When the topic is beating Alabama, one man in college football stands out as the closest thing we have to an expert.
That man is Hugh Freeze, coach at Mississippi. He’s the last man to beat the Crimson Tide, some 26 games ago. He’s also handed Nick Saban two of his last three losses, having shocked his team in 2014. And he has come the closest this year to taking down the Tide, losing 48-43 in September after taking a 24-3 lead – Alabama’s smallest victory margin and largest deficit of the season.
With the Red Elephants stampeding toward a national title defense and its fifth championship in the last eight years, I called Freeze and asked him to share some wisdom about what it takes to beat ‘Bama. He obliged, while issuing this disclaimer: We can talk about it all we want, but he doesn’t expect any of the College Football Playoff teams to actually beat ‘Bama.
“I think Alabama is the best team in the country,” Freeze said. “But this is a one-game shot – I think the Ohio State and Clemson teams have the talent to do it. I never get to see Washington play, so I don’t know for sure about them.
“But if I had to put something on it, it would be on Alabama.”
Freeze then outlined what he believes a team needs to dethrone the Tide. He started with the offensive side of the ball, outlining three key areas.
“Even to have a chance, you have to have a good quarterback,” Freeze said. “I don’t believe you can beat them without that guy. If you don’t have that guy, you might oughta just not show up.”
Freeze had that guy this season and last season in Chad Kelly. He lit up Alabama in September for 421 passing yards, 464 total yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Kelly’s 178 pass efficiency rating in that game was the highest the Tide allowed on the year by 48 points.
The previous season, in a 43-37 upset victory in Tuscaloosa, Kelly threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns. His efficiency rating of 171 also was the highest Alabama allowed on the season.
And in 2014, famously inconsistent Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace had a Good Bo game against ‘Bama: 18 of 31 for 251 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions.
In those three games against the Tide, the Rebels have completed 60 percent of their passes for 1,013 yards, with nine touchdowns and no interceptions. (You know it grinds Saban’s gears that his defense doesn’t have a single interception against Ole Miss since 2013.) Also important: Alabama’s overwhelming pass rush has registered only seven sacks the past three games against Mississippi, for a total of just 42 yards in losses, which indicates the added value of an elusive QB.
Does Washington have that kind of quarterback? Yes – with reservations. Jake Browning has had a huge sophomore season, throwing for 3,280 yards and 42 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. He can make big plays with his arm, and coach Chris Petersen undoubtedly will arm him with a smart gameplan. The question is whether he can also avoid bad plays with his feet. Browning was only sacked 21 times on the season – but against the most physical defense Washington faced, USC’s, he was dropped for 36 yards of losses, including a safety.
Clemson is the best-equipped of any playoff team to challenge the Tide at quarterback. Deshaun Watson nearly beat them last year in the championship game, passing and running for 478 yards and leading the Tigers to 40 points.
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett has dual-threat capability, plus the clutch characteristic of making big plays when he absolutely has to by any means necessary. But his passing has been erratic this season, and the big plays have not been there with a young receiving corps. Barrett is highly unlikely to have a Chad Kelly-like, 300-yard passing game if he gets a shot at Alabama in the championship game.
Freeze’s second key area: “Maintain the appearance of balance.” In other words, you have to run the ball well enough to at least keep the Alabama defense honest and make them respect that threat.
Case in point: Ole Miss ran 33 times for 101 yards against the Tide in September. Freeze noted that number and said, “It’s not a lot, but it is against them.” Indeed, that was the second-most rushing yards Alabama gave up all season, surpassed only by Texas A&M’s 114. Ole Miss’ 3.06 yards per carry was the most by a ‘Bama opponent.
“If they ever get you one-dimensional, you’re in trouble,” Freeze said.
Can Washington run well enough to keep Alabama honest? The Huskies consistently piled up rushing yardage all season – with, again, the exception of the USC game, their lone loss. They produced a season-low 17 yards on the ground, on a season-low 27 rushing attempts.
Only twice all year did Browning throw more than 30 passes in a game. It stands to reason this will be the third time, perhaps at risk to his health, because pounding away on the ground has proven futile against Alabama.
Again, Clemson and Ohio State might both be better suited to maintaining offensive balance against the Tide. The Buckeyes are a national top-10 rushing team, and the Tigers have a between-the-tackles pounder in Wayne Gallman plus the athleticism of Watson. Still, Clemson has not run the ball as well in 2016 as it did in ’15.
Freeze’s third key: “You will not beat them unless you find a way to make explosive plays. You’ve got to be willing to take some shots, even if some of them don’t work and you go three-and-out.”
In September, the Rebels hit four pass plays of 37 yards or longer against Alabama. In 2015, they completed one pass for 66 yards and another for 73. (One of which was a bit flukish, coming off a tipped ball.)
Sustained drives built on successive small bites of yardage are simply very rare against Alabama. Thus the need to be able to make the occasional big play that shortens the field. Freeze said he has gone into the ‘Bama game with a number of potential deep throws, waiting for the right situation and defensive alignment.
“You have a ‘caution menu,’ “ he said. “And you want to get a look at their alignment before you make it a ‘green’ call [and run the play]. You’ve got to find quality shots. … You’ve got to have a receiver who can win a one-on-one against them, and you’ve got to be willing to let him win one-on-one.
“You can’t drive 70 yards against them unless you’ve made some explosive plays. How many 70-yard drives for touchdowns have there been against them this year?”
The answer: only nine, and one-third of those were by Ole Miss. That includes a two-play, 80-yard drive by the Rebels that ended with a 63-yard pass to tight end Evan Engram.
“I would venture that’s the most wide-open touchdown in Saban’s history there,” Freeze said.
Since October, Florida is the only team to have a 70-plus-yard touchdown drive on Alabama.
Washington can make explosive plays – the Huskies are ninth in the nation in gains of 30 or more yards from scrimmage, with 43. Receivers John Ross and Dante Pettis have combined for 19 of those.
Clemson and Ohio State have been less explosive in terms of plays longer than 30 yards, though both have receivers who can win one-on-one battles. The Tigers count on the size of Mike Williams (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) and the Buckeyes utilize the athleticism of Curtis Samuel – a Percy Harvin-type hybrid player – to make tacklers miss in space.
Defensively, Freeze said the key is Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. If Hurts is forced to make a high number of quality throws, the Tide is susceptible.
“You’ve got to make that quarterback beat you with the pass,” Freeze said. “That was our gameplan, and it was beautiful – for a quarter.”
It actually worked for nearly two quarters. With 2:47 left in the first half, Alabama had scored just three points. With its running game stymied, the Tide resorted to having Hurts throw a lot of unproductive, short passes – to that point in the game, he was 15-of-22 passing for 67 yards, and Ole Miss had a sack-fumble that resulted in a touchdown.
“I don’t think he can beat you throwing,” Freeze said. “But he’s one heck of a competitor, and he can run.”
Hurts’ pass efficiency rating is at its highest on third-and-manageable downs – distances of four to six yards to go for a first down. His efficiency is at its worst on third-and-long, anything from seven yards upward. He’s thrown four interceptions in 29 attempts on third-and-10 or longer.
Befitting a true freshman, Hurts has at times been loose with the ball. He’s thrown nine interceptions and lost five of his 10 fumbles. Averaging one turnover per game is survivable, but if an opportunistic Washington defense that leads the nation in takeaways (33) forces multiple miscues from Hurts, that could be the Huskies’ best chance for an upset.
Of course, the Tide has plenty of other weapons beyond Hurts. This is Saban’s most productive rushing attack at Alabama, churning out 245 yards per game on the ground, though that is partly attributable to playing with a lead virtually all season and having a highly productive running QB.
Still, Freeze does not think this is a vintage Alabama offense up front.
“I’m not overwhelmed with their offensive line,” he said. “They’ve got two really good players [tackles Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams], and their running backs are tough. But the quarterback run is the key – keep him in the pocket.
“I’m not sold he can win it all as a passer. Their defense, though – they can win it all.”
Freeze said this is Saban’s best Alabama defense. Which is saying something, since the Tide has finished in the top five nationally six previous times under Saban.
This unit is more athletic than previous editions, which often were characterized more by sheer heft and hitting.
“They’re faster at the linebacker spot,” Freeze said. “They were good for years before, but now they’ve gotten even more athletic.”
Take it from a guy who knows how to slay the Alabama giant: It can be done this College Football Playoff. But it’s not likely and sure won’t be easy.