We have one last game to break down.
The College Football National Championship is set with Michigan taking on Washington in a battle of two teams in their first CFP title games. After a pair of thrilling semifinal matchups, the Wolverines and Huskies meet on Monday night to determine the National Champion.
Michigan has advanced to the title game behind its dominant defense and ruthless run game while Washington has continued to excel in its underdog role, blasting teams with the most potent attack in the nation behind Heisman Trophy runner-up Michael Penix Jr.
Who will prevail in the title game and lift the trophy?
Here's my full betting preview for the National Championship:
Washington vs. Michigan Odds, Spread and Total
Michigan vs. Washington Betting Trends
- Michigan is 8-5-1 against the spread (ATS) this season
- Washington is 7-6-1 ATS this season
- Michigan has gone OVER in eight of 14 games this season
- Washington has gone in seven of 14 games this season
- Washington is 2-0 ATS as an underdog this season
- Michigan is 3-0 ATS as a single-digit favorite this season
Washington vs. Michigan How to Watch
- Date: Monday, January 8th
- Game Time: 7:30 PM EST
- Venue: NRG Stadium
- How to Watch (TV): ESPN
- Washington Record: 14-0
- Michigan Record: 14-0
Washington vs. Michigan Key Players to Watch
Michael Penix Jr.: Fresh off one of the most impressive performances in recent memory, Penix obliterated the Texas secondary. He completed 29-of-38 passes for 430 yards en route to a virtuoso performance under center. With a month off, the Huskies looked fresh and dominant on offense.
Blake Corum: The Wolverines let its bell-cow back cook when it was most important. It was Corum's fourth down conversion catch and run that set up the Michigan game-tying touchdown drive in the final minutes and it was Corum who ran it in from 17 yards in what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
The senior running back finished the game with 83 yards and two touchdowns against an elite Alabama defense. While Washington's defense is trending upward, the rush defense is its weakest point, bottom 10 in EPA/Rush and success rate this season, meaning he can have a monster game on the ground.
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Washington vs. Michigan Prediction and Pick
Let's create this handicap by answering some key questions that will determine the National Champion.
Can Michigan Handle the Washington Passing Game?
Michigan's defense is tops in key metrics like EPA/Play and points per drive allowed while ranking second in success rate allowed and fourth in yards per play. The unit is an absolute terror to handle.
However, the Wolverines haven't faced a passing game with this type of explosiveness.
The closest comp to this Washington passing game is Ohio State, who was able to generate some success in the second half of that meeting in the regular season finale. It's worth noting that while Washington doesn't have Marvin Harrison Jr., the team has a far better quarterback in Michael Penix Jr. In that game, MHJ had five catches for 118 yards after hauling in seven passes for 120 the year prior. It also doesn't hurt that the Huskies have stud receiver Rome Odunze either.
There is reason to believe that Washington will be able to move the ball in the air. The unit is eighth in EPA/Pass and is top 10 in yards per pass attempt. The team is aggressive with the ball and has three outstanding wide receivers, led by Odunze, who is flanked by Jalen MacMillian and Ja'Lynn Polk. The team has capable tight ends as well, making it tough for the Wolverines to deal with in the secondary.
Washington will spread this defense out and stretch the field vertically, opening up gaps down the field with a precision passing attack.
While this is a relatively foreign obstacle for the Wolverines, Washington will be facing the most complete defense in the country. Defensive coordinator Jessee Minter's group is fifth in EPA/Pass and is the top team in the country in terms of coverage grading, per Pro Football Focus. On top of that, Michigan is second in tackling grade.
The closest competition that Washington saw was Oregon, in which the team scored 36 at home in a three-point win and then 34 in the PAC-12 Championship game in another three-point victory.
Oregon ranks towards the top in a handful of similar metrics, but the team fails to generate the same pass rush that Michigan has. The Ducks are 45th in pass rush grade per PFF while Michigan is second. The Huskies' offensive line gives Penix a ton of time, he has only been sacked 11 times, but he has struggled under pressure.
According to PFF, when kept clean, Penix is completing 73% of his passes. However, that drops to 45% when he is under pressure, comprising more than 26% of his dropbacks.
Can Michigan speed up Penix, who has been lights out and made throw after throw all season? But in his way is his stiffest test.
What Happens if Michigan is Losing?
There are variables all over and things happen, but what I'm most confident in heading into the Natty is that Michigan is going to have a ton of success on the ground.
The Huskies' defensive line was crushed by Texas in the Sugar Bowl, as it had been all year. Washington's defense has struggled to slow down the run all season, 119th in EPA/Rush and 126th in success rate according to gameonpaper.com, it was glaring in Monday's semifinal matchup.
Texas posted an EPA/Rush mark of 0.44, 96th percentile across games when compared to last season, and averaged more than seven yards per rush. However, Texas fell behind and running backs fumbled the ball twice, forcing the team to take to the air more often.
If Michigan can stay in a positive game script, this can be a tough ask for the Huskies. Michigan is 12th in run blocking this season and while the team's OL hasn't had a massive push all season, 57th in line yards, the Washington DL is incredibly poor in that same metric, 130th in defensive line yards. Advantage: Wolverines.
The favorite will likely try to employ a rush-heavy attack to methodically move the ball down the field, the team is bottom three in plays per minute, to keep the Huskies' high-octane offense on the sidelines. Once Washington begins to send extra men in the box to get Michigan off schedule, expect J.J. McCarthy and the Wolverines passing game to take over.
Now, what happens if Washington gets out to an early lead, what will the Wolverines offense look like?
While McCarthy answered the call in the fourth quarter to orchestrate a game-tying touchdown drive, it was a shaky game from the second-year starter, who was constantly throwing into traffic and will face a sturdy Washington defense that is 15th in coverage grade per PFF and fourth in explosive pass rate allowed.
If Michigan falls behind, will it be able to pivot off script, which it hasn't done all season, and employ a pass-heavy approach? Will Washington's defensive line make Michigan take to the air, or can the Wolverines pound the Huskies into submission?
Is Regression Pointing in Opposite Directions?
After thrilling finishes to both semifinal matchups, it felt like both teams were relieved to escape with victories.
Washington bungled the clock to give Texas a red zone chance in the final seconds to win while Michigan may have played one of the worst special teams games I have watched, but managed to get it done in overtime.
While the Huskies are deserving to be here, the team did have some good fortune go their way (hint: basically every team needs some breaks on the way to titles).
One part of the Sugar Bowl that stands out is the glaring penalty discrepancy. The Huskies played an incredibly clean game on Monday night, called for only five flags totaling 39 yards. However, over the balance of the season, the Huskies are 132nd in penalty yardage per game, ahead of only New Mexico.
For what it's worth, Texas got called for 10 penalties for 66 yards in the loss, including some backbreaking, drive-killing flags in the first half after ranking right around the national average heading into the semis.
Why does this stick out? Because Michigan is second in the country in penalty yardage per game.
There is a 49-yard difference between the two teams in penalty yardage per game. I wonder if some regression pokes its head out after Washington played a disciplined game.
Further, while it was almost comical how poor Michigan played on special teams -- the Wolverines a punt to give Alabama a short field, missing a field goal and extra point, and nearly muffing a game-ending punt that would cost them the game -- the special teams unit is actually elite!
Michigan was the 17th-best special teams unit in the regular season per PFF. The team is likely going to play much better in this facet of the game.
Final Thoughts and Best Bets for National Championship
There are plenty of interesting questions that will be answered in the lead up to this one.
There's a case to be made for both sides. Washington has been underrated by the market all season long, crushing expectations with an ability to win on the margins and secure one-score victories. The team has won 10 straight games by 10 points or fewer, which would be the first time a team has done that since 2007.
Will this end in the title game against the best defense in the country?
I do lean towards the Michigan side, who can mix its ruthless defensive line to get pressure on Penix and keep the team on the sidelines with its run-first offense that can burn the clock and cash in against a Huskies team that is outside the top 120 in red zone touchdown percentage.
However, I'm going to take the under as my best bet in this game over the key number of 55.
As noted above, Michigan is a snail, only service academies play slower. Washington isn't much faster, playing at a below-average tempo in the 70's. Neither team allows explosive plays and I believe each team will look to play ball control football and keep the opposing offense on the sidelines.
With limited possessions for both sides and defenses that are elite at keeping the ball in front of them, I think we see the clock moving and points not coming in bunches as each team looks to avoid the big play.
I know our eyes just saw Washington put up 37 on Texas in a high-scoring affair, but I believe that both teams will be looking to control the ball and hunt for timely plays rather than a high-powered attack.
Further, given Michigan's dominance on the defensive line, Washington may struggle to get into favorable down and distances in this one. The Huskies got zero help from the run game (outside of Penix scrambles and designed runs) and its lead back Dillon Johnson was carted off the field after the game.
The Wolverines slowed down Alabama's far more diverse run game and are seventh in defensive line yards, allowing about three yards per rush. The Huskies may be up against it on third and long often, forcing the team to play a field position battle and letting Michigan lean on its long-sustaining drives.
I think Michigan schemes up enough stops to slow down this Washington passing game and there are too many empty possessions for the team to keep up, but I'm not trying to fade this team at over a field goal as the Wolverines are cool just grinding this game to a halt and the Huskies have the passing game to keep the backdoor open late.
Give me the under in the National Championship, I'll say Michigan wins 27-17.
Game odds refresh periodically and are subject to change.
Track Reed's bets here!