Everybody says they want Alabama. Then they get the Crimson Tide and reality sets in: These guys are almost impossible to beat.
Alabama is in the College Football Playoff for the third straight season, the only school that can make that claim. And as good as Alabama has been through an unprecedented run of four national titles in seven seasons, this version of the top-ranked Tide might be the best of all.
The Huskies are a resurgent bunch, in contention for a national title for the first time in decades, with a coach who has a reputation for pulling off upsets. Ohio State fans have every reason to believe the Buckeyes can take down the Tide — Urban Meyer’s team did just that in the first playoff semifinals.
Deshaun Watson and the Tigers went toe-to-toe with the Tide in last season’s championship game.
Coach Nick Saban’s crew of former blue-chip recruits and future NFL players is unbeaten, but are they unbeatable? A case for each of the teams in the playoff:
WHAT IT NEEDS TO DO: Play the perfect game.
Sounds impossible, right? It seems the only chance Washington has against the Crimson Tide is to play flawlessly and hope Alabama is already looking forward to hanging out on the beaches of Tampa ahead of the championship game.
But perfection for the Huskies doesn’t mean going outside of what got them to the national semifinals, especially on the offensive side.
“You don’t want to get too far away from what got you to this point,” Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said. “At the same time you’ve got some time to put in some wrinkles or do things differently.”
Quarterback Jake Browning spent most of the season avoiding mistakes and must do the same against Alabama. But his two worst games came against USC and Colorado, the two most athletic and physical defenses the Huskies faced. Alabama had 45 sacks this season, third most in the nation, and Browning is not particularly mobile. If Browning can get the ball to speedster John Ross and fellow wide receiver Dante Pettis — big if — there could be some favorable matchups for Washington.
POSSIBLE DIFFERENCE-MAKER: Coach Chris Petersen. He has a track record during his time at Boise State of beating long odds. The ultimate example happened 10 years ago when his first Boise State team knocked off Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Petersen loves his tricky plays and has a good feel for when to break out the gadgets.
“We’ve played in a lot of big games over the years,” Petersen said. “We’ve played in some big games this year. I know usually when we play in games like that, our guys may be a little more on point and you feel a different energy and those type of things. So that’s nice to be involved with that.”
CHANCES TO BEAT ‘BAMA: Poor. No team truly matches up with Alabama, but the Huskies’ relatively inexperienced offensive line and stationary quarterback is a recipe for disaster.
WHAT IT NEEDS TO DO: Beat Alabama at its own game, turning turnovers into touchdowns.
The Crimson Tide has 14 non-offensive touchdowns, including 11 on defense. Ohio State has seven defensive touchdowns.
Ohio State will have a hard time recreating the offensive success it had against Alabama in the 2014 semifinals if it does face the Tide in the championship game in Tampa, Florida, on Jan. 9.
The Buckeyes struggled this season against good defenses, such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State. The Buckeyes have proved resilient, though, coming from behind to win overtime games against the Badgers and Wolverines.
“I think it’s good for us to have a few tough games under our belt because we know how to respond to adversity,” running back Mike Weber said. “We know how it is to play really good teams. Having that under our belt, I feel like we can respond if things don’t go right for us.”
The Buckeyes best hope is defense and special teams. They have an athletic front seven that can pressure Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts. The Buckeyes secondary is one of the best in the nation, led by All-America safety Malik Hooker, who has returned three interceptions for touchdowns. Thanks to Cameron Johnston’s well-placed punts, Ohio State has allowed 3.2 yards per return.
POSSIBLE DIFFERENCE-MAKER: J.T. Barrett has not been much of a down-field passer for Ohio State, but he is mobile (847 yards rushing) and one of the best in the country at protecting the ball with only five interceptions. Ohio State is a team that could — maybe — force Alabama’s offense to do all the scoring.
CHANCES TO BEAT ‘BAMA: Better than Washington’s, but still not great with an offense that does not stretch the field.
WHAT IT NEEDS TO DO: Start with what it did in last year’s championship game.
“You take a carbon copy of that game plan,” former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. “Pare back the things that didn’t work and bring it in to face Alabama.”
Alabama’s stunning on-side pop kick in a 24-all game turned things in the Tide’s favor against Clemson in a 45-40 thriller.
“If they had just played someone 2 yards back to catch that kick,” Bowden said with a chuckle.
Clemson showed Alabama’s defense could be beat, though it takes a special effort by a special player. Watson accounted for 478 yards and four TDs.
This is not exposing a flaw in Alabama as much as it is stating the obvious: To beat a great defense — Alabama is No. 1 total defense, scoring defense and run defense — you need your great quarterback to play great. And it helps if he is great at multiple things, running and passing.
POSSIBLE DIFFERENCE-MAKER: Mike Williams, who has 84 catches for 1,171 yards and 10 touchdowns, did not play in last season’s game as he was recovering from a neck injury. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Williams is a matchup nightmare.
CHANCES TO BEAT ‘BAMA: “Of the three teams, I think Clemson has the best chance,” Bowden said.
Bowden is probably a bit biased, but he is also right.
WHAT IT NEEDS TO DO: Implode.
The Crimson Tide is not perfect. You do have to dig deep to find the flaws.
Alabama has fallen behind — OK, by one score — in each of its past three games against Florida (7-0), Auburn (3-0) and even Chattanooga (3-0). But none of those teams really mounted much of a challenge.
The defense must replace inside linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton (knee), but it is loaded with potential first-round draft picks and All-Americans Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster and Minkah Fitzpatrick. And the likely replacement for Hamilton, Rashaan Evans, was one of the nation’s top recruits and has played in 39 career games.
POSSIBLE-DIFFERENCE MAKER: Hurts has made some mistakes early in games and is not the most accurate passer.
If opponents are going to make Alabama pay for any freshman mistakes, they’d better jump on them early. Hurts has been intercepted only twice in the second half while throwing 14 touchdown passes.
CHANCES TO BEAT ‘BAMA: Straight up, nobody is outplaying Alabama.
“We don’t think about really what has to happen for us to lose,” guard Ross Pierschbacher said. “I think we have the mindset that we can only beat ourselves. I’ll just leave it at that.”