The third annual College Football Playoff begins tomorrow. The rest of the college football world is previewing the semifinal matchups and predicting final scores. These previews and predictions, however, are ignoring the elephant 1 in the room: is there even the slightest chance that anyone can defeat Alabama, the undefeated defending champs?
An Alabama loss would be a massive upset. We’re talking David and Goliath territory. We all know about Goliath. But what about the three would-be Davids: the Washington Huskies, the Clemson Tigers, and the Ohio State Buckeyes? Do any of these underdogs have what is takes to defeat the giant? To find out, let’s start with a description of Goliath to determine if there are any vulnerabilities.
Breaking Down the Crimson Tide
Like the 10th century BCE Philistine, Alabama is massive and menacing. Magnificent in size, speed, and athleticism. The top ranked defense in the country. The best Football Power Index (FPI) rating. The best defensive efficiency of any team in the last ten years!
The Tide create turnovers with a relentless pass rush, a stifling run defense, and big hands in the defensive backfield just waiting to snatch the ball away. Offensively, they feature receivers with blazing speed, menacing lineman who open up gaping holes, and a steadily improving quarterback who can run the distance of the field in a heartbeat.
An impressive resume, no doubt. But every team has its flaws, however minor. Alabama’s defensive secondary is vulnerable to big passing plays when the opponent has the time to throw deep 2. Furthermore, while their young quarterback, Jalen Hurts, is talented, his passing efficiency drops like a rock when he is pressured, which makes turnovers a real possibility.
Which team has the best chance to exploit these minor vulnerabilities? Let’s count them down, from least likely to most likely:
3. Washington Huskies
Best win: at Utah, 31-24
Only loss: vs. USC, 26-13 (a team many considered to be the best 3 loss team)
Up first for Alabama is Washington, the Pac-12 champs. Second in offensive efficiency and fourth in the FPI, they have tenacious speed and athleticism at the skill positions on offense, and a defense that can close quickly on the opposition. The Huskies are the Usain Bolt of this year’s playoff: every time a Husky gets the ball in the open field, hold your breath, because something big could happen.
With a premium on speed in today’s college game, you’d think Washington might have a shot. But each of ‘Bama’s starters is every bit as fast and athletic as their Husky counterparts. Not to mention twice their size. The Tide offense has worn down opposing defenses in the second half all season. In order for the Huskies to pull off the improbable, they would need to find a way to rack up 400+ yards passing. That’s a lot to ask, especially when Coach Nick Saban has had a month to prepare.
Chances of defeating Goliath: 25%
2. Clemson Tigers
Best wins: at Florida St, 37-34; vs. Louisville, 42-36
Only loss: vs Pittsburgh, 43-42
These ACC Champion Tigers are strong, quick, and nimble. They had a memorable clash with Bama in last year’s title game that left them licking their wounds. Now they are back with a vengeance. Their defensive front has the power to consistently pressure the quarterback. Their offense has the hops and explosiveness at receiver to put their paws on passes from their veteran quarterback. Above all, they play well in big games.
But in the end, Alabama has the depth and versatility to match whatever the Tigers dare to attempt. The Tigers defense won’t be able to last four quarters against the Tide’s offensive dynamos.
Chances of defeating Goliath: 35%
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Best win: vs. Michigan, 30-27
Only loss: at Penn State, 24-21
I admit, I’m biased. Born and raised in Columbus, I have been schooled in the classroom of Buckeye football. If anyone believes in the Buckeyes’ chances to pull off the improbable, it would be someone like me.
This team is young but it is brave. After losing 12 players to the NFL Draft, including five first rounders, some have argued that Ohio State lost the most impressive draft class in modern NFL history. Undeterred by preseason predictions of mediocrity, the Buckeyes were second in the nation in defensive efficiency and FPI 3. This defense creates turnovers with regularity (19 interceptions), and excels at turning these miscues into points, with a school record seven defensive touchdowns.
So what is holding back even the biggest Buckeye optimists like yours truly from predicting a reprisal of Ohio State’s 2015 upset of Alabama? Quarterback consistency. J.T. Barrett has been inaccurate at times and hesitant to risk trying to make the big play. To win the big one, J.T. will need to take some shots deep downfield to stretch Bama’s vaunted defense and open up more ways to score. The Buckeyes must score in all four quarters if they are to slay the giant.
Assuming the Buckeyes defeat Clemson 4, they will need a near-perfect performance from the volatile quarterback. Could it happen? Absolutely. Will it happen? The odds are slightly against it.
Chances of defeating Goliath: 40%