rookie season indicates he won’t be unnerved by the magnitude of this moment.
Hurts can be whatever the Tide requires, ideally a game manager who attempts 20 or so passes and sprints for a couple of scores. Browning needs to prove he can vex a topflight secondary after veering off course against USC and Colorado late in the season.
There’s been no Mark Ingram or Trent Richardson or Derrick Henry in Tuscaloosa. But what Bama lacks in All-American candidates this season, it makes up for with depth. No one has been asked to shoulder the load, a la Henry in 2016, especially since Hurts is like having another back in the backfield. Still, Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and true freshman Josh Jacobs all produced 100-yard games last fall and have bright futures with the Tide. The trio provides enough of an eclectic mix of ability to nudge ahead of Washington’s gifted duo of Myles Gaskin and super sub Lavon Coleman.
Receivers and Tight Ends
This is the one area where the Huskies could enjoy an advantage in Atlanta, which is in no way a knock on Alabama’s collection of pass-catchers. Calvin Ridley is a future high draft pick, and ArDarius Stewart is one of the most underrated players in the Peach Bowl. Plus, the Tide is stronger at tight end with O.J. Howard.
It’s just that Dante Pettis and especially John Ross have performed at a different level this season, catching 31 touchdown passes between them. Ross is electrifying, with the speed to challenge any secondary. Bama must also respect Chico McClatcher, a jackrabbit who can turn short hitches into long gainers.
By the typical standard, this is a good, not great, Alabama O-line. Junior LT Cam Robinson is the current star, while true freshman Jonah Williams is the budding star and likely successor to Robinson on the left side. Bradley Bozeman has quietly been a rock at the pivot in his starting debut. The guards are average, with journeyman converted D-lineman Korren Kirven taking over on the right side late in the year.
On the Washington ledger, LT Trey Adams, LG Jake Eldrenkamp and C Coleman Shelton were all-leaguers, but it wasn’t a great year for Pac-12 blockers, and it’s been hard to shake how badly this group was whipped by USC back on Nov. 12.
The Crimson Tide is big, physical and skilled along the first line of defense. What else is else new in Tuscaloosa? But so are the Huskies, led by 332-pound Vita Vea, 318-pound Greg Gaines and 321-pound Elijah Qualls.
In many ways, the Washington front wall is built line an old-school, prototypical SEC unit, with the brute force to overwhelm opponents on running downs. What U-Dub has lacked up front since DE Joe Mathis’ season-ending injury is someone who can consistently pressure the pocket, say, like Bama standout end Jonathan Allen.
Most, if not all, opponents will have weaker linebackers than Bama, which features three star playmakers in elite run defender Reuben Foster and pass rushing demons Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson charging hard from JACK and SAM, respectively. The divide grew even wider for Washington after its best linebacker, Azeem Victor, was lost for the season in November to a leg injury. Backup D.J. Beavers has a great future ahead, but this is a tough spot for a first-year player.
It’s worth noting that the Tide is also down a starter, Shaun Dion Hamilton, who’s being replaced in the middle by junior Rashaan Evans.
It’s a dead heat involving two of the best defensive backfields in the country. Bama is No. 6 nationally in pass efficiency defense, yielding just 11 touchdown passes. U-Dub ranks No. 10, having given up 13 scoring strikes.
Both secondaries are talented, opportunistic and comprised of future pros. The Tide’s one-two punch consists of SS Minkah Fitzpatrick and CB Marlon Humphrey, who’ve produced three of the team’s five pick-sixes. The Huskies counter with CB Sidney Jones and S Budda Baker, a pair of prodigal All-Pac-12 first-teamers. The supporting casts are capable, too, such as Alabama CB Anthony Averett and FS Ronnie Harrison and Washington’s other corner, Kevin King, and budding S Taylor Rapp, the Pac-12 Rookie of the Year.
Alabama has the best individual leg in the Peach Bowl, that of JK Scott, a booming punter with the hang time to directly impact field position. But Washington will have the edge in two key areas, placekicking and the return game.
Husky Cameron Van Winkle has been steadier than the Tide’s Adam Griffith this year, and U-Dub’s return game is more menacing, particularly after Bama lost top punt returner Eddie Jackson in late October. The Huskies, on the other hand, have long range weaponry in Ross on kickoffs and Pettis on punts, an important component of a team that will likely struggle to score by conventional means.
Washington’s Chris Petersen takes a backseat to very few coaches in college football. However, this is one of those times. Nick Saban is the game’s standard-bearer, sitting two wins away from tying Bear Bryant with a sixth national championship.
Both coaches do outstanding jobs of preparing teams coming off long breaks, and surrounding both are accomplished staffs of assistants. The defensive coordinators, in particular, Husky Pete Kwiatkowski and the Tide’s Jeremy Pruitt, are two of the best in the business. Bama also benefits from the presence of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who has remained on board after taking the head job at Florida Atlantic.