Championship Game Preview & Pick No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 2 Washington


Jan 6, 2024

The National Championship Game matchup is a throwback in that it pits teams with entirely different styles representing their respective conferences.

Coming out of the Big Ten, Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines are a classic B1G unit. They play power football, are physical, stout defensively, and run the ball more than they throw. Even with 14 games played, the Wolverines are 109th in pass attempts on the season (342).

Conversely, the Washington Huskies have the county’s fifth most pass attempts (523), with more completions (349) than Michigan has attempted. Kalen DeBoer’s pass-happy offense is befitting of the Pac-12, RIP (six teams in the top 25 in passing volume compared with two for the B1G).

The National Championship Game will also bring us a new champion in the CFP era and snap the SEC’s four-year reign. Michigan would be the second B1G team to win the Natty in the past decade, while Washington would be the first Pac-12 team to bring the championship trophy home (temporarily before it’s relocated to the Big Ten).

On to our B1G Bet! Scared money, don’t make money. Let’s eat!

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B1GBets 2023 Record

Bowl Record: 5-3 overall (+3 units) | Overall Record: 54-30-1 overall (+27.5 units)

ATS: 33-16-1 | Team Totals: 16-13 | Game Totals: 5-1

B1GGEST Bets (1.5 Units): 7-1 (+9 Units)

B1GGER Bets (1 Unit): 27-8 (+19 Units)

B1G Bets (1/2 Unit): 20-21-1 (-0.5 Units)

CFP National Championship Game Preview: Michigan vs. Washingon

Money Line: Michigan -196 | Washington +162 | Total: 56.5

Jan 8: Time: 7:30 p.m. ET | TV: ESPN | Location: NRG Stadium | Houston, TX

Michigan: CFP: 1 | SP+: 2 | PFF: 1

Washington: CFP: 2 | SP+: 12 | PFF: 4

B1GGEST Bet: Michigan -4.5 Washingon (Consensus)

This matchup favors Michigan, the better team from top to bottom. While Washington’s path to victory is singular—Michael Penix goes off—the Wolverines can win throwing the football (yeah, I said it!), rushing, and with their defense.

Let’s start with Michigan’s defense. They’re third in points per drive, fifth in defensive success rate, and sixth in defensive EPA. More importantly, Jesse Minter’s unit is second in defensive success rate against the pass and third in EPA per pass.

Yes, the Wolverines haven’t seen an offense like Washington’s, but even more so, the Huskies haven’t faced a defense the caliber of Michigan’s. This defense is elite and deep.

In the Rose Bowl, Michigan faced 35 dropbacks and allowed just 103 yards while giving as many first downs as sacks (six). The 288 yards by Alabama is their fewest in seven years. Fewer than Washington’s CFP Semifinal opponent, Texas allowed in a game that got Jalen Milroe benched earlier in the season and fewer than the great Georgia Bulldogs’ D.

They limited Milroe to 5.0 yards per pass and Jermaine Burton to 5.4 yards per catch (21 yards on four receptions). Sure, they’re no Penix Jr. or Rome Odunze, but Milroe averaged 10.0 YPA and Burton 20.5 YPC on the season. They were playmakers in the SEC.

Also, this defense was built to stop an OSU offense that featured Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka, and they beat C.J. Stroud in the previous two seasons, so they’re not entirely unfamiliar with this caliber of passing attack.

Judging by how little his name is mentioned when college football analysts preview the Championship Game, CB Will Johnson might be the most underrated player in college football. The kid is an absolute stud who was targeted just twice (33 coverage snaps) in the Rose Bowl, with no catches allowed. Throw in elite slot corner Mike Sainristil and versatile safety Rod Moore, and this Michigan secondary is far superior to the one Texas fielded in the semifinals. It’s PFF’s top-rated coverage defense (93.6).

The Wolverines are also better at getting pressure off the edge than the ‘Horns with the foursome of Jaylen Harrell (team-high 6.5 sacks), Josaiah Stewart (two TFLs vs. Bama), Braiden McGregor (two sacks vs. Bama), and Derrick Moore (one sack vs. Bama) combining for 21.5 sacks on the season. Watch for Sainristil or LB Michael Barrett (61 tackles, three sacks) coming on a blitz.

The defense will make the Huskies one-dimensional. Washington had trouble running against Texas (3.3 YPC), and that was with a healthy Dillon Johnson (2.3 YPC). The Wolverines are just as challenging to run on, with five defensive tackles having recorded at least 24 tackles this season. Kris Jenkins, Mason Graham, and Kenneth Grant are a dominant trio that will challenge 275-pound center Parker Brailsford, while LB Junior Colson (ten tackles vs. Bama) is all over the field.

Do you know which unit has been battle-tested? Michigan’s offense. The Wolverines have gone against eight defenses ranked higher than Washington’s this season.

Judging by their offensive metrics, you wouldn’t know it, as Sherrone Moore’s offense is ranked tenth in points per drive, ninth in offensive success rate, and third in EPA/pass. They usually play on schedule (ninth in early down EPA) and excel on third/fourth downs (13th in success rate), nearly as good as Washington (49.2% to 49.7%).

It’s a challenging scheme to prepare for, with a lot of motion and wrinkles that break tendencies, one that had Nick Saban’s defense often confused despite a month to get ready.

Michigan will be able to run the ball against the Huskies. They love to load up the box with extra blockers, whether a second and third tight end or an extra offensive lineman. Power and counter runs will give the Huskies defense, which finished 125th in rushing success rate and 65th in EPA per rush, fits.

Washington allowed 7.1 YCP to CJ Baxter in the Sugar Bowl and 6.6 YCP to Jaydon Blue, yet each had only nine carries. A mistake Michigan won’t make.

You’ve heard that Blake Corum isn’t as explosive as last season, which is accurate, but did you see that jump cut on the game-winning touchdown in the Rose Bowl? The kid is so money in crunch time. Corum had a 30-yard scoring scamper with 4:15 left at Penn State to put Michigan up two scores, a 22-yard TD run with 1:55 left in the third quarter versus Ohio State to give the Wolverines the lead, and another game-winning rush in the Rose Bowl from 17 yards out in OT.

Expect a big game from the senior. Also, don’t be surprised if Donovan Edwards breaks off a long run or two, especially when they go to two-back sets with Edwards and Kalel Mullings on either side of the QB.

They would also be wise to run J.J. McCarthy, who should have earned more carries versus Alabama (three carries, 25 yards, 8.3 YPC). The Huskies allowed Quinn Ewers to rush for a career-high 54 yards (6.6 YPC), and McCarthy is more mobile with the speed to take one to the house.

Due to a lack of volume, one of the more undervalued aspects of the Wolverines is their passing offense. Michigan finished second in EPA/pass and sixth in passing success rate.

Per PFF, McCarthy was given a 92.5 passing grade with 10 TDs (one INT) and a 128.9 passer rating on throws of 20+ yards this season. Here are more numbers for you: on third downs of seven yards or more (off schedule), he was 33 of 44 passing (75%) for 526 yards with 26 first downs/touchdowns.

McCarthy faced pressure against Alabama ten times in the Rose Bowl and completed six passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. His 168.4 passer efficiency was the best against the Crimson Tide (No. 2 in coverage) all season, a defense that faced Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels. And he wasn’t even entirely on his game.

McCarthy’s QBR is higher than Penix (third-89.5 to sixth-85.7). This isn’t to say Michigan has the edge in passing, but I don’t think the gap is that wide in Washington’s favor. Michigan is balanced and can throw effectively and efficiently when it chooses to.

Roman Wilson is a proven playmaker (16.3 YPC, 12 TDs) with breakaway speed, Cornelius Johnson continues to make difficult catches, and sophomore TE Colston Loveland (585 yards) is a budding star.

Going into the semifinals, the biggest fear was how they would handle Alabama’s pass rush. Even without Zak Zinter, their best offensive lineman, you can make the case the O-line played their best game against the Crimson Tide. After playing banged up to end the year, center Drake Nugent allowed zero pressures in 28 pass block snaps per PFF. The Tide got one sack on backup QB Alex Orji on a surprise pass play (fooled no one) when he ran out of bounds rather than throw the ball away.

Karsen Barnhart looks more comfortable filling in at guard than he did at tackle, while his replacement at right tackle, Trente Jones, has allowed one pressure and no sacks in 118 pass-blocking snaps (PFF). That’s first in pass-blocking efficiency among 300-plus tackles with over 100 pass-blocking snaps.

Washington is 80th in finishing drives. Once the Wolverines get inside the 10-yard line, it’s Corum time, as his 25 rushing touchdowns are a big reason why they’re seventh in red zone rushing TDs, while the Huskies are 112th in red zone rushing scores allowed.

Despite their abysmal special teams performance in the Rose Bowl, the Wolverines typically don’t beat themselves, and they have the seventh-best special teams in the country per SP+ compared to Washington’s 47th-ranked unit. The Big Ten champs were crushed in the field position battle in the Rose Bowl. Don’t expect that to happen again.

The Maize and Blue are second in turnover margin (+16) with just eight turnovers on the season, while Washington has coughed it up 18 times (63rd). Then there are the penalties: Michigan’s 2.9 are the fewest per game nationally, while the Huskies are the seventh-most penalized team (127th).

If a team will beat themselves on Monday night, it’s far more likely it will be the Pac-12 champs. As long as the Wolverines clean up the punt returning, I expect Michigan to play a much cleaner game.

With Michigan’s ability to run the ball and keep Penix on the sidelines while they control, the Wolverines will dictate the game’s pace while sprinkling in a few big plays. They probably won’t shut the Huskies down, but they slow them down enough with timely blitzes and strong secondary play to win by at least a touchdown, their first National Championship since 1997.

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Thumbnail photo via Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

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