Alabama dominated the college football landscape this season, and is the only unbeaten team in the College Football Playoff, making it an overwhelming favorite to repeat as national champion. The Crimson Tide could become the third college football team in the AP Top 25 era (Florida State in 1999 and Southern California in 2004) to go wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the country.
Nick Saban’s team scored 40.5 points per game with an FBS-leading 10 defensive touchdowns this season, three more than the next best team, Ohio State. Alabama added four more touchdowns on punt returns. On defense they allowed the fewest points per game (11.8) and just 2.03 yards per carry on the ground. Dating back to 2000, the first year historical data is available, only six teams have been better against the run during the regular season.
But Washington is in the playoff for a reason. And the one area it might have the most success, and can best tilt the odds in its favor, is on defense. Specifically, they can try to close the gap on the heavy favorites by forcing Alabama’s freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts into making mistakes though the pass rush and utilizing a secondary Saban referred to as “Seahawk-like” to get Alabama’s offense off the field and create turnovers.
“They’re very good, they have length at corner, they’re very good cover guys. I think the scheme that they play, they don’t make a lot of mistakes,” Saban told reporters at Monday’s news conference. “They do a great job of executing the things that they play. They do a great job of breaking on the ball.”
Hurts has been great as a freshman, showing an aptitude for the deep ball (14 for 40 on throws 20 or more yards, with two of those incompletions coming as a result of dropped passes) but like any freshman quarterback struggles under pressure. According to Jeff Dooley of Pro Football Focus, when he faced pressure Hurts completed just 33.3 percent of his passes for a 40.7 passer rating this season, placing him 73rd out of 80 qualifying passers. The key will be keeping him in the pocket and not allowing him to scramble. Hurts ran for 841 yards with 12 touchdowns on 162 carries this season. Washington may want to use a spy to guard against a run and allow their pass-rushers to get home.
By making Hurts uncomfortable in the pocket, Washington’s secondary, featuring two of the best defensive backs in college football, safety Budda Baker and corner Sidney Jones, can try to capitalize on any mistakes.
Baker has two interceptions, four breakups plus one forced fumble this season and, according to Jordan Plocher of Pro Football Focus, is one of the nation’s more effective blitzing safeties with two sacks, two hits and two hurries, giving him a pass-rushing productivity rating of 22.1, No. 3 among Power-5 safeties. Jones added in two interceptions, six breakups and two more forced fumbles while Kevin King broke up 13 passes, tying him for No. 11 in the nation. Taylor Rapp finished the season with a team-high four interceptions, earning the Most Valuable Player Award with two of those (one a pick-six) in the Pac-12 championship game, a 41-10 victory over Colorado.
Overall, the Huskies’ defensive backs ranked No. 8 in the country for creating havoc, producing a tackle for loss, broken-up pass or a forced fumble on 8.6 percent of defensive plays. And they’ve also been great at preventing big plays against them. The Huskies allowed the second-fewest plays of 30 or more yards from scrimmage this season (14). Only Georgia State (12) was better.
Ultimately, it will be a huge task to take down Alabama, but trying to generate some turnovers is probably the Huskies’ best bet. In major bowl games dating back to 2000, teams that end the game with a plus-1 or better turnover differential are 59-15 (.797 win percentage).
“There’s no weaknesses,” Washington Coach Chris Peterson said of Alabama to Adam Jude of the Seattle Times. “It’s going to challenge us to be at our best and see what we look like when we’re at our best and where we are in our evolution of playing against the best.”
Playing their best might not be good enough. The Huskies will have to be nearly flawless to upset the Crimson Tide, and more than likely, it will take a few turnovers too.