TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama is back in the College Football Playoff for the third straight season, and looking to win back-to-back national championships.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide face No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl semifinal Dec. 31. Kickoff from the Georgia Dome is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Here are seven things to know about the Crimson Tide.
Key player, offense
Jalen Hurts. Alabama built its offense around the true freshman signal caller and he has delivered throughout the season.
Hurts’ mobility added another dimension to Alabama’s offense that it hasn’t really had under Nick Saban (Blake Sims was a mobile quarterback, but Alabama didn’t run him much).
Hurts has thrown for 2,592 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushed for 841 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He racked up plenty of honors for his play as well.
Hurts was named first team All-SEC and voted SEC Offensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. Hurts also was in the Heisman Trophy conversation during the second half of the season. Look for him to be mentioned in those talks again next year.
Key player, defense
Jonathan Allen. There are a number of Alabama defenders who could be mentioned here, but we’ll go with Allen since he became the first Alabama player in school history to win national defensive player of the year.
Allen, the winner of the Bednarik Award, Nagurski Trophy and Hendricks Award, has a career-high 56 tackles this season, including 13 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. Allen also has 15 quarterback hurries, a blocked field goal attempt and 2 fumble recoveries, both of which were returned for touchdowns.
Allen is one of three Alabama players named unanimous All-Americans. He was one of Alabama’s most consistent players and he also performed some highlight plays. Allen finished 7th in the Heisman Trophy race.
Alabama football: Key game of the season
Sept. 17: at Ole Miss
This game sticks out because Ole Miss had beaten Alabama the two previous years. For much of the first half, it looked like Alabama was going to lose its third straight game to the Rebels.
Ole Miss jumped to a 24-3 lead late in the second quarter, but a kick out of bounds gave Alabama great field position and the Tide took advantage with a touchdown. After the defense forced a punt, safety Eddie Jackson returned the punt for a touchdown to cut Ole Miss’ lead to seven. It was a quick turnaround for Alabama aided by the kick out of bounds.
Who knows where Alabama’s season ends up if they don’t get over that hump. That win propelled Alabama throughout the year, and now the Tide are 13-0 heading into the playoff.
Dalvin Tomlinson. You won’t find his name on any postseason awards list, but Dalvin Tomlinson was one of the most important players on Alabama’s defense.
Tomlinson drew double teams which allowed teammates to make plays on the ball. Tomlinson was a dominant force along the defensive line. He collected 54 total tackles and added 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hurries and 4 pass breakups. Tomlinson also added 4.5 tackles for loss and forced a fumble. He was tough stopping the run with 48 of his tackles coming against the rush. Alabama’s coaching staff recognized Tomlinson as a player of the week against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Chattanooga, Auburn and Florida.
Strongest unit on the team
Defensive front. Despite all of the talent Alabama lost from last year’s national championship run, the Crimson Tide managed to get better against the run this season.
Alabama smothered opponents’ rushing attack to the tune of 63.38 rushing yards per game. The Crimson Tide run defense was by far the best in the country as the next best team allowed 96.92 rushing yards per game (Wisconsin). That’s the best mark of the Saban era.
That’s also the best mark by any team since 2008 when TCU held opponents to 47.08 rushing yards per game. Alabama surrendered just three rushing touchdowns all year. That’s the lowest amount since Alabama gave up only three rushing touchdowns in 2011.
Most vulnerable unit on the team
Maybe the secondary?
It feels like nitpicking to say that any part of the No. 1 defense in the country is “vulnerable,” but if there is one way opponents could try to attack Alabama it’s throwing the ball downfield.
Alabama football ranks 15th in the nation and second in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 184.5 yards per game. But the Crimson Tide have given up some big plays through the air this season.
While only giving up three rushing touchdowns, Alabama has allowed 11 touchdowns through the air.
Two of those came against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. The Gators feature one of the most inept offenses in the country so Alabama will need to clean up those things heading into this game.
Washington has some talented receivers so it’s going to be a challenge for Alabama’s secondary. Alabama is a little banged up on the backend with starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey and nickel back Tony Brown both nursing injuries.
How they can win in the semifinals
By playing the way they’ve played all year. Alabama has relied on a stingy defense and explosive plays on offense to get them to this point.
Alabama has given up two touchdowns in its last five games.
It’s hard to envision a scenario where Washington is able to match the physicality of Alabama’s defensive front.
If Alabama is able to get pressure by only rushing four defenders, it could be a long afternoon for Jake Browning and the Huskies.
Washington has a lot of trick plays in its arsenal — Alabama will have to be aware of those.
Offensively, Alabama must take care of the ball. Washington is No. 1 in the country in turnover margin which means they don’t give it away often while also forcing their opponents into mistakes.
The Huskies have forced 33 turnovers while only turning the ball over 12 times all season.
Alabama is the more talented team, but it will take Alabama’s best game of the year to beat Washington and a coach like Chris Petersen.