Alabama and Washington meet in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve. And USC’s Clay Helton believes the Huskies will give Nick Saban’s squad all it can handle.
If anyone is most qualified to discuss at length the Dec. 31 Peach Bowl in Atlanta between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Washington, it’s USC’s Clay Helton—the only coach in the country to have faced both teams during the 2016 college football season.
The Trojans head coach matched up with both Nick Saban and Chris Petersen this past fall, and his team endured two very different outcomes.
In the season opener, USC didn’t stand much of a chance against the Crimson Tide, as Saban’s squad throttled the Trojans, 52-6, in Arlington, TX. But a little over two months later, while playing some of their best football of the year, the Trojans went into Seattle and handled the Huskies rather easily, delivering U-Dub its lone loss of the year, 26-13.
Despite watching two entirely different results occur in the contests against Alabama and Washington, Helton believes that the 17-point underdog Huskies have a chance to deliver the Tide their first loss of the season and advance to the national championship game.
“Definitely,” Helton told the Seattle Times on Tuesday. “Definitely.”
Helton said the reason is the Huskies’ defense.
“You look at both teams and they both have what it takes to win a championship,” Helton said. “It starts with defense…After having played both of them, when you talk about Budda Baker and that [Washington] secondary, as well as a really, really solid front—they’re obviously one of the better defenses in our league and I think one of the better defenses in the country.”
There’s no question that U-Dub has one of the best units in the country, ranking No. 10 in total defense at 316.2 yards per game. It’s an outfit that features tons of speed, athleticism and physicality.
The problem for Petersen and Co. is that Alabama ranks No. 1 in the FBS in scoring defense (11.8 points per game), rushing defense (63.4 yards per game) and total defense (247.8 yards per game). It’s also a team that has scored 13 combined touchdowns on defense and special teams. It sounds crazy to even ponder given the number of strong defenses he has had over the years, but this could be the best Saban has fielded during his tenure in Tuscaloosa. And that’s a scary thought for Huskies quarterback Jake Browning, whose squad was held to season lows in points (13) and yards (276) in the loss to USC. Browning threw two interceptions in that game, which matched a season high. He will have to be at his best against the Tide, which is about as difficult an opponent as they come.
However, the same can be said of Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts, who enjoyed a standout season despite being just a true freshman. He recorded more than 3,400 yards of total offense to go along with 34 touchdowns, and he tossed only nine interceptions. While he wasn’t perfect, he played just about as well as any true freshman QB could play. And the sky is the limit for him moving forward.
The matchup very well could come down to which signal-caller plays the cleaner game.
Petersen knows that his Huskies will be facing their stiffest test yet when they line up against ‘Bama, but we have also seen his Boise State teams claim two Fiesta Bowls. Outside of Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, there are few head coaches you would want in a big game against Saban more than Petersen.
Just ask fellow Pac-12 head coach Helton, who understands more than anyone just how difficult a task awaits the Huskies in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve.