The must-see head-to-head matchups in this Saturday’s Peach Bowl playoff semifinal between Alabama and Washington include a pair that’ll directly impact QB Jake Browning’s ability to connect downfield.
Who’ll win this Saturday’s Peach Bowl between Alabama and Washington to advance to the Jan. 9 National Championship in Tampa? So much is going to hinge on the games-within-the-game, those head-to-head and unit clashes that tip the scales in the direction of the more dominant side.
The outcomes of the five matchups below will go a long way to determining the winner when the Tide and the Huskies meet at the Georgia Dome.
5. Alabama receivers ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley vs. Washington CB Sidney Jones and S Budda Baker
The Huskies want to force Alabama into obvious passing situations, because Jalen Hurts is still maturing as a pocket passer and because doing so will play into their strength. Jones and Baker are the next-level stars of a secondary that’s picked off 19 passes and ranks No. 5 nationally in fewest yards allowed per attempt. But Stewart and Ridley form one of the best pass-catching tandems U-Dub will face in 2016. While Ridley began the season as a household name and Biletnikoff Award candidate, it was Stewart who emerged as Hurts’ most dangerous target, catching 52 balls for 852 yards and eight touchdowns in only 10 games.
4. Alabama WLB Reuben Foster vs. Washington RB Myles Gaskin
The Huskies must establish the running game with Gaskin to keep the chains moving and keep QB Jake Browning out of treacherous third-and-long situations. But who runs the ball on Bama? The Tide allows 63 yards per game and a measly two yards per carry. Forget the chunk of real estate between the tackles, where Nick Saban’s teams are always so rugged and impregnable. Gaskin and, to a lesser extent, Lavon Coleman will have to use their speed to get around the edge and headed upfield before Foster is able to lower the boom.
3. Washington LB D.J. Beavers vs. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts
Beavers is one of the X-factors for the Huskies this weekend, a redshirt freshman defense coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski will build around over the next few seasons. He’s a speedy 6-0, 216-pounder, who rose to the occasion after star Azeem Victor was lost for the season on Nov. 12. In Atlanta, Beavers will be asked to use his range and closing speed to neutralize the feet of Hurts, who’s rushed for 841 yards and a dozen touchdowns. If Hurts, also a rookie, and Bama are forced to air it out, the Huskies have enough talent to keep the offense in check.
2. Washington QB Jake Browning and his receivers vs. Alabama SS Minkah Fitzpatrick and CB Marlon Humphrey
Browning wasn’t a Heisman finalist mainly because he completed less than 50% of his passes late in the year against the talented defensive backfields of USC and Colorado. Well, the sophomore has a chance to redeem himself against the best secondary he’s faced in his young life, a unit led by Fitzpatrick and Humphrey that’s produced five pick-sixes. Athletic quarterbacks have vexed the Tide in recent years. But Browning only roams when absolutely necessary, so he’ll need to stare down the inevitable pressure and connect with the dynamic duo of John Ross and Dante Pettis, who’ve combined for 31 touchdown receptions this season.
1. Alabama DE Jonathan Allen, SLB Ryan Anderson and JACK Tim Williams vs. Washington tackles Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary
QB Jake Browning must be a factor for Washington to threaten Alabama. And Browning must be upright to have any shot of solving the airtight Tide D. However, that’s going to be an issue with Allen, Anderson and Williams bearing down off the edge. McGary and especially Adams have bright futures ahead now that they’re midway through their Husky careers. But they’re both very long and prone to allowing opposing rushers to get underneath their pads, a problem when facing pass rushers with the natural ability and speed of the Bama front seven. If the trio of Allen, Anderson and Williams are getting pressure, it’ll be a long and painful afternoon in the pocket for Browning and the Huskies.