5 things Alabama needs to clean up in the national championship rematch against Clemson
Alabama is headed back to the College Football Playoff Championship Game after a 24-7 victory against Washington in the Peach Bowl.
It was a classic Crimson Tide effort in which defense and a punishing run game proved to be the winning formula.
Bo Scarbrough led the way on offense, gaining a career-high 180 yards – an Alabama bowl record – and 2 touchdowns on 19 carries. Ryan Anderson scored the Crimson Tide’s 11th defensive touchdown of the season with a 26-yard pick-six just before halftime.
What ultimately matters is that Alabama came away with the win, but there were several aspects of the game that leave something to be desired.
Clemson, which hammered Ohio State to set up a rematch with Alabama, already has the Tide’s attention.
But here are five things the Crimson Tide need to clean up if they hope to take down the Tigers again.
1. Pass protection: If it weren’t for Scarbrough’s effort, Alabama would have had a very difficult time sustaining much offense against Washington. Much of the Crimson Tide’s struggles can be traced to the offensive line.
Pass protection has not been a problem for Alabama this season, as it allows just over 1.5 sacks per game, but the offensive line struggled against the Huskies’ front four. Jalen Hurts was sacked three times Saturday, but he was forced out of the pocket constantly in the game. The Crimson Tide’s passing game suffered mightily, as they gained a paltry 57 yards through the air.
Washington entered the Peach Bowl with 37 sacks on the season, which ranks 21st in the nation. It won’t get any easier, as Clemson had 46 sacks in the regular season.
2. Offensive penalties: Alabama has been relatively disciplined, but penalties were abundant in its win. The Crimson Tide had 11 penalties against Washington, their second-most this season, and seven came on offense.
Of those, four occurred on third down. This sloppiness is uncharacteristic of a Nick Saban-coached team, especially in a game of this magnitude. The third-down penalties contributed to Alabama’s offensive woes, which will be discussed in the next point, but must be corrected in the championship game.
3. Avoid third-and-long: The Crimson Tide’s average third-down distance was a whopping 10.4 yards. Alabama actually averaged a longer distance on third downs than it did on first downs against Washington. Throughout Saturday’s game, Alabama converted just 28.6 percent of its third-down attempts.
Some of that yardage can be attributed to penalties that pushed the offense back, but the Crimson Tide did not have much success on first and second down against the Huskies. Alabama particularly struggled when it attempted a pass on first down.
Hurts completed just two of his six pass attempts on first down, and he was sacked three times on his other drop backs. Throughout the game, there were only three times where a pass play on first down was not followed by a punt three downs later. By contrast, the Crimson Tide averaged 6.7 yards per carry on first down. That might be something Lane Kiffin wants to take a long look at.
Clemson was No. 6 nationally, allowing opponents to convert on just 29.53 percent of their third-down opportunities.
4. Find a way to get Hurts more involved: Hurts provides a unique element to Alabama’s offense, but he was largely ineffective against Washington. The freshman quarterback threw for 57 yards and added another 50 on the ground, which is not what we’ve come to expect this season.
The Huskies did a good job pressuring Hurts, but there didn’t appear to be a concerted effort to use him to his full potential. His biggest play was a 38-yard run at the beginning of the second half, but that was about all he could do.
Washington deserves plenty of credit for keeping Hurts off balance, but he’s an important part of this offense and Alabama needs to find ways to get him going.
Clemson’s front four is fast and physical.
5. Get off to a fast start on offense: In Alabama’s past two games, it has scored a combined 30 points in the first half. That number drops to just 10 combined points in the first quarter of the Crimson Tide’s last two games. Fortunately, defense and special teams have been able to pick up the slack, but Alabama might not be able to survive another slow start.
The Crimson Tide’s suffocating defense only gets stronger as the game goes along, so it would be a tremendous advantage to jump out to a quick 14-0 lead and let that defense do the rest. Alabama is more than capable of doing so.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama for Saturday Down South. For insight on these two SEC powerhouses, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.