Like most who make it a point to watch college football on fall Saturdays, I made a mental prediction for how I thought certain teams would do throughout the season. For the Huskies, my realistic ceiling for them included a 10-2 regular season, and a place in the conversation for the Pac-12 title and the Rose Bowl. In fact, when Conquest Chronicles’ Saman Djabbari and Will Robinson invited me onto their Traveler Hates Thursday podcast, I told them point-blank that I didn’t think it was realistic to think that the Dawgs had a shot at a playoff berth.
Four months later, the Huskies are the owners of a Pac-12 championship and a 12-1 record, including a 5-0 mark against their North Division opponents. They snapped inexcusable losing streaks to Oregon and Arizona State, dominated a top-10 Stanford team at home, and turned sophomore quarterback Jake Browning into a bona fide Heisman contender. By any objective measure, this season has been an unparalleled success, sure to be viewed as one of UW’s best ever in the years and decades to come.
And yet, Chris Petersen’s boys are 120 minutes away from transforming it from one of the program’s best seasons into the program’s best season, eclipsing even the legendary 1991 squad that won a share of the national championship. For the first time in the BCS- and post-BCS-eras, the Huskies have within their grasp an opportunity to win an undisputed national title, and could become the first Pac-10/12 program since the 2004 USC team to win such an honor.
Before worrying about the national title game, though, the Huskies will have to take care of business against college football’s preeminent blue blood of recent years, the Alabama Crimson Tide. Bama, as we all know, has dominated college football under head coach Nick Saban, winning four of the last seven national titles since 2009; no other team has won more than one during that stretch.
What seems indisputable is that Alabama will have the Jimmies-and-Joes advantage against the Huskies: As SB Nation’s Bud Elliott notes, just 26 percent of Washington’s roster is made up of blue-chip recruits, compared to roughly 75 percent of Alabama’s. Of particular concern is Alabama’s defensive front-seven; the Crimson Tide have as many four- and five-star players in their front seven depth as Washington has on its entire team.
I don’t see this game turning into a rout in which Washington’s players hang their heads and mail it in during the second half, the way USC did against the Tide during this season’s opening weekend. Quite simply, teams coached by Chris Petersen just don’t do that. But I would be equally amazed to see Alabama’s dynasty crumble at the hands of Washington’s Cinderella season. For as good as Washington is, Bama is simply better, and I expect the final score to reflect that. Washington 24, Alabama 35.
When the Huskies were defeated by USC in November, I remember saying "Well, that shows what would happen to this team if they made the playoffs. At least we don't have to worry about that." As it turns out, two other top teams lost that day, and by running through the rest of their schedule unscathed, here they are in the playoffs about to face Alabama. Have I changed my mind about this team and their chances to beat an elite opponent? Not really.
Look, I know they can win; its possible and not in an outrageous way. I know UW has an elite defense and a really good quarterback. But winning the one-on-one matchups is how this team won 12 games, whether it be John Ross and Dante Pettis winning on the outside, or Trey Adams and Jake Eldrenkamp dominating on the left side of the line.
Alabama is going to win those one-on-ones more often than not. Running the football against the Crimson Tide defense will only be successful if UW can get them off balance in the passing game. The passing game can only work if Jake Browning can be protected. A short, quick tempo passing attack is the Huskies' best shot at moving the football, and they will have some success doing that; but for how long?
I like the Huskies to shake their nerves after allowing an early TD and settle in and play good defense the rest of the game. Will the offense be able to stay on the field consistently? That's the biggest challenge. The Dawgs will keep it close for a while, but I see the second half this way: Jalen Hurts gets loose a few times and the Alabama defense wears down the Husky offense. Bama 34, UW 13.
The Crimson Tide come into this game as 14.5 point favorites, which honestly is no surprise considering how historically dominant they’ve been this season combined with the national perception of Washington. Alabama’s easily covered huge point spreads over then-highly ranked opponents all year, including -13 over then-#9 Tennessee, -18 over then-#6 Texas A&M(!!), and -17 over then-#13 Auburn. That being said, no non-Alabama team in the SEC finished with fewer than four losses. The Dawgs are an underdog for the first time this year, and you know being given this less respect has to serve as some motivation for them.
For the Huskies to have a chance, they simply cannot allow a non-offensive touchdown. Alabama has 14 of those scores this year, and watching their games it appears that a defensive/special teams score really re-energizes their whole squad. If there’s one weakness to the Crimson Tide’s vaunted defense, it’s big plays, and Browning really needs to capitalize on one of those instances where their offensive isn’t moving the ball (it doesn’t stay silent for long) and dial up a deep bomb.
The two quarterbacks that have given Alabama’s defense fits this year (Chad Kelly and Austin Allen) have used their mobility to escape Bama’s pass rush and buy enough time for a receiver to get open downfield. Jake’s pocket movement is absolutely critical in this game, as a statue in the pocket is basically a sitting duck against Jonathan Allen and those boys up front. On the other side, the Huskies really need to create pressure against Jalen Hurts that they haven’t been producing consistently ever since Joe Mathis went down. To rattle the true freshman Hurts early and keep up the pressure would be huge and force him into making a mistake or two.
All that said, this simply isn’t a good matchup for Browning and the Dawgs. We’ve seen them play a similar team in USC, and fall flat on the offensive side of the ball. I like Washington to keep it close, maybe a one-score game heading into the fourth, but Alabama’s wealth of talent overall dwarfs UW’s and I think they’ll pull away late. I still think with enough garbage time points UW can cover the spread, but (sincerely hoping I’m wrong) this seems like a warm-up for the Tide heading into the
Natty National Championship Game. Washington 13, Alabama 27.
The difficult aspect of sports blogging is balancing the heart and the head. Unlike a paid sport journalist, I’m allowed to let the heart impact my writing as a sports blogger, and when it comes to a game like this, reconciling the two forces to achieve an unbiased perspective is difficult. So, I’ll take the easy route. The Huskies are winning this game. Not only is Jake Browning the best quarterback that Alabama has seen this year, this is the best team that Alabama has seen all season long. How do you beat the No. 1 team? 1) You don’t shoot yourself in the foot, 2) Your best players make big plays, 3) And you win in all three phases of the football game. I am beyond confident that the Huskies are capable of accomplishing these three things. Chris Petersen has this team obsessed with the process of preparation and players have had ample time to rest and get healthy. While Alabama’s NFL defense will surely put the brakes on Browning and Co., the UW defense will do the same to freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. So it comes down to this, can the Huskies get enough points to pull out a win, and can they protect the football? The answer to this question comes down to who hits harder and who gets up after being punched. Losing the USC game could turn out to be more beneficial than we thought. The Huskies got manhandled in that game, and it was a stark reminder to the team that they are at their best when they are relentlessly physical like in their wins versus Stanford, WSU and Colorado. Not only will they play with that same physicality, I think we will continue to see more playmakers step up in this game. Once the Huskies secondary establishes its presence, the game will slow down and a patented Alabama blowout will not happen. If this game is within 7 points by the end of the 3rd quarter, we have a good chance of witnessing perhaps the greatest upset in Seattle sports history. We’ve always wanted ‘Bama. This magical season isn’t ending this Saturday. Huskies, 20-13.
It’s hard to re-orient yourself to thinking practically after spending the better part of the month convincing yourself that the Huskies can hang with the Crimson Tide. We’ve touched on all the ways it can be done - generate explosive plays, defend the run, make Hurts beat you with his arm, exploit the soft middle, run a few trick plays, unleash the Lindcat ... the list goes on.
The mass media is predicting a Tide blowout. They expect Alabama to dominate in all three phases of the game and to win by more than the 14-17 points being laid by Vegas. The bet is that not only will Alabama’s monstrous front seven bottle up one of the best offenses in the nation but that UW’s defense will turn in their worst performance of the year. Presumably, they believe that Lane Kiffin is a mastermind that Pete Kwiatkowski won’t be able to figure out. Thus, the idea that Alabama will score somewhere between 38 and 212 points is pretty much accepted as fact. Even Husky homers on this site think that the high 30’a is realistic for ‘Bama despite the fact that UW hasn't surrendered 30 points to a single team all season. Not one.
Still, Alabama must be the favorite. They're experienced, deep, talented and impeccably coached. They have weak spots - a QB who throws nearly one out of every two passes behind the LOS, a high risk/high reward secondary, poor red zone efficiency - but those pale in comparison to all they do well. In fact, they have the single best unit on the field and they are more than capable - likely, even - to make UW’s offense one-dimensional.
It’s going to be a race to 27. Unfortunately, I think Alabama gets there first. UW 16, Alabama 27.