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College Football Playoff 2016-2017: Previewing the Peach Bowl

Ronnie Harrison and Marlon Humphrey
So here we are, the College Football Playoff. After waiting months for the season to begin, and then even longer for the Playoff to figure itself out, we finally have reached the games that will help decide who plays in the National Championship. The first matchup in the Peach Bowl pits the dominating Alabama Crimson Tide against the rising Washington Huskies. While Alabama's domination this year pits them as the early favorite against the Pac-12 Champs, thinking this will be a blowout would be foolish.

Alabama has needed no rally in the season's second half to reach the Playoff like they did in 2015. This team has throughly dominated their competition, with the lone exception being down in the first half against Ole Miss before obliterating the Rebels. Much of their success can be attributed to a shutdown defense, that has depth and talent everywhere. In the front seven, defensive end Jonathan Allen has evolved into perhaps the nation's best all-around pass rusher after having a marvelous Playoff last season. He is joined by aggressive outside linebacker Tim Williams (15.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks), tackling machine Rueben Foster (94 tackles) and a host of underappreciated but important defenders like Ryan Anderson and Shaun Dion Hamilton. That front seven has caused chaos all year long and will look to attack a Washington offensive line that has played well for much of the year, but hasn't faced a defense with this many weapons. Alabama is as good as anyone at forcing turnovers and then converting off of them, and the defensive backfield plays a huge role in that. Versatile defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick has five interceptions on the year and has returned two to the house. Corner Marlon Humphrey is not an insane athlete, but is a big, physical defender that will be tasked with stopping Washington's plethora of options at receiver. Also sure to play a big role is lengthy safety Ronnie Harrison (67 tackles, two interceptions) and Tony Brown, who has replaced the injured Eddie Jackson in the back. Those playmakers will have an interesting battle against the Huskies here. They will have to contain the impressive speed on the outside, while also containing the big play. With what they have done all year long, it isn't crazy to think they can do it.

The Tide offense doesn't quite get the attention the defense does, but it obviously plays a key role on the team. True freshman Jalen Hurts overtook others in the quarterback competition and has impressed ever since. Despite his youth, Hurts has shown amazing composure and confidence, and won't be intimidated at all by Washington's impressive pass defense. At running back, the Tide have been led by hard running Damien Harris (983 yards), but also have important change-of-pace options in Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs. That trio has been strong all of 2016 and should look to take advantage of a UW rush defense missing one of its key members, veteran linebacker Azeem Victor. At receiver, Alabama has a superstar in junior Calvin Ridley, a quality No. 2 in ArDarius Stewart and senior tight end O.J. Howard, who seems to play his best in the big games. Operating behind an offensive line, this new-look Tide offense should not only be able to play physical and overpower the Huskies at times but also open up mismatches on the perimeter with their speed.

While the Tide have blown away competition en route to a flawless 13-0 mark, Washington has done much the same, with one blemish. The Huskies used their explosive offense to win 12 games, but were unable to get past the flaming hot USC Trojans, who is the only common opponent between the two. While their performance in that loss was not reassuring, it helped Washington poured it on over the past few weeks to secure a spot in the four-team field. Sophomore quarterback Jake Browning has had a tremendous year, keeping himself in the Heisman conversation for much of it. He will definitely be in store for a team matchup against the ball-hawking Tide secondary, but this signal-caller has also played with impressive confidence and charisma, he should be fine. Biletnikoff Award finalist John Ross III and Dante Pettis give Browning two dangerous speedsters to work with at wide out, and sophomore tailback Myles Gaskin has been dominant at times. This offense has been great all year (with the exception of their 13 points against 'SC), so it should be able to light up the scoreboard as well.

It will be interesting to see how Washington's defense performs in this game. Overall, the Huskies defense has played well this season, but it hasn't really faced an offense quite like the Tide's. Not helping out the Huskies is the absence of Victor (broken leg) or top pass rusher Joe Mathis. Mathis had 7.5 tackles for loss and five sacks before sustaining a foot injury. The absence of those two have put more pressure on the rest of the front seven, and they have done an admirable job. Veteran leader Psalm Wooching plays with a ton of energy and passion and is the type of physical tackler required to stop Harris and the rest of the Alabama running backs. The secondary is clearly the strength of the unit, with cornerback Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker leading the charge. Baker is a rangy, athletic defender that will have to play all over the field, while Jones will most likely be tasked with containing Ridley, which is not an easy assignment by any means. Also sure to play a large role is underrated corner Kevin King, who had 13 pass deflections this season and will have to step up with the abundance of options Alabama possesses at receiver.

How each team passes the ball will be key in this game. Both of these secondaries pride themselves on being shutdown and have backed it up, being some of the best statistical groups in the land. For the Huskies, Browning can't turn the ball over, which is easier said than done. The young QB has racked up a ton of yardage off of big plays in '16, but that isn't going to happen against this disciplined Tide group. Can he show smarts and the ability to adapt by having more success on short and intermediate throws? Washington must also get a major contribution from Gaskin, who has been inconsistent. In the Huskies' worst showings on the season (against USC and Utah) Gaskin has played his two worst games. Alabama is great at shooting gaps and tackling in space, which is worrying for UW. If Gaskin can't get going this offense becomes way too one-dimensional to have any success against 'Bama. For the Tide, they will need Hurts to make some big throws. He has been able to get by without necessarily making huge throws, but this may be their toughest and most balanced opponent yet. He will need to stretch UW vertically to open things up for this ground game. Once that ground game gets going, if its the second half, they are so strong and physical they overpower tired defenses.

Washington is one heck of a team and they have had a magical season in head coach Chris Petersen's third year at the helm. They went 12-1, won the conference and reached the Playoff, and they have enough weapons on both sides of the ball to perhaps do some serious damage. Even so, I find it insanely difficult to pick against Alabama. They are undefeated and have looked the part, beating down anybody that stands in the way of their goal of a fifth national title under Nick Saban. The ony way I see this going Washington's way is if the Tide aren't focused (like they weren't in the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State in 2014-2015) or if Browning has the game of his life. If that doesn't happen, it won't be a blowout, but the Tide should roll pretty comfortably.
Alabama, 31 Washington, 21

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