Nearly 28 months ago, Michigan and Washington played an otherwise meaningless game.

It was a ho-hum 31-10 Wolverines victory that somehow earned a primetime slot on ABC in Week 2 of the 2021 season. Never mind the fact that Washington was a week removed from opening the season with a loss to FCS Montana, or that Michigan went 2-4 in a COVID-shortened season that ended with calls for Jim Harbaugh’s job.

It’s safe to say that 28 months later, the stakes will be slightly ramped up when Michigan and Washington meet on Monday night at NRG Stadium in Houston.

Both teams are playing for a national title for the first time since the 1990s. Both teams are 14-0 after squeaking out thrilling semifinal victories against powerhouse programs.

So what’s in store for a much more meaningful Michigan-Washington showdown?

Here are my final thoughts (and a prediction) for Monday night:

Washington will live and die with Michael Penix Jr. and that passing game

I’m not breaking any news by predicting that Washington will throw the football a ton. Michael Penix Jr. got the Huskies to this point with his cannon of a left arm, and expecting a team who ranked No. 127 in FBS in rushing attempts per game to suddenly reinvent itself in a national championship setting feels unrealistic. Penix throwing to that deep receiver group of Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan is unlike anything the Wolverines have faced all year.

Here’s a wild thought: Michigan is 14-0 having only faced 1 second-half deficit all year (more on that in a bit), yet the most passes attempted by an opposing team this year was 32 by … Iowa. That’s wild. Teams don’t throw on Michigan in part because that secondary is loaded and with the Wolverines’ ability to get home with 4, there aren’t exactly a bunch of big throwing windows. But teams also haven’t been able to throw because of the Wolverines’ ability to control the clock.

Washington, on the other hand, has 1 game with fewer than 32 pass attempts all year. Nothing about the Huskies and this offense with OC Ryan Grubb suggests that this is a future Big Ten team. Even game to game, Michigan will have an entirely different skill set to defend after Alabama’s Jalen Milroe was held in check as a passer.

It’ll be fascinating to see how Michigan defends Penix. Even when Texas got pressure up front with Byron Murphy, we saw Penix navigate the pocket and still deliver an on-target throw, or do it himself and use his legs. As well as Michigan’s secondary has performed this year, I can’t imagine that DC Jesse Minter will want to send 5 or 6 rushers a whole lot because of how much trust Penix has in his receivers to win “50-50” battles.

What does all that mean? Strength on strength could determine a national championship … as it should.

How healthy is Dillon Johnson?

It looked bad when the Mississippi State transfer was helped off the field in the final minute of Washington’s Sugar Bowl victory. Not only did Johnson’s injury stop the clock and give Texas a chance to put together a potential game-winning drive, but it put a damper on an otherwise historic victory.

The good news? Johnson is expected to play. The bad news? We don’t know how close to 100% he’ll be.

As much as Washington loves to attack defensive backfields, don’t diminish his impact in 2023. Johnson has 14 rushing scores this year. No other running back on the roster has 4 carries per game, multiple rushing scores or 200 rushing yards on the season. Johnson is the clear featured back. He’s a 3-down guy who ranks No. 14 among Power 5 running backs with 79 pass-protection snaps. The rest of the Huskies’ backfield averages a combined 3 pass-protection snaps per game.

I bring that up because Johnson at less than 100% could be the difference in a national title. His impact, especially against a Michigan defense that’s No. 2 in FBS in opposing red-zone scoring percentage, is monumental.

Michigan has to find a way to do what Texas couldn’t — slow down Bralen Trice

Easier said than done, no?

Against Texas, Trice was a game-wrecker. He had 5 tackles, including 3 for loss (2 sacks), and a forced fumble. Texas’ ability to dominate with that defensive line got all the pregame attention, but by night’s end, it was Trice who proved to be the unstoppable force.

Also easier said than done? Getting past that Michigan offensive line. A Dallas Turner sack was Alabama’s lone tackle for loss in the Rose Bowl (Michigan had 10 TFLs and 6 sacks of Alabama). While the Tide did a better job mixing up defensive fronts and containing the Wolverines’ ground game in the second half, JJ McCarthy was well-protected throughout that game.

That hasn’t necessarily been the case all year, though. Lost in the shuffle of Michigan’s dominant win over Iowa in the Big Ten Championship was the fact that the Hawkeyes got to McCarthy 4 times and he was held to 4.9 yards/attempt. Purdue’s Nic Scourton (he just transferred to Texas A&M) got to McCarthy twice, as did Indiana’s Lanell Carr Jr. In other words, Michigan hasn’t been invincible against edge rushers.

Trice could be next up if he shows up with bad intentions like he did in the Sugar Bowl.

Blake Corum feels inevitable

This isn’t a knock on the Washington defense, which has been hot and cold against the run. But Corum scoring multiple touchdowns feels like money in the bank. Why? Well, he’s done that in each of Michigan’s past 6 games. The last time that he was held out of the end zone was the Ohio State game last year … when he got hurt in the first quarter. Corum’s last full game without a touchdown was the 2021 Orange Bowl semifinal loss against Georgia.

It’s not a question of whether Corum will get into the end zone. It’s just how often and how easy does he make it look. It wasn’t always big running lanes against Alabama, especially in the second half. But in the bookends of that game, we saw Corum at his finest. The vision and the ability to work through contact to finish runs are second to none.

If Michigan is hoisting a national championship trophy, would anybody be surprised if Corum took home MVP honors? At this point, one might argue that’s the most likely outcome.

I don’t think it’s fair to question Michigan playing in tight games anymore

Look. I’ll admit that I was that guy.

You know. The guy who would say “well, what’s it gonna look like when Michigan is facing a deficit late?” In my defense, Michigan’s latest deficit in the first 13 games of 2023 came against Indiana when the Hoosiers led 7-0 with 11:20 left … in the second quarter.

Then the Rose Bowl happened and I stopped asking that question. Michigan put together a drive for the ages to tie Alabama in the final 1:34, and overtime was about as 1-sided as it gets. Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore deserved a ton of credit for the looks that he dialed up late. McCarthy was totally locked in and the Wolverines put on an offensive clinic.

Of course, Michigan’s 1 late comeback pales in comparison to the amount of tight-game experience that Washington has. The last time the Huskies played in a game that was decided by more than 10 points was Sept. 23. It’s even more improbable than last year’s TCU squad, though Washington didn’t trail in the 4th quarter in half of its games.

So while the 2023 blueprint might favor Washington if things are tight late, let’s not assume Michigan will go into panic mode.

And a prediction … Michigan 28, Washington 24

It feels like Michigan’s year. It’s as simple as that.

As much as I’d love to see Penix and the Huskies cap off this run with a title, it just feels like “Michigan vs. the World” is about to crescendo with a title. This group getting over the semifinal hump felt monumental. This was the team that had to endure those 2 Playoff losses to get to this point. They returned more production than any Playoff team had. Nothing from Michigan in these first 14 games has given us reason to believe that was just some storyline.

Michigan is ready. It has the offensive versatility, the unique ability to cover on the back end while dominating with its defensive line and it has the coaching to pull this off.

One more time, I believe we see the Wolverines keep a team at arm’s length and Washington is flustered by the best defense it faced all year. The final score suggests it’ll be a thriller, but those who watch will feel like the result is never really in doubt.

In the battle of “Michigan vs. the World,” I’ll go with Michigan 1 more time.


Matt Hinton’s Ultimate Championship Game Preview: It’s Michigan’s time. Unless it’s Penix’s moment

O’Gara: Inside Michael Penix Jr.’s wild, twisting ride to the title game

Hayes: JJ McCarthy promised Michigan would be back. Now, can he deliver the title?

5 matchups that will define the national title game