Just about every scenario one can conjure for a Washington upset begins in the same place –with a steady, heady, mistake-free game by quarterback Jake Browning.
ATLANTA — Yes, the Alabama Crimson Tide is an NFL team in college clothing.
Yes, they have attained nearly mythical status under their sainted head coach, Nick Saban, who loses games about as often as he cracks jokes.
And yes, this just might be the best collection of talent that Saban has ever had at Bama, a sobering thought considering he has won four national titles since 2009.
For the Huskies to beat Alabama in Saturday’s national semifinal, an outcome that much of the nation rates as a near impossibility, virtually every aspect of their game will have to be flawless. Their margin for success is as slim as their margin for error.
But just about every scenario one can conjure for a Washington upset begins in the same place –with a steady, heady, mistake-free game by quarterback Jake Browning, spiced by the sort of explosive play-making that has helped the Huskies score at a 45-point clip this season.
It’s not Browning alone that will beat the Tide, of course. That’s the “every aspect of their game” part. Yet if Alabama harasses Browning into mistakes that take the Huskies out of their offensive rhythm, it will be a long, painful day at the Georgia Dome.
We’ve seen those kinds of struggles just twice this year in the course of a brilliant sophomore season by Browning. Against USC, in the Huskies’ sole loss, Browning threw two interceptions and had a passer rating of 105.7, well below his season mark of 176.5, second to Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield among Power 5 quarterbacks. And in Washington’s 41-10 romp over Colorado in the Pac-12 title game, Browning was 9 of 24 for 118 yards with a 106.3 rating.
What’s scary is that USC is the most athletic team the Huskies have played this year, and they couldn’t handle the Trojans’ speed and playmaking. Colorado boasts an outstanding secondary that helped take Browning out of his game. Well, Alabama is bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled on defense than either of those teams – and they don’t often make the kinds of mistakes (three interceptions) that allowed Washington to crush Colorado despite Browning’s off day.
But they’re not impenetrable. Saban’s teams over the years have shown a vulnerability to quarterbacks who can make plays with their feet as well as their arms. Witness the victory Johnny Manziel orchestrated with Texas A&M a few years ago, and the battle that Clemson’s Deshaun Watson gave Alabama in last year’s 45-40 loss in the national title game.
Browning isn’t a runner in the Manziel/Watson mode, but he is much shiftier than he appears, and has shown a propensity for extending plays. His best route to victory in the Gator Bowl is out of the pocket, but against an Alabama team that can bring pressure with four rushers (they lead the nation with 53 sacks), the time will come when Browning is going to have to execute on the run.
Alabama is a team that can make you cripplingly one-dimensional by stuffing the run – or by jumping ahead so far that you have to pass virtually every down.
The Huskies will try to combat that, and make things easier for Browning, by getting the jump in the game. One tiny Alabama weakness, at least early in the season, was lackluster starts (always followed by explosive finishes built on halftime adjustments).
And the Huskies have to hit the Tide with a multi-dimensional attack, which won’t be easy against their formidable defensive front as well as a linebacking corps filled with future pros. But few teams have the variety of weapons offered by Washington, from two strong running backs in Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, two dynamic receiving threats in John Ross and Dante Pettis, and a multi-threat wild-card like Chico McClatcher.
But it all revolves around Browning, who leads all Power 5 quarterbacks with 42 touchdown passes, and has just seven interceptions — four coming in back-to-back games against USC and Arizona State.
Two quarterbacks — Mississippi’s Chad Kelly and Arkansas’s Austin Allen — passed for at least 400 yards against Alabama this year, so the yardage can be had. Ole Miss actually led 24-3 against Alabama, but Kelly made two turnovers – a fumble and interception – that each resulted in touchdowns as Alabama came back to win 48-43. Texas A&M on Oct. 22 is the last team to lead Alabama in the second half, 14-13, before getting crushed 33-14
Kelly was 26-of-41 passing for 421 yards and three touchdowns. Allen was 25 of 48 for 400 yards and three touchdowns. If Browning can replicate that kind of day, without the accompanying mistakes by Washington (Mississippi also gave up an 85-yard punt return, while Allen threw three interceptions in Arkansas’s 49-30 loss), well, just maybe, the Huskies can pull off the upset.
The Huskies hope that whatever lull Browning may have had at the end of the season will be eradicated after a month to recoup and study up. Huskies coach Chris Petersen was asked recently what he saw as the biggest challenge to Washington’s passing game against Alabama.
“The biggest challenge is the 11 guys lined up over there,’’ he said.
It’s going to be formidable, all right. But if Browning is on top of his game, as he has been much of the season, well, maybe the Huskies really do have a margin for success.