Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia’s run of dominance in college football’s signature event might not be over, but it is on hiatus this year. Instead, there’s new blood after Michigan and Washington advanced to the national title game.
Since the BCS began in 1998, neither team has played for a national title.
“This is probably the first time I’ve ever been fired up for a national championship game,” said one coordinator who faced Washington earlier this year. “I’m so fascinated with this game because they’re like two polar opposites going against each other.”
Michigan’s bruising play along the lines and run-heavy offensive style will square off with Washington’s high-flying, pass-first attack at NRG Stadium in Houston on Monday night. The Athletic spoke with 10 head coaches, coordinators and assistants who have faced either Michigan or Washington this season to gauge their thoughts on the matchup, granting them anonymity to discuss both teams candidly.
No coaches leaned toward Michigan or Washington winning big, but a majority picked Washington to win as an underdog. One coach was shocked to learn Michigan was a four-point favorite. But another assistant said Michigan may be the better team in all aspects.
“It’s hard to go against Michigan, but I just think Washington is more battle-tested, and they find a way to do it one more time,” said one head coach.
When Washington has the ball
One place there was no debate: the brilliance of Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting and followed it up with a masterful 430-yard, two-touchdown performance to carry the Huskies to a semifinal victory against Texas.
“Man, you watch enough of the tape on a whole season of his throws, and you’re blown away with the (tight) windows and the touch he throws with,” one head coach said. “It’s rare because to know when and how to throw it with touch like that is remarkable. It’s as accurate as you’ve ever seen.”
Added another head coach, “Penix makes some amazing throws. Some ‘holy smokes’ throws. His ability to decipher and read coverages is pretty special and he’s got that quick release to get it. That is a gift.”
Every coach The Athletic spoke with raved about Penix, even coaches who faced Penix when he wasn’t at his best.
What makes Washington’s offense so effective is the chemistry between Penix and his trio of receivers: Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk. They were targeted 20 times in the win against Texas and combined for 19 completions, 353 yards and two touchdowns.
“His trigger is so quick,” said one assistant who faced Washington this year. “Offseason seven-on-seven must be insane. The rhythm and chemistry those guys have? Man. This guy has so much trust in these receivers it makes no sense. If you watch the film and you watch it when the ball is released, the receiver isn’t open. He throws guys open. He throws with a bunch of trust. I told our guys we have to stay in phase with them the entire game, all the way down the field. There won’t be indicators the ball is coming.”
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Odunze has 87 catches for 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns this year, including six catches for 125 yards in the win over Texas. He was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to college football’s best receiver.
“He’s just different. His body control and the way he and Penix are synced up, whether it’s gonna be back-shoulder or over the top, they’re just in such a rhythm,” one head coach said.
Multiple coaches also raved about Washington’s tight sets, which create difficult angles to defend and unique route combinations to scheme receivers open downfield.
Washington is second in the FBS with 39 passing plays longer than 30 yards this season, but it runs the ball just 27.9 times a game. Only six FBS teams, and just two from the Power 5, run it less often.
“I would try to force them to hand the ball off,” said one coordinator who faced the Huskies this season. “But they will throw the ball in man with two high safeties or if you drop eight and still dice you up.”
Added another assistant, “They’ll throw the ball when they shouldn’t throw the ball. I think their game management is suspect, but they find ways to win.”
Two coaches pointed to Oregon as the game when Washington was most committed to its run game. If that happens, they said, an already elite offense becomes truly unstoppable.
Washington’s skill at receiver allows it to often lean on max protect schemes with six or seven blockers, so even if teams blitz, the experienced unit that won the Joe Moore Award this year as the nation’s best offensive line can keep Penix’s pocket clean and allow him to deliver the ball downfield.
“Their offensive tackles, to me, are incredible,” said one head coach. “If you’re gonna beat ’em, I think it’s gotta be on the interior, but you’ve got to be willing to take chances.”
Texas’ defense managed zero sacks against the Huskies in the semifinal win.
Outstanding pocket movement by Michael Penix Jr. to avoid the pressure. Finds Rome Odunze for a chain mover. pic.twitter.com/REN72eNsGa
— Justin M (@JustinM_NFL) January 2, 2024
“(Byron Murphy II) beat his guy so many times, but Penix would side-step and get the ball out. He’s such a good player. Texas couldn’t just play man, and then when they did cover their guys perfectly, they didn’t play the ball. That’s where Michigan will probably be at an advantage, because their DBs play the ball better,” said one assistant.
Another assistant agreed.
“Michigan’s defense is basically just Texas with better DBs,” he said. “Washington’s strength was Texas’ kryptonite. If Washington is going to win this game, they have to do it throwing down the field.”
The Wolverines rank third nationally in opposing passer rating. Texas ranked 49th.
“I think Michigan is gonna win. They just don’t give up big plays,” said one coordinator who faced Michigan this season. “Washington exposed Texas’ DBs. They are not elite DBs playing elite wide receivers. Michigan has elite DBs and an elite D-Line. (Mike Sainristil) is such a good player. He’s everywhere. They’re elite at all three levels. Michigan’s linebackers don’t miss a lot of tackles.”
Pressure is the simplest way to limit any passer’s effectiveness, but doing that against Washington’s front has proven difficult all season. The Huskies have given up just 11 sacks in 14 games. Only four teams have surrendered fewer.
“The other thing I laugh at is, they’re one of the only O-lines along with Oregon State who don’t wear knee braces, and those are the two best offensive lines in the conference,” said one head coach. “I wonder if there’s something to this? These guys are athletic and powerful and can really move.”
Pressuring Penix without leaving the secondary vulnerable is almost impossible. That leaves defenses with one other option, said multiple coaches: Confuse him.
“If I’m Michigan, I’m utilizing a lot of disguises in my coverages. Pre-snap, I want Michael to see Cover 2 but really I’m Cover 3. I want him to see man but at snap, we’re getting into Cover 3, Cover 4. You press those corners, you disguise and you send pressure. That’s what Arizona State did. They were in his head a little bit. He didn’t have time to go through his reads, and it wasn’t as clean as he wanted it to be.”
That 15-7 win over the Sun Devils was the only game this season in which Penix threw more than one interception and one of two games in which he was held without a touchdown pass, and the Huskies didn’t have a pass play longer than 21 yards.
“Michigan is so tough on defense,” said one coordinator who faced the Wolverines this season. “They made Alabama one-dimensional. Their D-line is that good. They made Bama look like an average O-line.”
If Penix, in his sixth year playing college football, can sniff out coverages clearly before the snap and check into a different play, it’s a disaster for defenses.
“They have more Cover 3 zone beaters than you’ve ever seen,” one head coach said. “Schematically, these guys are incredible. I have the utmost respect for them.”
Washington has nine sixth-year players and has now won its last 10 games by 10 points or less. Multiple coaches pointed to a complete lack of panic from the Huskies in tight games this year.
“I do think (Michigan) is physical enough up front to get (Penix) off his spot and good enough on the back end to at least hold disguises and play multiple things, but Washington keeps finding a way,” said one coordinator who faced Washington this season.
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When Michigan has the ball
Coaches agree on one thing: The road map to Michigan’s success on offense is nothing fancy. It’s the skill that has kept them undefeated all season and the strength they turned to on the last 32 plays of their win against Penn State in November:
Run the ball.
It’s not just the Wolverines’ best offense. It’s their best defense against Washington’s best player.
“Michigan should just run it down their throats and just keep Penix off the field,” said one assistant.
Another assistant said it was clear Michigan was physically and mentally tougher than Alabama in the Rose Bowl.
“I don’t think there are many teams in football that are patient enough running the football, but Michigan is,” said one head coach. “They keep proving that. They keep running it at you. No one else in the Pac-12 will do that other than maybe Oregon State. If Texas would’ve (Monday) night, they’d probably have been better off. They were ripping off runs on them.”
Two other coaches said Texas didn’t lean heavily enough on its running game in the loss. The Longhorns ran for 180 yards on 28 carries with three touchdowns.
“You can run the ball on Washington. Texas could. If their backs didn’t fumble, they probably win that game.”
Washington ranks 86th in the FBS in yards per carry allowed.
“Michigan wants to run the ball and get downhill on you,” said one head coach who faced Michigan this year. “They gotta run the ball against Washington and keep (Penix) off the field. Michigan’s defense is really good — their secondary is better than Washington’s — but their offense is gonna be their best defense.”
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy was a divisive topic of discussion among coaches. His play this season left coaches less than fawning, but most were impressed with what he did to help Michigan beat Alabama.
“J.J. hadn’t played that well in a long time, but he played really well against Alabama. I was more scared about him on the move than in the pocket. We tried to keep him in the pocket. He is very fast, and he really throws well on the run,” said one head coach who played Michigan this year. “He can make all these accurate throws from different arm angles. He’s better going to his right but can still hurt you going to his left. He’s deadly to his right.”
McCarthy earned Heisman buzz during the season and was No. 16 in Dane Brugler’s most recent list of the top 50 NFL Draft prospects.
“They have explosive playmakers, but chunk plays? J.J. McCarthy ain’t that guy. I don’t know what Harbaugh is talking about. He’s out of his mind. If you’re freakin’ Kyle Shanahan you might like him, but in college football, I don’t know if he’s gonna get the job done,” said one assistant.
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Washington’s defensive scheme, led by co-coordinators Chuck Morrell and William Inge, could confuse McCarthy, multiple coaches The Athletic spoke with said.
“They put everybody up at the line and make the quarterback think a little bit. Then he’ll drop everybody into coverage and you don’t know if he’s playing zone or man. He can get creative with disguising,” said one coordinator who faced Washington this year. “He makes it look like a zero pressure where you have to have a lot of conversations as a staff on how you’re going to handle it. He may bluff and drop out. He was making it look like Cover Zero but it was Cover 3 and he’d shoot guys out. He had our QBs in a tough look at times. If you can keep McCarthy guessing, I thought that’s what they did to Ewers. Even when it’s on the (13)-yard line in the last two plays of the game. He was mugged up and made him throw hot. Quinn was throwing fade balls the entire time because he didn’t know if it was a hot pressure or not.”
One assistant pointed to Michigan’s third-down packages with three tight ends as a place the offense has thrived this year. The Wolverines could continue to do so against the Huskies’ defense by bringing the beef.
“They do some really good stuff. They bring (tight end Max Bredeson) in and he creates problems. He’s a stud. We treated him like a fullback. He’s the difference-maker in those packages, and they do some unique stuff with him and all the pre-snap movement they do,” the assistant said. “He’s a great weapon for them. He explodes through contact and is able to keep his feet moving and displace guys.”
So, who’s going to win?
Overall, coaches weren’t certain how the game would play out, though more leaned toward Washington than Michigan. It’s a product, they said, of the contrasting styles the two teams play.
One coach said if Washington can hit big plays early and jump out to a double-digit lead, Michigan’s lack of explosiveness would mean the Wolverines could break their game script and struggle to rally.
Michigan has just 19 plays of longer than 30 yards this season, which ranks 112th nationally.
Georgia and Alabama, facsimiles of one another, are easier to predict. But with the Huskies’ skill position talent going up against Michigan’s dominance on both lines, multiple coaches expected a more fun national title game than some SEC-heavy games in the past where teams had similar schemes.
“It’s one people are going to want to watch,” said one assistant. “There’s a lot of variables.”
(Top photo: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)