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CFP Title Game — Our Michigan-Washington Breakdown and Best Bets

Our full breakdown of the College Football Playoff's much-anticipated championship bout between Michigan and Washington.

January 4, 2024

The Saturday Slant gives you deep insights on some of the best games — and bets — of the week in college football.

Let’s crown a national champion, shall we? The college football season will come to an end on Monday evening in Houston, when the Michigan Wolverines and the Washington Huskies will determine who’s the best team in the nation. Next season, this will be a Big Ten conference game (on Oct. 5, to be exact).

The case can be made – and I would agree with it — that these have indeed been the two best teams in America. Neither are here because they put together multiple top 10 recruiting classes — they’re two squads that have ID’d the exact sorts of players they want, developed them, and watched as they blossomed later in their careers. There are junior, seniors, and guys playing out extra years of eligibility all over both rosters. The coaches have a clear vision in how they want their teams to play, and they’ve done a superb job in getting their players to execute.

As a result, the undefeated Big Ten champs and the undefeated Pac-12 champs are going head-to-head. The game should be a banger, so let’s talk about it.

When Michigan Has the Ball

The Wolverines are what they are, and are what they will be so long as Jim Harbaugh is the head coach in Ann Arbor (which might only be for one more game). This is a football team that wants nothing more than to run the football and build its passing game off of that, and in the Rose Bowl, we got a glimpse of how that works: Blake Corum ran the ball 19 times for 83 yards and a score, while nine of J.J. McCarthy’s 27 passes came in the fourth quarter.

The thing that makes the Wolverines so tough to slow down on offense is that everyone knows what they want to do, but they’re exceptional at executing it. Few teams in the sport have a more clear-eyed view of what they want each possession to look like, and unfortunately for Washington, it’s going to be awfully difficult for them to slow Corum and Donovan Edwards down this year.

Michigan’s big offensive line should be able to shove around a Huskies front seven that is tied for 76th nationally in opponent rush yards per attempt. Texas had plenty of success on the ground against Washington in the Sugar Bowl, running 28 times for 180 yards (6.4 YPA) and three scores.

Getting Michigan behind the sticks on second and third down is going to be crucial for Washington’s defense.

Washington does have some size in the middle of its defensive line, while Bralen Trice is excellent at blowing plays up off the edge — he had three tackles for loss and a pair of sacks against the Longhorns. They’re good at getting into the backfield and making plays from all three levels, as their leaders in TFL this year are Trice, LB Edefuan Ulofoshio, DB Jabbar Muhammed, and EDGE Zion Tupuola-Fetui. And it’s worth mentioning that the Wolverines’ rushing attack hasn’t been quite as good as it has been in years past, with both Corum and Donovan Edwards taking steps back in terms of YPA this year.

Getting Michigan behind the sticks on second and third down is going to be crucial for Washington’s defense. It won’t be easy, and the Wolverine passing attack is under-appreciated, both because McCarthy is good at taking what the defense gives him and the team’s pass catchers (namely WR Roman Wilson and TE Colston Loveland) don’t get the attention that the running backs do. They’re great at getting McCarthy to spread the ball around, with eight players recording double-digit receptions on the year, and both running backs are comfortable in the passing game.

McCarthy hasn’t been put in a position this season where he has to throw early and often to win a game — his 221 yards in the Rose Bowl were the most he’s thrown for (and the first time he has thrown for 200+ passing yards in a game) since Nov. 5 — and when he does drop back, he’s a threat to take off and run if nothing’s there.

The Huskies have done a really nice job against the pass this season — tied for 20th nationally in opponent yards per attempt (6.6 YPA), 27th nationally in opponent passer rating (122.9) — particularly for a team that doesn’t get to the QB a ton. No one other than Trice has more than four sacks this season, while the team comes in 130th out of 133 teams in sack percentage (they’re getting home on 3.65 percent of drop backs). Muhammed and the rest of the Washington secondary need to have their best game of the season, and the Trice-led front getting home a few times would certainly be welcome.

When Washington Has the Ball

They’re going to try and throw. Alright, bye!

[My editor tells me he’d like a little bit more than that]

All jokes aside, Washington has built its offense around Michael Penix, an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award, and a collection of pass catchers that no team in America can match. This offense against Michigan’s defense is the exact sort of heavyweight fight that you want to see in a national title game, and I truly cannot wait to watch it.

Penix has put up some stinkers this year, but when he’s on his game, there are few (if any) quarterbacks in America who are better at throwing the ball down the field. This is thanks in large part to the collection of Sunday players he has lining up at wide receiver, as Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk, Jalen McMillan, and Germie Bernard make up the most well-rounded receiving corps in America.

Odunze, in particular, has been impossible to deal with, and the Wolverines are almost certainly going to task standout corner Will Johnson with trying to slow him down. (Johnson, you might remember, got the first interception in Michigan’s win over Ohio State by just straight up beating Marvin Harrison Jr. to a slant. He’s awesome.)

The Huskies are going to try and challenge a very good Michigan defense, because they just challenge very good defenses and tend to win. Watching Penix push the ball down the field is a joy, while his receivers are all adept at winning 1-on-1 matchups against defensive backs. There have been games this year when Penix’s radar has just been a little off, so don’t be surprised if Washington tries to scheme up easy throws for him early and often so that he can throw and land haymakers as the game goes on. Just ask Texas what happens when those haymakers are landing:

One thing that should help is that standout running back Dillon Johnson, who left the Sugar Bowl with an injury, is expected to go. While the Huskies aren’t the kind of team that tries to grind out easy yards on the ground, Johnson has been quite effective this year. So long as he isn’t hobbled by the foot injury he aggravated against the Longhorns, he’ll be a weapon.

The biggest problem facing Washington is that Michigan’s defense is good at, well, basically everything. It’s No. 1 in the nation in SP+, fifth in opponent yards per pass attempt, and seventh in opponent yards per rush attempt. It’s the No. 6 defense in sack percentage, and it’s tied for 11th in takeaways per game. There’s just no real weakness, no clear place for the Huskies to try and attack.

The battle in the trenches will go a long way to determining what happens, as Washington’s excellent OL has kept Penix upright all season, but Michigan’s defensive front is as stout and nasty as any in the nation. And watch what the Wolverines do with Mike Sainristil, who is one of the most instinctive defensive players in the sport and someone who always seems to be involved when they get a big play … but they might need him to spend all his time in coverage, because the Huskies’ receivers are just that good.

One final note: Per SP+, Michigan has not faced a top-10 offense this season. The closest it’s played is Alabama, which comes in at 11th. Washington has the nation’s No. 4 offense. The Huskies, meanwhile, have not faced a defense that is in the top-10 of SP+ — the best they saw was Texas, which is ranked 11th. The Wolverines have the No. 1 defense in the country. It’s strength vs. strength, with both units going up against the best opponent they’ve faced all year.

The Pick

Could I see a world where Michigan just totally takes the air out of this game, never lets Penix and the passing game get cooking, and wins a disgusting game that’s a little more low-scoring than people expect? Yes. Could I see a world where the Wolverines have to score to keep up with the high-flying Huskies offense, which leads to them moving away from the run a bit more than anyone in the maize and blue wants, testing the strength of Washington’s defense, and getting into a hole they cannot dig out of? Yes.

Ultimately, I’m just a little queasy over Washington’s run defense. It’s an ok unit, but it’s one that I think Michigan will be able to hammer, and I’m not certain how often they’ll be able to get the Wolverine offense behind the sticks. Penix and company are magnificent, and the longer that they can make McCarthy and his receivers chase the game, the better. But Michigan has had an answer for everything this year, and I expect that to be the case again on Monday.

Michigan 34, Washington 28

Michigan -4.5

Over 55.5

Bill DiFilippo
Bill DiFilippo is a writer and editor based out of Columbus, Ohio. You should not, however, assume that he is an Ohio State fan. Feel free to tell him why he's wrong about stuff on Twitter, @billdifilippo. Just be nice.
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