Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban watches his team end the Clemson Tigers in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 11. Photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI | License Photo
Nick Saban is part of the four-team College Football Playoff for the third consecutive season and the Alabama coach was quick to make a crucial observation.
Saturday's national semifinal against No. 4 Washington might be known as the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, but the carnival atmosphere and team competitions during the build-up to the game all seem like unnecessary second-rate distractions to Saban.
You know, because there is a mighty important game looming that top-ranked Alabama needs to win.
"What I've learned about this game is your mindset of: Is this a bowl game or is this a playoff game?" Saban told reporters. "I think every player has to decide for himself (and) every coach has to decide for himself because we are trying to create a balance for everyone in our organization because it is a playoff game."
There is no doubt that only the winning team plays again this season as the Crimson Tide (13-0) look to defend last season's national title and win their 26th consecutive game when they face the Huskies (12-1) in Atlanta (3 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The Alabama players understand Saban's rationale, even if their youthful exuberance leads to cravings to enjoy the experience.
But the bigger picture wins out and the all-business approach prevails.
"I wouldn't say joyless existence. That's just the mindset you've got to have if you want to be great and have a legendary legacy," Crimson Tide senior defensive end Jonathan Allen said. "If you want to do that, you have to have that relentlessness to your work ethic and your grind.
"Thinking about last year's national championship isn't going to help us get this one."
Allen is one of the reasons Alabama rates as heavy favorites to slay the Huskies, who are playing in their most important game since claiming a share of the 1991 national championship by beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
The 6-foot-3, 291-pounder won the Nagurski Trophy as the national defensive player of the year and heads a unit that leads the nation in scoring defense (11.8) and total defense (247.8). Allen recorded 8 1/2 sacks and contributed two fumble-return touchdowns.
Allen also made an interesting discovery -- to him -- while studying a Washington offense that averages 44.5 points and 477.2 yards per game. He happened to notice the Huskies average 210 yards per game on the ground in addition to 267.2 through the air.
"Going in, I thought they were just a pass-happy team," Allen said. "But when you look at it, I'd say they kind of favor the run more. That's definitely a challenge. But as a defensive lineman, I'm excited about it. I love to go against teams that like to run the ball."
Huskies sophomore Myles Gaskin fuels the running attack with 1,339 yards and 10 touchdowns. Junior backup Lavon Coleman sports a stellar 7.8 average while rushing for 836 yards and seven touchdowns.
Sophomore quarterback Jake Browning passed for 3,280 yards and a school-record 42 touchdowns while winning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors. He threw a school-record six touchdown passes twice this season, and is considered to be just scratching his potential.
"He's still a work in progress," Washington coach Chris Petersen said. "We all are. And I think that's probably the best thing about him is that he's really hungry to try to master this position if that's possible."
Avoiding miscues will be a crucial element for the Huskies, who have committed just 12 (seven interceptions, five fumbles) all season.
That's because the Crimson Tide have scored 10 defensive touchdowns (five on interceptions, five on fumble returns) as the most opportunistic defense in the country.
"We've done a good job of taking care of the ball so far this year, but none of that really matters if you turn around and have three turnovers in this game," Browning said. "We've got to take care of the ball like we have been, have some explosive plays and execute at a high level."
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts is a multi-dimensional threat who has accounted for 34 touchdowns (22 passing, 12 rushing). He has passed for 2,592 yards and rushed for 841 while masterfully running the offense.
Hurts also is aiming to join Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway (1985) as the only true freshman quarterbacks to lead a team to a national title.
"I'm a firm believer in age being nothing but a number," the 18-year-old Hurts told reporters. "And I feel like if you step up to any situation and you're able to play your game, be confident, have the poise you need to have, you'll be all right."
Hurts will be attacking a Washington defense that is missing two of its best players in senior outside linebacker Joe Mathis (foot) and junior middle linebacker Azeem Victor (leg). The Huskies allow 17.2 points per game and possess a standout in junior free safety Budda Baker (65 tackles, two interceptions).
Washington also hopes to get a big play in the return game. Junior receiver John Ross, who caught 76 passes for 1,122 yards and 17 touchdowns, has four career kickoff-return touchdowns. Junior wideout Dante Pettis (14 touchdown catches this season) has five career punt-return scores.
In addition to Alabama's 10 defensive touchdowns, the Crimson Tide also scored on three punt returns and one blocked field goal.
The winner of this contest faces either No. 2 Clemson or No. 3 Ohio State in the national title game on Jan. 9.