Saturday’s Peach Bowl, which serves as one of the College Football Playoff semifinal games, is just the fifth time No. 4 Washington and No. 1 Alabama have ever faced one another. The Crimson Tide won each of the previous four meetings, but the teams haven’t met since 1986 when Alabama topped Washington 28-6 in the Sun Bowl. This is the third time the teams have met in a bowl game, as in addition to the 1986 Sun Bowl they also played in the 1926 Rose Bowl, a game won by the Crimson Tide 20-19.
Washington’s run offense versus Alabama’s run defense
The Huskies have a formidable rushing attack, but Washington has never faced anything quite like this.
Alabama has by far the best run defense among the nation’s 128 FBS schools. The Crimson Tide, led by senior linebacker Reuben Foster and senior defensive end Jonathan Allen — both consensus first-team All-Americans — are allowing just 63.4 yards per game on the ground this season. That number not only leads the nation, it does so by a wide margin as the second-place team, Wisconsin, is giving up 96.9 yards per game. Alabama allows just 2.0 yards per carry, which also leads the nation by a large margin — the second-place team is Houston at 2.9 per carry. The last time a team allowed fewer rushing yards per game in a season was in 2008, when TCU held opponents to 48.7 yards per contest. And the Crimson Tide’s most impressive performance is their most recent, as Alabama stuffed Florida for zero yards on 30 carries in winning the SEC championship game 54-16 on Dec. 3.
But Washington may have the weapons to challenge the Crimson Tide. The Huskies have a good one-two punch at running back in sophomore Myles Gaskin and junior Lavon Coleman. Gaskin rushed for 1,339 yards on 227 carries and scored 10 touchdowns, while Coleman added 836 yards on 107 carries with seven TDs. Washington also has a strong offensive line led by a pair of first-team All-Pac-12 selections in senior guard Jake Eldrenkamp and sophomore tackle Trey Adams. The Huskies are averaging 210 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 36th in FBS, and 5.5 yards per carry, which ranks 20th. And Washington is coming off a 41-10 victory over Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game in which the Huskies had 265 yards rushing.
It is vital that the Huskies move the ball on the ground, at least to some extent. Washington’s only loss this season was to USC on Nov. 12. In that game the Huskies were held to 17 yards on 27 carries. Without an effective rushing attack the entire Washington offense bogged down, as a Huskies team ranked fourth in the nation at 44.5 points per game this season managed a mere 13 against the Trojans.
It seems an impossible task. But somehow the Huskies must generate an effective run game to have a chance at pulling the upset.
28.8 Alabama’s average margin of victory this season, which is the largest in FBS. However, Washington isn’t far behind, ranking fourth in the nation with an average margin of victory of 26.3.
Washington — The Huskies remain without two of their front seven on defense. Senior defensive end Joe Mathis (foot) was Washington’s top pass-rusher before he was lost for the season after six games, while junior linebacker Azeem Victor (leg) remains the team’s leading tackler despite missing the past four contests.
Alabama — The Crimson Tide will be without junior linebacker Sean Dion Hamilton (knee), the team’s third-leading tackler, who suffered a torn ACL in the SEC championship game. Senior safety Eddie Jackson (leg) and senior guard Alphonse Taylor (concussion) have been long-term absentees and also won’t play. Junior left tackle Cam Robinson (ankle), an All-American, and sophomore cornerback Marlon Humphrey (hamstring) are both carrying injuries, but are expected to play.
BREAK IT DOWN
The Huskies will win if they …
Create some turnovers. If Alabama has a weakness it’s turning the ball over. The Crimson Tide are middle of the pack nationally in both turnovers (19) and turnover margin (plus-5). Meanwhile, Washington has created 33 turnovers, the most in the nation. Big-play defenders like junior cornerback Sidney Jones and junior safety Budda Baker have a nose for the ball, and Washington’s defense will need takeaways to provide the Huskies some momentum.
Make the most of their opportunities. Alabama’s defense has allowed just 10 touchdowns all season long. The main reason for that is the Crimson Tide rarely allow their opponent in the red zone. However, when a team does get into the red zone against Alabama it tends to score, as in 20 red-zone trips the Crimson Tide have allowed 16 scores, including seven touchdowns. Washington scored TDs on 42 of its 57 red-zone opportunities, and the Huskies need to punch the ball into the end zone when they get close.
Make Alabama throw the ball. The Crimson Tide are one of the nation’s top rushing teams, averaging 245 yards rushing per game. Alabama has a supremely talented freshman quarterback in Jalen Hurts who is a factor in the run game (841 yards and 12 TDs), but Hurts has been merely good as a passer (146.1 passer efficiency). Turning Hurts into a thrower instead of a runner would force the Crimson Tide to go against their main strength.
The Crimson Tide will win if they …
Make Jake Browning play like a freshman instead of a sophomore. Washington’s sophomore quarterback is in the midst of historic season, setting a new school record for touchdown passes (42) and ranking fifth in the nation in passer efficiency (176.5). But in the Huskies’ loss to USC Browning looked more like his freshman self, when he was more prone to mistakes. If Alabama forces Browning into mistakes then Washington has little chance.
Limit John Ross and Dante Pettis. The Huskies have a pair of game-breakers in junior receivers Ross and Pettis. Ross caught 76 passes for 1,122 yards and 17 touchdowns, while Pettis caught 50 balls for 796 yards and 14 scores. Alabama has a quality secondary, led by sophomore first-team All-American cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns. Fitzpatrick and company will have to prevent Ross and Pettis from making big plays.
Don’t fall for trick plays. Washington coach Chris Petersen is renowned for his willingness to dial up the unexpected on offense. He pulled trick plays out of his bag early in both the Apple Cup against Washington State and the Pac-12 championship game against Colorado. Those plays helped set the tone of those games, and Alabama won’t want to let the Huskies get on the front foot via trickery.
Alabama 32, Washington 20
There’s a reason why the Crimson Tide under coach Nick Saban won four national championships in the previous seven years. Alabama is a 14-point favorite, and the Crimson Tide will not be cowed by the occasion, having claimed the national title last year. In contrast it’s been a long time since Washington has been a contender for the national championship — the Huskies shared the national title with Miami in 1991 — and it seems likely the Huskies will have to wait at least one more year to get back to the pinnacle.