Earlier this week we talked with Erik Evans (@gothlaw), from the SB Nation community Roll ‘Bama Roll regarding the Peach Bowl playoff matchup with Alabama.
Here's what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: If you watch a Jalen Hurts highlight reel, he looks like one of the top QBs in the country. When watching entire games, however, there are obvious freshman moments. How would you rate his performance this season? What does he consistently excel at? When does he make you nervous?
Erik: Hurts' success has in large part been because of Coach Lane Kiffin. The two have "a special relationship," and it has been as fun to watch Kiffin learn and call a spread option offense, taking him out of his West Coast comfort zone, as it has been to bring in a dynamic playmaker at quarterback and see his impact on a traditionally football-orthodox coaching staff. Knowing Hurts' limitations has been key, and Kiffin has done a very good job protecting him (see the hyper-conservative game plan on the road against rival LSU and at home against Auburn.) But, in those games or moments where Kiffin thinks he can unleash Hurts, Jalen has taken over, such as the beatdown he orchestrated in Tennessee and against Southern Cal. It's hard to ask much more of Hurts, either individually or as a team: Alabama is undefeated, has won the SEC title, and is in the playoffs again. Individually, he was named Freshman All-American, first team All-SEC, and is the SEC's offensive player of the year.
He can make plays with his legs, obviously, and his arm, but his biggest asset has been as a leader: He is utterly unflappable. When freshman moments happen, as they are wont to do, he has taken them as teaching moments and has, without fail, bounced back with a game-changing big play. That calm demeanor, coupled with making those plays, has earned him the trust of the team, where there has never been a sense of panic, even when everything is falling apart (such as being down three touchdowns on the road to Ole Miss.) You could tell in Alabama's spring game that whatever "it" is, he has it.
Those accolades aside, he has had his struggles, particularly with turnovers at inopportune times. He has thrown nine interceptions and has lost six fumbles. Additionally, he has what PFF calls "turnover-worthy" plays: That is where he has dodged what would or should ordinarily be a turnover. That metric has him committing about one per game, despite opponents' inability to cash in. The other obviously deficit has been vertical passing in the second half of the season. Some of that is the game plan, some has been the heart of the conference schedule and a lot of excellent pass rushers, but a lot has been missed reads and bad execution. Overall, he is completing just 27% of his passes over 20 yards in the air, despite having good WRs and a strong, but not overwhelming, arm.
UWDP: The wide receiving corps is strong as usual for Alabama led by ArDarius Stewart, Calvin Ridley and tight end O.J. Howard. Tell us about how these three might be used.
Erik: I would not expect much of a departure from how Alabama has used those three. Ridley is the home run threat, but has seen his production taper off as Alabama's offense has been designed laterally to both exploit Hurts' strengths and exhaust opposing defensive lines. ArDarius Stewart has definitely made himself money this year: he does all the little things that help win ball games, from blocking to being a physical force capable of going over the middle. Though not scoring many touchdowns, OJ Howard has quietly had a pretty good year as well, receiving 16% of Hurts' targets, particularly in intermediate and shorter routes.
UWDP: ‘Bama has a great one-two punch at running back with Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. Describe each of their running styles. Will we see much of true frosh Joshua Jacobs?
Erik: Much was expected of Bo Scarbrough entering the season. He is physically built like Derrick Henry, but is quicker and has hands to play wide receiver. He is also an excellent blocker. However, Scarbrough suffered some mental lapses earlier in the season, many of which led directly to turnovers. Down the stretch, however, the light switch has flipped on, and he was a game-defining force in wins over LSU, Florida, and Auburn.
Damien Harris had a rough freshman campaign in 2015, and most of that, like Scarbrough in September and October, was mental. But, coming out of this offseason you could tell he would be the feature back: He was running harder and more purposefully, he read the holes better, and he seemed far more "with it" than Bo. For most of the season, that proved to be true, and Harris has quietly neared 1000 yards in a backfield that shares carries among four guys. He had been nicked up off and on throughout the season, and that impacted his effectiveness down the stretch, but is now healthy again. He has easily been the most consistent of the veterans.
Joshua Jacobs will definitely see the field. He is probably the fastest of the three, has been very good in the screen game, and is surprisingly powerful for his size as a true freshman. Coach Nick Saban said in the Fall camp that he runs much like Mark Ingram, and that is an apt comparison. He is explosive hitting the line of scrimmage, but has excellent shiftiness and probably the best feet of the bunch. Again, though, minor injuries hit Jacobs in the final few ball games, limiting his effectiveness. Hopefully three weeks off has allowed the running back corps get completely healthy again.
UWDP: The defense is silly-good. Is this Nick Saban’s best defense ever at Alabama? Who are some key defenders to watch? Are there any weaknesses with this unit?
Erik: Before injuries, you'd be tempted to say that, yes, this is Saban's best defense overall at Alabama. Following three recruiting cycles designed to counter spread offenses, it is certainly the fastest and most athletic. And, without question, it is the best pass rushing group the Tide have had. That said, injuries and depth are a concern. Alabama lost a crucial, overlooked linebacker in Shaun Dion-Hamilton. He plays with, and at times spells, Reuben Foster inside. FS Eddie Jackson, coming off an All-American season, was again playing strong before he was lost for the season. Throw in some late-offseason transfers at corner, and Alabama's margin of error is thin. The other weakness is one that stems from one of the Tide's strengths. Jeremy Pruitt's defense is a significantly more aggressive unit, and new DB coach, Derrick Ainsley has Alabama's secondary contesting most passes. When you add that aggression to Alabama's press-man coverage (often without safety help,) 'Bama has been vulnerable to deep shots down the field. Difference-making athletic tight ends like Evan Engram and Jeremy Sprinkle had success exploiting the middle of the the field against safety or linebacker coverage.
UWDP: What is the origin of the Alabama elephant mascot (Big Al) and what exactly is a “Crimson Tide?”
Erik: In 1930, in a game against Ole Miss, Everett Strupper, a journalist with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, claimed that when Alabama took the field, there was palpable awe at their size in the stadium. "That Alabama team of 1930 is a typical [Coach Wallace] Wade machine, powerful, big, tough, fast, aggressive, well-schooled in fundamentals, and the best blocking team for this early in the season that I have ever seen. When those big brutes hit you I mean you go down and stay down, often for an additional two minutes." Later, he would exclaim, "At the end of the quarter, the earth started to tremble, there was a distant rumble that continued to grow. Some excited fan in the stands bellowed, 'Hold your horses, the elephants are coming,' and out stamped this Alabama varsity." Strupper's categorization of "Red Elephants" stuck, and the elephant has been a part of Alabama for over 80 years now. First it was a live on-campus elephant, then rent-an-elephant from local circuses. But, Big Al as an on-field mascot makes a relatively late appearance, not appearing on Alabama's sidelines until 1979.
The Crimson Tide nickname also has a brutish, physical origin.
From the UA Traditions website: "The term 'Crimson Tide' was coined by Hugh Roberts, past sports editor for the Birmingham Age-Herald. He used the nickname to describe the 1907 Auburn-Alabama game played in Birmingham. The game, played in a sea of crimson mud, was the last game played between the two rivals until 1948 when the series resumed. The term coined because the red mud stained the Alabama white jerseys crimson. Alabama held Auburn, the favorite to win, to a 6-6 tie, gaining the name the 'Crimson Tide.' 'Roll Tide' was said to illustrate the Alabama varsity running on the field. It was said the team looked like the tide was rolling in thus gaining the chant 'Roll Tide."
"Powerful, big, tough, fast, aggressive" -- Alabama's identity has remained unchanged for over a century.
UWDP: It seems a fair number of Alabama fans are more worried about whether or not this team could beat the Cleveland Browns than any kind of challenge from the Washington Huskies. No one is giving the Huskies a much of a chance in this game. What is your Peach Bowl prediction?
Erik: There is no doubt a vocal segment of the fan base that thinks (or expects) that Alabama should or will blow Washington and every other team out. At the same time, ours is also a football savvy population -- it's not just Alabama or SEC games, they care about and pay attention to most any sort of football. Judging from RBR's readers, and interactions I have have with followers on Twitter and the like, most Alabama fans do see a talented opponent, a well-balanced team with plenty of star power, a disciplined and very well-coached program. However, the blinders aren't on either: This is an historically good Alabama defense, with the best coach in the game, two playoffs under their belt, weapons at every position on the field, and is loaded with veteran leaders. More importantly, they see a talent differential. In a game like this, with two coaches who contingency plan so very well and who are excellent detail-oriented game planners, Jimmies and Joes, not Xs and Os, are more likely to carry the day. While Washington's talent base is getting there (and this year will certainly help with the Huskies' recruiting efforts) across the board it just isn't there yet sufficient to dethrone the champ. It comes off as cocky sometimes, no doubt. But, at this stage of the dynasty, at least it's an earned smugness? Don't hold it against us. We're usually a fairly decent bunch.
As for my prediction, Washington is really balanced. Couple that with a Jalen Hurts turnover, and Ross getting loose deep a few times, and Alabama will give up points...but not enough to stop a second half onslaught. 38-16 Alabama.
UWDP: Thanks Erik. For more on the Peach Bowl from the Alabama perspective, be sure to check out Roll ‘Bama Roll.