Originally found on CBS Sports:
The final College Football Playoff National Championship of the four-team era has nearly arrive as No. 1 Michigan and No. 2 Washington will square off on Monday in Houston, Texas. The winner of this much-anticipated showdown will emerge as the last undefeated team standing in the FBS ranks while bringing home the first college football national title for their school of the CFP or BCS era.
Michigan last won the national championship in 1997, the year before the BCS system went into effect, while Washington’s last title came in 1991. This season, the Wolverines and Huskies used contrasting styles while running the table through their respective conferences and squeaking out close CFP semifinal victories. Michigan’s nasty defense pitted against Washington’s elite passing attack makes for a compelling final game of the 2023 season as we bid this era of college football farewell and welcome in the 12-team CFP era amid substantial conference realignment in 2024.
What should you expect in Houston on Monday night? Let’s break down the game and make picks straight up and against the spread.
Michigan vs. Washington: Need to know
Michael Penix Jr. the superstar: The most important player in this game is Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. The sixth-year senior is 25-2 in two seasons as Huskies starter after a promising-but-injury-plagued run at Indiana over four seasons. While with the Hoosiers, Penix played under second-year Washington coach Kalen DeBoer, who was then serving as Indiana offensive coordinator. The two reunited at UW in 2022, and the results have been spectacular. Penix has surpassed 4,600 yards passing each of the past two years and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting this season. A precisely accurate left-handed thrower, Penix turned in another gem during the Sugar Bowl semifinal, lighting up Texas for 430 yards passing. His top target is wide receiver Rome Odunze, who enters with 87 receptions for 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns. Fellow receivers Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan as well as tight end Jack Westover will also be a handful for Michigan’s vaunted defense.
Michigan’s nasty defense: The reputation of the Wolverines defense precedes it for a reason. They enter ranked No. 1 nationally in yards allowed per game (243.1). Nobody has surpassed 400 yards or 24 points against Michigan, which just held Alabama to a season-low 288 yards in a 27-20 Rose Bowl victory. Michigan has four players ranked inside the top 75 of the 2024 CBS Sports NFL Draft Prospect Rankings, including three who play in the secondary. That talent on the back end of the defense makes Michigan uniquely equipped to contain Washington’s passing attack. The Wolverines also registered six sacks in the Rose Bowl and will challenge a UW offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best.
Dominance vs. Clutch: Michigan has been dominant all season, but Washington has been clutch. The Wolverines have outscored opponents by an average of 25.8 points per game compared to Washington’s margin of 13.5. They have also trailed in only five games, which is tied for fewest of any team in the country. Meanwhile, Washington has won 10 straight games by 10 points or less. While the Huskies have been far less dominant than Michigan, they have grown comfortable navigating the troubles that arise in close games.
How to watch Michigan vs. Washington live
Game: College Football Playoff National ChampionshipDate: Monday, Jan. 8 | Time: 7:30 p.m. ETLocation: NRG Stadium — Houston, TexasTV: ESPN | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Michigan vs. Washington prediction, picks
Odds via SportsLine consensus
Spread: Michigan -4.5 | Moneyline: Michigan -197, Washington +163 | O/U: 56.5
David Cobb: Michigan’s defense is so dominant that it’s reminiscent of the 2021 Georgia unit that carried the Bulldogs to their first national title since 1980. The Wolverines haven’t allowed an opponent to reach 400 total yards in a game this season, and no one has surpassed 24 points against them. Michigan is physical enough to pick up first downs with Blake Corum in the running game and wear down Washington’s defense. The Huskies have been living on borrowed time with 10 straight victories of 10 points or less. This time, they finally meet their match. Pick: Michigan -4.5 | Michigan 28, Washington 20
Dennis Dodd: These are two teams of destiny. Unfortunately, the football gods will only allow one to leave the field victorious on Monday. After watching Michigan outscheme and outplay Alabama, especially at crunch time, I have to go with the Wolverines. Look for Michigan offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore to keep pounding the rock and sucking the air out of the Washington defense. On defense, I think defensive coordinator Jesse Minter’s crew will get Penix enough off his mark to make a difference. Please, Jim Harbaugh, scrap the trick plays and tell your punt returners not to field punts inside their 10-yard line. Pick: Washington +4.5 | Michigan 27, Washington 24
Tom Fornelli: I pinpointed Washington as a College Football Playoff contender in September, so I’ve been a big fan of the Huskies all season. They can win this game, and they can win a national title. But, I don’t think they will. I’ve felt Michigan was the best team in the country throughout the season, so there’s no reason to back off that opinion now. Michigan will use the run game to dictate the pace of this game and keep the Washington offense off the field. Also, while Penix and his receivers are incredible, Michigan’s defense was built to stop the high-powered passing attack of Ohio State in the Big Ten. They haven’t seen an offense like Washington’s this season, but they’ve seen something similar and dealt with it successfully. Pick: Michigan -4.5 | Michigan 31, Washington 24
Chip Patterson: The best way to defend Penix is to keep him on the sideline, and that’s exactly what I think Michigan can do with a plodding-but-productive ground game. Washington may still score on a majority of its offensive possessions, as the Huskies did against Texas in their semifinal win, but I think there will be less possessions while Michigan’s defense is a step up in competition. There’s a real “Last Dance” feel around this Michigan team that could (and maybe will) have more than a dozen players selected in the 2024 NFL Draft. Their response at the end of the Rose Bowl suggests the fabric of the 2023 Wolverines is truly championship caliber. Pick: Michigan -4.5, Under 56.5 | Michigan 31, Washington 24
Barrett Sallee: The wrong team is favored here. The Washington offense is well-suited to bring the fight to the Michigan defense in a much different manner than Alabama. The offensive line is much more capable of slowing down the fierce Wolverines front seven and will give Penix much more time to hit his super-talented wide receivers deep downfield. Even if Penix feels pressure, he is one of the best in the business in eluding trouble while keeping his eyes downfield. Is this game going to be a track meet? Probably not. However, the Huskies offense will get Michigan out of its comfort zone, spring the upset and win the program’s first national title since 1991. Pick: Washington +4.5 | Washington 30, Michigan 27
Shehan Jeyarajah: Washington boasts the longest winning streak in college football, a 21-game mark featuring nine wins over AP Top 25 teams and four wins over top-10 teams. No. 1 Michigan presents a tough, physical challenge, but the Huskies will be ready. Alabama struggled to handle exotic alignments and misdirection, but — and this is strange to say — Washington is better coached than the Crimson Tide. The Huskies will come prepared with some trickery of their own, Penix’s excellence presents the biggest mismatch in this College Football Playoff. Washington has to handle its business up front, but controlling Texas on both sides should give plenty of optimism. Pick: Washington +4.5 | Washington 31, Michigan 27
Will Backus: This game will be decided in the trenches. Michigan eviscerated Alabama’s offensive line, while Washington stood strong and didn’t allow a single sack against a Texas defensive line that features a pair of potential first-rounders in Byron Murphy and T’Vondre Sweat. Turns out the Washington offensive line is legit. The Huskies also have an edge at quarterback with Penix running the show and an underrated defense that should be able to pull out enough stops. Give me the Huskies covering and winning this one outright. Pick: Washington +4.5 | Washington 35, Michigan 30
Dean Straka: Washington has a flair for the dramatic; each of its last 10 victories have come by 10 points or less. Yet, coach Kalen DeBoer’s group has found a way to get the job done again and again. Why should it be any different Monday for a team that has some of the most dangerous and show-stopping offensive skill players in college football? Michigan’s prowess on defense will be unlike anything the Huskies have dealt with this season, but Washington’s offense is also operating at a level which the Wolverines have yet to encounter. The latter will win the day, propelling the Huskies to their first national title since 1991. It’ll be an appropriate — and bittersweet — sendoff for the Pac-12 before the “Conference of Champions” sees 10 of its 12 members depart this summer. Pick: Washington +4.5 | Washington 34, Michigan 28
Cameron Salerno: For the third consecutive game, Washington finds themselves as an underdog. The Huskies were 9.5-point underdogs in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Oregon last month and were once again not favored (+3.5) in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Texas. UW has passed every test in front of it, and Michigan is the final boss standing in the way of a storybook ending for the program and the Pac-12. The Huskies cover and win this game outright behind their explosive offense. Pick: Washington +4.5 | Washington 31, Michigan 24
Jack Crosby: It’s been incredible to watch Washington’s journey through this season, and this program seems in great hands under coach Kalen DeBoer in the foreseeable future as it gets set to start a new era in the Big Ten. Still, it’s hard to ignore how dominant this Michigan team has been all season, especially along the lines of scrimmage, where it matters most. I expect the Wolverines to eventually wear down this Huskies team up front and prevail in the end — sending the college football world into a frenzy as they have to acknowledge this Jim Harbaugh-led team as their national champion. Pick: Michigan -4.5 | Michigan 31, Washington 21
Jerry Palm: I am most looking forward to the matchup between Washington’s offensive line and Michigan’s front seven. The key for the Huskies will be to give Penix time to do his thing. Washington’s defense is not as good as the Wolverines’ unit, but it makes plays when it counts. If this game is as close in the end as I expect, that’s right in Washington’s wheelhouse. The Huskies have now won nine of their last ten games by single-digit margins. Michigan is a deserved favorite, but I like Washington’s mojo. Pick: Washington +4.5 | Washington 31, Michigan 28