National championship: No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 2 Washington
Date: 7:30 p.m. ET, Jan. 8
Line: Michigan -4.5
How these teams got here
Michigan (14-0): Blake Corum and Roman Wilson made massive plays down the stretch as the Wolverines took down Alabama in an overtime Rose Bowl victory. Corum rushed 17 yards for the game-winning score while Wilson scored the touchdown that set up overtime.
The win was Michigan’s third win by a TD in its last four games. After a 24-15 win over Penn State that didn’t include a pass in the second half, Michigan won 31-24 at Maryland and then beat Ohio State 30-24 for its third consecutive win over the Buckeyes.
After beating Ohio State, Michigan easily won the Big Ten title game 26-0 over an Iowa team that was also shut out in its bowl game.
Overall, Michigan has outscored its opponents by 26 points per game and leads the country in scoring defense. Penn State — a team that never looked like it had a chance of beating the Wolverines — was the first team to score more than 13 against the Wolverines all year and Michigan has held its opponents to fewer than 10 points in eight of its 14 contests.
Washington (14-0): The Huskies looked like they had the Sugar Bowl wrapped up leading by nine with 2:44 to go. But college football’s clock rules didn’t play in their favor after RB Dillon Johnson went down following a third-down run. The clock stopping for Johnson’s injury meant Texas got about 30 more seconds than it otherwise would have for its last-ditch drive.
Texas made the most of that time and got within striking distance of the end zone. But Quinn Ewers’ pass to AD Mitchell was batted away by Elijah Jackson to secure the 37-31 win.
The Sugar Bowl was simply the latest iteration of a Washington close win. The Huskies have won 10 consecutive games by 10 or fewer points entering the national title game. You have to go back to Washington’s 59-32 win over Cal on Sept. 23 to find the last time Washington won by more than 10.
The Huskies have played some very good opponents in the 10-game stretch. Don’t mistake them for a team that’s been escaping against minnows. Seven of Washington’s wins in that stretch have come against teams who were ranked at the time. And another was against an Arizona team that ended the season as one of the best in the country and finished 10-3 after beating Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl.
Players to know
Michigan RB Donovan Edwards: Going with either Corum or QB J.J. McCarthy is too easy and we went with Wilson ahead of the Rose Bowl. We have a feeling that Edwards could play a significant role on Monday night despite a down season.
Edwards is averaging just 3.5 yards a carry in 2023 on 113 attempts after averaging over seven yards a carry in 2022. He’s been used more as a receiver in 2023 — 30 catches to 18 in 2022 — but is only averaging eight yards a catch. He’s also scored a career-low three touchdowns in his junior season after finding the end zone nine times in 2022 and four times as a freshman.
Michigan could choose to pound it on the ground against a Washington team that gives up 4.4 yards a carry on 31 attempts per game. And the Wolverines will need to give Corum a breather once in a while. Though Edwards had just four catches for 11 yards against Alabama, he thrived in big games in 2022 after Corum went down with a knee injury against Illinois. Don’t be surprised if Edwards has his best game of the season on Monday night.
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Washington WR Jalen McMillan: The Huskies have three wide receivers who will be significant contributors in the NFL. Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. may be the only wide receiver in college football better than Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk showed college football fans how good he is with a 77-yard catch on Washington’s first drive of the Sugar Bowl and a 29-yard TD catch on a deflected pass.
McMillan is Washington’s No. 3 wide receiver but would be the top receiver for a vast majority of college football teams. He’s played in 10 games this season and has 39 catches for 526 yards and four touchdowns.
Those stats are a bit misleading, however. McMillan has missed four games due to injury and didn’t record a catch in the four games he played from Oct. 14 to Nov. 18 as he worked his way back. All of his production has come in six games. And he’s shown in Washington’s two most recent games how important he is.
McMillan had nine catches for 131 yards in the Huskies’ Pac-12 title game win over Oregon after he didn’t record a catch against the Ducks in October in his first game back on the field. Against Texas, McMillan had five catches for 58 yards and a 19-yard TD. Washington will have Odunze, Polk and McMillan on the field together as much as possible on Monday.
The fourth title game between undefeated teams in the CFP era
Monday’s matchup is the fourth and final time in the four-team playoff era where undefeated teams will meet for the national championship.
The first three instances all happened consecutively, though the third matchup has a bit of an asterisk. After the 2018 season, undefeated Clemson knocked off undefeated Alabama to win its second title of the playoff era.
The next season, LSU went 15-0 and staked its claim to be the best team of the playoff era when it beat previously undefeated Clemson.
At the conclusion of the 2020 season, Alabama met Ohio State in the national title game, though the Buckeyes entered at 7-0 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Strength vs. strength
Washington’s offensive line won the Joe Moore Award for best offensive line in the country and did a great job against a strong Texas defensive line in the Sugar Bowl. Texas didn’t get much edge pressure against Heisman runner-up Michael Penix Jr. and when they got it up the middle, Penix was able to showcase how good he is moving around the pocket.
Michigan’s defense has tallied 38 sacks so far this season and its blitz package was exquisite against Alabama. The Wolverines dominated the first half with five sacks against the Crimson Tide as they got to Jalen Milroe before he could escape the pocket.
Even if Washington’s offensive line holds up better than Alabama’s did in the Rose Bowl, the Michigan secondary should put up a tougher test than the Texas secondary. Michigan has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 56% of their passes for 150 yards a game this season.
It’s also fair to say that Michigan hasn’t faced a passing attack like Washington’s, however. The Wolverines haven’t had to cover three receivers as good as Washington’s trio.
How healthy will Dillon Johnson be?
The foot injury Johnson suffered at the end of the Sugar Bowl looked significant. He was carted off the field at the end of the game and it was reasonable to wonder how he’d be able to play against Michigan.
On Wednesday, Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said Johnson had aggravated a foot injury he’s been dealing with for the second half of the season and should be ready to play on Monday night.
Johnson’s health is one of the biggest factors entering the game. He is the Washington run game.
Johnson has 222 carries for 1,162 yards and 16 TDs this season and scored two touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl. His 1,328 total yards are second on the team to Odunze and no other player on the team has carried the ball more than 50 times. Washington’s second-leading rusher is Tybo Rogers; he’s played in 11 games and has 43 carries for 182 yards.
If Johnson is limited at all against a Michigan defense that allows fewer than 100 rushing yards per game, the Wolverines could be at a big advantage.
Recent history says this is going to be a close game and it’s hard to argue against that. A blowout either way will be surprising. Washington’s defense doesn’t get enough credit given Penix and Odunze’s excellence and it did a great job until the heart-stopping final minutes in New Orleans.
Ultimately, it’s hard to go against Michigan, though we’re taking Washington to cover — and an outright Huskies win won’t be a surprise at all. Jim Harbaugh’s tumultuous season will end in a national title and we’ll all continue to ask if the NFL beckons.
Pick: Michigan 26, Washington 23