By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 26, 2016
Click here for the projected Alabama Depth Chart vs Washington
The downside of Alabama’s 38-0 whipping of Michigan State in the 2015 College Football Playoff semifinal is that it has given ammunition to combat those who say the Final Four-style playoff setup attracts no bad teams.
There is now a sizable contingent of Alabama fans who look at the Washington program and scoff, expecting yet another ho-hum walkover as Alabama readies to meet the winner of the Ohio State-Clemson semifinal. It doesn’t matter that Washington is a team built and run differently than the Spartans were, with better team speed, better offensive innovation and arguably a more difficult path traveled than the one the Spartans took a year ago.
Washington’s offense ranks fourth in the country in scoring. Of the Huskies’ 13 games so far in 2016, Washington has scored more than 30 points 12 times and more than 40 points 10 times. The team’s lone loss, a 26-13 decision to a USC program that ignited within a month of its own loss to Alabama in Dallas to begin the year, is the balancing weight, and the only evidence that the Huskies might be benefiting from the same flawed analysis that pumped up the paper Spartans a year ago.
One area, though, in which the Huskies are objectively better than Alabama is in regards to health. Despite taking off the better part of the month, Alabama comes into this game still beaten up from the SEC gauntlet, with two key defensive starters out and several other important team cogs gimped in varying degrees. It would surprise few people outside the circle of Alabama diehards if the Crimson Tide got a tougher game from the Huskies than it was expecting.
The list of former Boise State head coaches that have gone on to struggle at other schools is a long one, but that list doesn’t include Washington’s Chris Peterson. Peterson has broken the code and his plan for Husky football includes an offense that is easily as innovative as the one Lane Kiffin has crafted for Alabama. Washington operates from a multiple, pro-style front the same as Alabama, and like Alabama, utilizes motion, inventive formations and patterns and works to create matchup advantages against defenses that have more talent. Washington is still a bit talent-challenged compared to its competition but the gap is narrowing. The Huskies ranked 22nd in total offense, 36th in rushing offense and 31st in passing offense in 2016, a nice balance. To go along with its ranking of 4th in scoring offense, Washington was 4th in passing efficiency. Simply put, it’s an offense that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Alabama’s offense will look very similar, albeit with more running ability from the quarterback position and less downfield passing.
It took the national media about two months to finally catch up to what Alabama fans and talent evaluators had known since Jalen Hurts’ senior year of high school: He is a poised-beyond-his-years, effective dual-threat player and fantastic leader. But the downfield passing isn’t there just yet. Hurts’ raw arm strength is fine if he has time to set up, but he’s still learning mechanically. Hurts finished the regular season with 2,592 yards and a QB rating of 146.1 to go along with 841 rushing yards and a 5.2 yards-per-carry average. Hurts accounted for 34 total touchdowns, 12 of them on the ground to lead the team. Washington isn’t going to enjoy chasing him around, but the damage Hurts can do right now is mostly limited to within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Washington’s Jake Browning is somewhat the anti-Hurts. While not a bad athlete, Browning is no dual-threat QB, accounting for 66 yards on 57 carries (1.2 avg.) and 4 touchdowns. Given the Huskies haven’t allowed a lot of sacks that would affect the rushing yardage totals, it’s safe to say Alabama can step up its defensive rush beyond the typical contain-and-collapse strategy reserved for dual-threat opponents. Where Browning pulls ahead is in QB rating (a gaudy 176.5) thanks to 42 touchdowns against just 7 interceptions.
Alabama holds a slim edge in depth, as Cooper Bateman has more experience than K.J. Carta-Samuels, but just barely. When Bateman has played, however, he’s been much more effective than Carta-Samuels. Who leads this comes down basically to which type of game one would prefer. If Washington’s spread-run defense is worse than Alabama’s secondary, then edge to Bama. But it’s hard to look past Browning’s numbers and say they’re all a product of a non-SEC schedule. Advantage: Washington
Quietly, Myles Gaskin has put up phenomenal numbers for the Huskies while living in Browning’s shadow. Gaskin carried 227 times for 1,339 yards (5.9 avg.) and 10 touchdowns. The issue for both him and third-stringer Jomon Dotson (56 carries, 257 yards, 4.6 avg., 1 TD) is that they would be scatbacks in an SEC backfield, particularly the 177-pound Dotson. Gaskin is a bit heavier but not much. When Washington needs a hammer back, Lavon Coleman and his 225-pound frame come into the game. Coleman carried 107 times for 836 yards, a 7.8-yard clip. His 7 touchdowns scored made for good rushing efficiency numbers.
Unfortunately for Washington, Alabama has three running backs all of similar size to Coleman or bigger, all of whom are as fast as Gaskin and Dotson. Damien Harris is all but assured to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in this game, and backups Joshua Jacobs and Bo Scarbrough have combined for more than another 1,000 yards. Coupled with the 800-plus yards that come from the quarterback position in Alabama’s offense, the Crimson Tide’s rushing offense, which ranked 14th compared to Washington’s 36th, is as good as any. The more physical, well-rounded nature of Alabama’s backs is what carries the category here, although the gap isn’t as wide as it might first appear. Advantage: Alabama
Presuming ArDarius Stewart is healthy and focused in this game, it’s hard for any team to stand up against Alabama’s top three of Stewart, Calvin Ridley and tight end O.J. Howard. Stewart’s physical presence, both as a receiver and a blocker in the running game, is hard to beat, and his unflappable nature under pressure rivals that of former Tide star Julio Jones.
Where Alabama struggled for much of the season was to find a reliable depth rotation that could produce as well as the starters in limited snaps. Gehrig Dieter and Cameron Sims, along with Trevon Diggs, have emerged as the most-used players in the supporting group, with Robert Foster and Derek Kief providing additional depth. Hale Hentges, Miller Forristall, Brandon Greene and Irv Smith Jr. add to the list at tight end.
Washington is led at receiver by John Ross, who not only caught 76 passes for 1,122 yards during the regular season, but also snagged 17 touchdowns. Dante Pettis accounted for 796 yards and 14 touchdowns himself. For reference, that’s 5 more touchdown receptions combined than the entire Alabama team accounted for in 2016. Slot receiver Chico McClatcher added 580 in receiving yardage and is the team’s designated jet sweep runner, accounting for 115 yards on the ground. Tight end Darrell Daniels chipped in another 307 yards. Aaron Fuller, Quinten Pounds and Andre Baccellia provide depth, but like Alabama’s second-line players, productivity drops off substantially. Washington does get a greater contribution from its reserve tight end, however; Drew Sample accounted for 8 catches for 98 yards. Other than Sample, the repeating concern for Washington is size, or lack of it. Only Pettis matches up to any of Alabama’s front-line receivers, and he’s the tallest Husky at 6’1”.
Alabama, meanwhile, can go big with Dieter, Sims, Foster or Kief, and Forristall is capable of playing in the slot. Daniels at tight end is about the size of a SEC H-back. Still, one can’t overlook the superior production of the Husky receivers, and 46 touchdown receptions for the group is not a fluke. Advantage: Washington
Again, size is going to favor Alabama here, but the Huskies are still plenty husky. Washington ranked 35th in sacks allowed nationally, as did Alabama – the two teams tied. This might actually be more impressive for Washington given Jake Browning’s lack of escapability at the quarterback position. Washington far outranked Alabama in tackles for loss allowed in the running game (11th for UW vs. 103rd for Alabama), but that number is skewed somewhat by the number of called runs for Jalen Hurts (which do not get counted in sack totals) that didn’t get back to the line of scrimmage. Washington is strong and veteran-laden up the middle, behind junior center Coleman Shelton and senior guards Jake Eldrenkamp and Shane Brostek. The tackles, however, are both sophomores, Trey Adams and Kaleb McGary, and while both have the height and length, each is lacking a bit of bulk.
Alabama will start Bradley Bozeman at center, with Ross Pierschbacher and Korren Kirven at the guards and Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams at tackle. Alabama is suddenly fighting a depth issue, as reserve guard Josh Casher, who had stabilized the depth rotation, broke a foot in bowl practices and is out for the year. There has been no word on a possible return for Alphonse Taylor, meaning Alabama will go into this game with Brandon Kennedy and Dallas Warmack listed as the backup guards. Neither has played when the chips were down. Lester Cotton has seemingly moved back to tackle full-time, but it’s hard to imagine Alabama skipping over his experience if either Pierschbacher or Kirven went down. Matt Womack and Brandon Greene offer depth at tackle while J.C. Hassenauer will back up Bozeman at center and could actually be the first interior player off the bench, with Bozeman sliding to a guard spot.
It’s unlikely Washington has seen anything like Alabama’s defensive line in 2016, save for perhaps USC, which gave them trouble. Alabama holds the edge so long as depth doesn’t become a factor, but once reserves start coming into the game, the gap narrows. Close call here. Advantage: Alabama
Coach Saban Press Conference
December 21, 2016