5 early thoughts ahead of Washington vs. Michigan in the College Football Playoff National Championship
Two epic semifinal games. It’s what we asked for, and it’s what we got.
The College Football Playoff National Championship is set for next Monday, Jan. 8 at 7:30 ET in Houston. Michigan and Washington will battle for the last title of the 4-team Playoff … just as everyone predicted.
Let’s turn the page to what figures to be a fascinating contrast of styles in the title game.
Here are 5 early thoughts on Michigan-Washington:
1. JJ McCarthy should be out of skeptics heading into the title game
I admit that I was a McCarthy skeptic. I pointed to Michigan’s desire to hand the ball off 32 consecutive times against Penn State as a reason the Wolverines didn’t have full faith in their starter. I questioned the post-October numbers, which saw McCarthy account for 1 touchdown with 7 yards/attempt. I wondered if he would step up for a Michigan team that hadn’t trailed later than the 11-minute mark of the second quarter in 2023.
Boy, was I wrong.
And that’s not to say that McCarthy was flawless against Alabama. He still had a few throws that could’ve been turnovers. But his command and poise against the Tide defense should’ve converted remaining skeptics. Jim Harbaugh said he’s the best quarterback in Michigan history. It’s hard to argue with that.
McCarthy can make throws on the move, he can hit receivers with anticipation and he can make you forget that he doesn’t have some deep army of All-American pass-catchers. There’s a reason Michigan entered Monday having led or been tied in 97% of its minutes in 2023. McCarthy is a monumental part of that.
2. That Michigan defensive front is a problem
Two things can be true at the same time. One is that Alabama’s offensive line struggled with pass protection/snap issues all year. The other is that the Michigan defensive front played its tail off, just like it did all year.
The reason Alabama’s 4th down play-call was so heavily scrutinized was because Michigan dominated the battle in the trenches. Michigan had 10 tackles for loss and 6 sacks, which was the most ever allowed by an Alabama team under Nick Saban. This wasn’t a 50-50 battle, despite the fact that the Tide did eventually find some rushing lanes on the edges. That was also with extra help on the line of scrimmage. Michigan’s Braiden McGregor, Mason Graham, Kris Jenkins and Co. are capable of taking over any game, especially when Jesse Minter dials up stunts and twists like he did in the Rose Bowl.
That Alabama offensive line got bullied. As respected as Washington’s Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line is — it handled Texas’ loaded defensive front extremely well — it’s hard to imagine Michigan getting neutralized after a showing like that.
Speaking of that Washington offense …
3. Michael Penix Jr. and these pass-catchers are unlike anything Michigan has seen
The nation’s leading passer and Heisman Trophy runner-up played like his usual, gun-slinging self. So did his loaded group of receivers, headlined by Rome Odunze.
Penix completed 29-of-38 passes for 430 yards and 2 TDs. Odunze (6 catches for 125 yards) and partner Ja’Lynn Polk (5 for 122 and a TD) were unstoppable. Both had a catch for 50+ yards.
To say that Michigan hasn’t seen a passing game this prolific would be an understatement. The only 2 top-50 passing games that Michigan faced were Ohio State and Maryland. With all due respect to those offenses, they didn’t play the same sport as Washington in 2023.
Defending Washington is a totally different ballgame than slowing down an Alabama team that didn’t have the depth and consistency in the passing game that it needed in the Rose Bowl. Penix will test a Michigan secondary that was No. 2 in the country with just 22 passing plays of 20 yards allowed.
Penix leads the country with 73 completions covering at least 20 yards, including 6 passes against Texas. He can dial it up against anyone. That includes Michigan.
4. That Dillon Johnson injury was devastating
In the midst of that wild finish, Washington’s star running back was injured. Instead of kneeling the ball, Kalen DeBoer opted to try and pick up the first down. Outside of fumbling, it was about as bad of a sequence of events as Washington could’ve had. Johnson got his leg rolled up on and limped gingerly off the field in the final minute before giving the ball back to Texas.
If Johnson is indeed out for the national championship, that’s a devastating blow. He was dominant in the Pac-12 Championship behind that Joe Moore Award offensive line, and while it was tough sledding against that standout Texas front, he still had 2 scores while accounting for 21 of the 26 running back carries.
The Mississippi State transfer is a big part of the offense. He has 14 TDs on the year and has been relied on heavily for finishing drives. Washington didn’t reach a national championship berth just because of those chunk plays in the passing game. Not having him against that aforementioned Michigan front would be a major loss.
5. Is Michigan finally over the hurdle?
It’s the question that I’ll be thinking about all week. Sorry, Washington. That might sound like a slap in the face to a 14-0 team, and maybe it is, especially when Washington hasn’t won a game by more than 10 points since Sept. 23.
But it’s all eyes on Michigan. Obviously the Connor Stalions storyline dominated headlines throughout the season. It’s been “Michigan vs. everybody” since that story broke and Jim Harbaugh dealt with his second in-season suspension. How big of a hurdle was Alabama? That was Michigan’s first bowl win since 2015.
The Wolverines have an opportunity to do something that they haven’t done since 1948. That is, become the undisputed national champion.
Something tells me we’ll get a few reminders of that this week.