The success of Washington’s 4-3 front probably accounted for its success as much as anything the offense did, with the additional bonus of it being somewhat unexpected. Washington went from mediocre in 2015 to fairly dominant in 2016, with huge gains made in the pass defense. For 2016, the Huskies ranked 11th in total defense, 19th in rushing defense, 21st in raw pass defense, 10th in pass efficiency defense and 7th in scoring defense. The biggest gain was going from 50th to 9th in 3rd-down defense from a year ago. Like Alabama, the Huskies are trying to replace a pair of starters taken out by leg injuries. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that led the nation in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense this year, and also ranked 15th in raw pass defense and 6th in pass efficiency defense. For all the talk about offense in this game, it could turn into a defensive slugfest.
Washington ranked 19th nationally in sacks, and it’s been a team effort. No one player accounted for more than 6 sacks, and no defensive lineman had more than 4. Connor O’Brien and Vita Vea will start at the ends, with Greg Gaines and Elijah Qualls getting the call at tackle. Those four players take up spots 11, 12, 13 and 14 on Washington’s tackle list for the year. No player has stood out, with Gaines having the most total tackles for loss with 8. There is also a bit of a depth issue, as none of the four top reserves – Jaylen Johnson and Benning Potoa’e outside and Shane Bowman and Damion Turpin inside – have shown the potential to be a disruptor off the bench. To be blunt, this group is competent; beyond that, someone would have to erupt unexpectedly to really get noticed. The four starters have combined for just 6 QB hurries on the year, with Gaines having none at all.
Alabama will start Da’Ron Payne in the middle, with Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson outside. Da’Shawn Hand and Joshua Frazier will offer depth off the bench. Dakota Ball’s playing time had been shrinking, anyway, but a hunting accident over Christmas might eliminate it altogether. Raekwon Davis or Jamar King might be forced into spot duty as a result. To say this is a mismatch would be a bit of an understatement given the presence of Payne and Allen for Alabama. Advantage: Alabama
This will be the first start for Rashaan Evans at weakside linebacker for Alabama, and the pressure is on. Shaun Dion Hamilton tore an ACL against Florida and will not be available. Reuben Foster will start at middle linebacker. Evans’ transition to inside linebacker has been a bumpy one this year, as he has a tendency to overrun plays and isn’t the best at filling gaps. But his goal-line stop against late against the Gators may be a signal that he’s upping his game. The real question is depth, because Keith Holcombe, who got nicked up himself early in bowl practices, is the only other linebacker with any kind of playing time at all while a game was still undecided. He’ll back up Evans, while Mack Wilson – who has seen more meaningful action at fullback and special teams than linebacker this year – now backs up Foster. Josh McMillon, who hasn’t played beyond kickoffs in blowouts, now takes on a depth role.
Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams will start outside, with Terrell Hall, Anfernee Jennings, Christian Miller and Jamey Mosley providing depth. Washington, though, is not without its issues. Azeem Victor still leads the team in tackles despite missing the last three games, and he’ll miss this one as well. So will hybrid LB/DE Joe Mathis. Freshman D.J. Beavers will be expected to replace Victor, while Keishawn Bierria starts at middle linebacker. Washington’s most effective backer with Victor out has been Psalm Wooching, who leads the team in sacks and has a high defensive efficiency rating. Even with Victor out, depth favors Washington here, as both Ben Burr-Kirven and especially Trevis Bartlett have been effective and high-leverage while coming off the bench.
If Hamilton was available for Alabama, there would be no question who leads here, but with Washington able to rotate both inside and outside players while Alabama can only do so with its pass-rush specialist, the question has to be asked whether the Tide measures up. Shaun Dion Hamilton was the most underrated player not just on the Alabama team, but in the entire SEC. Give it to Alabama, but it’s not the lopsided affair it once was. Advantage: Alabama
Cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Kevin King have combined for an astonishing 19 passes broken up, but it’s safety Budda Baker that Alabama will likely be watching the most. Baker will overtake Azeem Victor for the team tackle lead in this game; his behind-the-line numbers are as good as any linebacker’s or defensive lineman’s. Baker has 9 tackles for loss and 2 sacks to go with 2 interceptions and 5 PBUs on the year. Moreover, he’s active and smart, and rarely out of position. Jojo McIntosh will start opposite him, and if there’s a point of exploit in the Husky secondary, it will probably come here. Freshman safety Taylor Rapp is the team’s nickel, and he has shown to be deft at picking off passes, leading the team with 4. Ezekiel Turner covers dime duty and is the team’s third corner.
Alabama may have issues replacing Hamilton at ILB, but so far the Crimson Tide has done a good job of working around Eddie Jackson’s injury in the secondary. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison will start at the safety spots with Laurence Jones and Deionte Thompson providing depth there. At corner, Anthony Averett will start on one side, while Marlon Humphrey is expected to start at the other.
Humphrey suffered a hamstring injury against Auburn and missed the SEC Championship Game, where Fitzpatrick and walk-on Levi Wallace handled the position for most of the day. Wallace, who got most of the work there against Florida, was solid and gives Alabama a legitimate depth option as the third corner. Shyheim Carter, who has battled injury for much of the year, is back to 100 percent and figures to help out in this game. Both teams have done a capable job of shutting down opponents’ passing attacks, but Alabama has a bit more depth available and if Humphrey is back to full speed, the Crimson Tide has the edge in physical presence as well. Advantage: Alabama
For all the talk about Adam Griffith’s inconsistency, he’s 17-of-20 from inside 40 yards this year for Alabama. Still, Cameron Van Winkle is 11-of-12 from those same distances for Washington, and he’s had the added benefit of being 5-of-8 from long distance whereas Griffith is just 2-of-6. Where Alabama pulls away is at punter, where J.K. Scott is far superior to Washington’s Tristan Vizcaino. Washington is a dismal 121st in net punting, which speaks to breakdowns in coverage, not just Vizcaino’s sub-40-yard gross average. But in the return game, both teams are adept at punt returns and mediocre at kickoff returns; it’s a push.
The Huskies have a clear edge in kickoff return defense. So the question is whether the game is more likely to come down to the placement kicking game, or the punting game. Washington’s glaring weakness (controlling the punt return game) has to have Alabama’s Trevon Diggs salivating. Diggs, who took over for Eddie Jackson as the team’s primary punt returner when Jackson was injured, has slowly been putting together a strong resume as the return specialist, and against Florida finally had a breakout performance. If Alabama’s defense shows up as advertised, Vizcaino will be on the field a lot and Diggs will get plenty of opportunities. If this game comes down to a late kick, though, it’s edge-Huskies. Another close call. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Washington in two, but both the offensive line and special teams categories are practically even. Alabama has a slim lead in the matchup of its OL against the Huskies’ DL, but has a vast advantage in regards to the Bama DL against the Washington offensive line.
It may be that single matchup that has the most effect on the final score. Jonathan Allen is in the running to be the first overall pick in the spring NFL Draft, and Da’Ron Payne appears to be the next great Alabama DL in waiting. Coupled with Reuben Foster – the nickname “Reuben Missile Crisis” isn’t there by accident – it’s a good bet Alabama will pressure Washington’s offensive front in ways the Huskies haven’t seen yet out west.
On the other hand, Alabama fans would do well to understand that there will be no inherent speed advantage here as there often is when facing teams from outside the South. California-area talent is just as fast as that in the South, and one glance at the Washington roster tells you all you need to know about how this team was so quickly built into a contender: plenty of California and Texas kids on this roster.
There is also the issue of which team has more to prove, and that is decidedly a Washington edge. Whereas Alabama may tend to view this semifinal matchup as simply bothersome, for Washington, this is a chance for modern-day payback. Alabama established itself as a national power by beating the Huskies in the Rose Bowl that followed the 1925 season. Washington beating Alabama in 2016 would do the same for the Husky program. Because right now, most of the discussion among national pundits is how Washington may have taken a playoff spot from a more “deserving” Michigan or Penn State team.
Alabama will be challenged to contain Washington’s skill players, and unless Alabama can bring heavy pressure to bear on QB Jake Browning, Browning can pick even the best defenses apart. Alabama must manage its own turnovers, take advantage of every mistake Washington makes and force Browning into making more of them. Otherwise, Alabama could become Chris Peterson’s latest upset victim.
Coach Saban Press Conference
December 21, 2016
Click here for the projected Alabama Depth Chart vs Washington
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN