All season long, it seems like fans outside the Pacific Northwest didn’t even think that the Washington Huskies and “college football playoffs” belonged in the same sentence. They argued that two loss teams in the “superior” Big Ten conference—like Michigan and Penn State—deserved the slot despite sporting two losses to UW’s one. But eventually logic and merit won out.
When the final playoff rankings were announced on December 4, the committee awarded the Huskies the fourth and final spot in the postseason tournament for the national championship. Now, even more people are doubting them heading into their semifinal Peach Bowl matchup on Saturday, December 31 in Atlanta (televised at noon on ESPN). And who’s to say that they’re wrong? After all, UW is facing off against SEC Champions Alabama, the top-ranked team in the nation. The Crimson Tide has won four of the past seven national championships, and dominated each opponent it encountered this season (with only one contest featuring a single-digit spread).
It’s a classic David and Goliath confrontation. Alabama—the reigning national champion—went undefeated while playing one of the toughest schedules in the country. Meanwhile, strength of schedule was the core of Washington’s scrutiny. Its nonconference slate included three games against Rutgers, Idaho, and FCS Portland State—none of which are ranked within the top 60—resulting in UW only having the 60th strongest schedule for the 2016 season.
But the Huskies’ stature has also been undermined because of its place on the West Coast. The fact remains that many people on the other side of the country don’t staying up to watch their late games. And because they play in the Pac-12 Conference, which isn’t regarded nearly as highly as the Alabama’s SEC, even their blowout wins against ranked opponents have been criticized. Despite beating an 8th-ranked Colorado team by 31 in the Pac-12 title game, Washington’s place in the final four still was far from guaranteed.
Regardless of what the masses may think, UW actually has a decent shot of beating Alabama despite being 15 point underdogs.
The Huskies will have to capitalize on every mistake (there won’t be many!) that Alabama makes. The SEC Champs are a well-coached squad with a dominant defense that makes other teams beat themselves by coughing up the ball. It’s a great recipe for success, and largely why the Crimson Tide has only lost 10 games since 2009. But this area actually favors UW. Their +21 turnover margin leads the country—Alabama only boasts +5 margin. The Crimson Tide relies on those big swing plays, scoring 14 touchdowns this season on defense and special teams. If sophomore quarterback Jake Browning can be his usual level-headed self and avoid any errant mistakes (he's only tossed seven interceptions this year), UW will have a far better chance to come out on top. His success will also hang on the helmets of his offensive line, which has to deal with the massive defensive front that ranks third in the country in sacks.
While the everyone heaped praise on Crimson Tide’s defense as it led its charge to the playoffs, Washington’s equally stellar defenders got overlooked. The Huskies’ pass defense allowed just 5.8 yards per pass—exactly the same as Alabama—and its 19 interceptions are tied for fourth in the nation. Alabama’s freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts is a sound player, but he’s no Heisman candidate. If the UW’s secondary can find a way to disrupt him in a major way (like how freshman safety Taylor Rapp notched two picks in the Pac-12 title game), they could take away vital scoring opportunities and get good field position for their offense. Since Alabama hasn’t given up more than 20 points since early October—the Husky defense will have to help out its offensive counterpart however it can.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban may be a living coaching legend, but Washington head coach Chris Petersen’s strategic prowess has his team playing as efficiently as anyone in the country. Ask anyone who knows much about college football and they’ll tell you that he’s one of the most feared coaches when he has time to plan for a big game. Nobody knows the underdog role better, leading Boise State to shocking upset victory over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Alabama provides an even tougher task, but fans know he’s willing to use every trick in the book.
I’m not saying that the Huskies will win—let’s be honest, it doesn’t look good—but anything can happen. Who would’ve guessed that UW would even get this far? I mean, it’s not like any other Seattle sports teams have recently made an improbable championship runs… oh wait…
College Football Playoff: Washington Huskies vs. Alabama Crimson Tide
Jan 31 at noon, Georgia Dome, Televised on ESPN