The Michigan Wolverines and Washington Huskies are set to face off for the CFP National Championship on Monday, January 8, in Houston. Number 1-ranked Michigan is coming off a thrilling overtime Rose Bowl win over Number 4-ranked Alabama, while Number 3-ranked Washington is coming off a 31-37 late nail-biter over Number 2-ranked Texas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It’s a battle of contrasting styles, with the Michigan Wolverines opting to run the ball behind a bruising, veteran offensive line and two dynamic running backs in Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. Washington, on the other hand, relies on the left arm of Heisman Finalist Michael Penix Jr. and a plethora of dynamic wideouts in Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk, and Jalen McMillan. Dillon Johnson has also emerged as one of the better running backs in college football this season.
The key matchup lies on the perimeter, with Washington's star receivers matching up with the experienced, tight-knit secondary of Michigan led by likely first-round pick Will Johnson and Graduate Senior Mike Sainristil. Michigan ranks second in opponent pass yards per game, while the Huskies lead the nation in passing yards per game. This is the best-on-best, and it might be the best positional matchup we'll see in college football this year.
Establishing the run will be important for Washington; they need to establish the running game even though they were able to escape with a win despite only rushing for 102 yards on the ground against the 3rd-ranked Longhorn run defense. It won’t get much easier as the Wolverines rank 8th nationally in rush yards per game. The health of running back Dillon Johnson will be critical as he left the game late in the 4th quarter with a leg injury.
On the other side of the ball, Washington needs to be stout against a Michigan team that wants to lean on the run. They held Texas under the 188 yards they came in averaging, but Texas still managed to average 6.4 yards per carry on 27 attempts. Stopping Blake Corum and company will need to be a point of emphasis for two reasons. For one, it will put Michigan in uncomfortable second and third and mediums/longs, and that doesn’t bode well against elite pass rusher Bralen Trice, a 3rd team AP All-American. Two, sustaining a ground attack will also help keep Michael Penix Jr. and his high-flying Huskies on the sideline.
The key for each team is simple. For Michigan, establish the run game and try to punch Washington in the mouth early. Work play action off that, where you can take shots against a middle-of-the-pack Washington pass defense. Avoid second and third and longs. For Washington, slow down Michigan’s rushing attack. First and foremost. If they can match Michigan’s physicality and slow down the run, as well as establish their own run game behind the best offensive line in the nation, then they can play the game on their own terms. I predict a good game, with Washington winning 23-20.