A cuckoo college football season will end late Monday night after Michigan and Washington have a bash to settle the national championship. The showground for this showdown is NRG Stadium in Houston.
If we’re fortunate, three wishes will come true:
1. No players from either detachment will enter the transfer portal at halftime, switch sides and join the other team by the start of the third quarter. Please let there be a hold put on all NIL offers until the championship game concludes.
2. The executives who run the college football – FOX and Disney/ESPN – will refrain from orchestrating another round of conference realignment during as Washington and Michigan take the field.
3. We’ll be entertained by another exciting game, with the drama roiling into the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime.
(Full disclosure: no offense at all to Washington, but I also want my friend Dan Dierdorf to have a happy Monday night. He, of course, is one of the all-time great Michigan players, a Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle, and earned stardom for the St. Louis football Cardinals. He also began his award-winning broadcast career by working for KMOX radio in St. Louis. And yes, he’s a heck of a friend.)
This final natty of the four-team college football playoff format offers a sneak preview of the restructured Big Ten. Resident power (Michigan) gets to check out one of the four newcomers from the western territories (Washington) that are joining the Midwest-based conference for the 2024 season.
A thrilling evening of tackle football between the 14-0 Wolverines and 14-0 Huskies gives the Big Ten an opportunity to market its expanding brand. Better yet for the B1G, the SEC has to sit this one out. Depending on the rumors that you choose to consider, this could be the final game for coach Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Will the leader of all Michigan Men decline a contract extension to pursue another NFL head-coaching gig?
In addition to being a combined 28-0 this season, Washington and Michigan are imposing, peaking programs. The Huskies have won 21 consecutive games and are 25-2 over the last two seasons. The Wolverines are even better over the last two seasons with a record of 28-1.
Let’s get into this, shall we?
THE BETTING LINE: As of early Friday afternoon, Michigan was a favorite of 4 and ½ points over Washington. On the money line, Michigan is minus 192. (You have to wager $192 to win $100.) The Over/Under is sitting at 56.5 points, so if you think the two teams will combine for more than 56.5 points, then go with the over bet. Or if you think they’ll score fewer than 56.5 points, that’s a play on the under.
The Huskies and their fervent backers have no reason to grumble about a lack of respect or air other potential grievances. With head coach Kalen DeBoer and quarterback Michael Penix Jr., The Dub is 5-0 against the spread as an underdog over the last two seasons. The Huskies love the role – it’s a source of extra motivation – so they should embrace the yard-dog status.
THE PREVAILING NARRATIVE: This conflict is a contrast in style. Michigan will test its muscular system of football against Washington’s precision, charismatic passing game led by Penix, the No. 2 vote-getter in the 2023 Heisman Trophy election. Michigan likes to take the fight to the ground, smashing through obstacles. Washington prefers to fly and drop big-play bombs. It’s Michigan’s power and fight vs. Washington’s air-game flight.
TRENDS AND SYSTEM-BASED WAGERS
Please note the conflicting nature of some of the system strengths. Which basically tells us what we already know: these are super teams.
– Favorites of 4.5 points or less are 7-1 straight up and 6-2 against the spread in national championship games since 2008.
– Big Ten teams are surging at 16-8 straight up and 17-7 against the spread in the last 24 bowl games vs. Pac-12 teams.
– In general the Pac 12 has a poor record in bowl games (vs. all opponents) in recent times: 5-21 straight up and 9-17 against the spread as underdogs. This does not apply to Washington.
– Michigan is 19-8 against the spread when entering the contest with a winning streak of four games or more. Confidence … increasing confidence … a bolder level of confidence … reinforced by the overtime win over Alabama in the semifinal.
– Washington is 10-4-1 against the spread in its last 15 games when playing teams that have outscored opponents by an average of 10+ points per game during the season. There’s another pro-underdog stat for the Huskies, who seem to be at their best when taking on the most difficult opponents. (Oregon, Texas, Utah, USC, etc.)
– Betting favorites have won four straight championship games straight up and against the spread. And there were no close calls; the betting favorites have won the last four national championship battles by an average of 29.5 points.
– From 2014 through 2019 there was a stretch of six consecutive underdog covers against the spread in the national title game. It’s been an interesting run of extreme streaks.
– The national championship games are usually high-scoring duels. In the last 11 national-title clashes, 12 of the 22 contestants have scored more than 30 points.
PROJECTED FINAL SCORE BASED ON THOUSANDS OF SIMULATIONS: Michigan 34, Washington 25. That isn’t my predicted score. We’ll get to that later.
BERNIE’S PICK: There are so many ways to dissect this game, but I prefer to keep it relatively simple. I’m relying on the observations of watching both of these teams play a lot of their games this season, and my impressions are supported by my research. That doesn’t mean I’ll be right in my prediction. And as we’ve all learned, underestimate Washington at your own peril. The Huskies are one of the best big-game underdog teams that we’ve seen for a while.
Having said that, I’m going with Michigan and laying the 4.5 points. And my thinking is based on Michigan’s successful bully-ball identity and power. If you want a final score, let’s make it Michigan 30-24 over Washington.
Much of my thinking is centered on Michigan’s rushing attack going against Washington’s run defense. But there’s another very important aspect to this matchup: Penix gets to throw against a Michigan defense that hasn’t been strict in defending the pass. But the Wolverines are also one of the best pass-rush defenses at the Power 5 conference level. And that pass rush came up huge in shutting down quarterback Jalen Milroe and the Alabama downfield passing game in Monday’s Rose Bowl.
Michigan rushing the ball against Washington
The Wolverines haven’t been a breakaway team in the run game this season, so I’m not suggesting we’ll see Harbaugh’s offense generate a bunch of 20-plus yard runs in this one. But RB Blake Corum and that massive Michigan offensive are resilient in pounding away for consistent gains and limiting the number of busted running plays. Against Power 5 defenses, Corum has the lowest stuff rate in the nation among backs that have at least 200 rushing attempts. And the percentage of Corum’s runs that go bust is the sixth lowest among Power 5 backs. As a team, Michigan’s rushing attack is ranked 13th among 68 Power 5 teams in Expected Points Added (EPA.)
Michigan’s offensive line is ranked No. 1 among all Power 5 teams in overall blocking. And the Wolverines are the No. 1 rated run-blocking team at the Power 5 level based on the Points Expected metric on rushing plays. (Source: Sports Info Solutions). And on the surface that’s a potentially grim set of circumstances for Washington.
Here’s why. Among the 68 Power 5 teams, here’s where the Huskies rate in run-defense categories:
* Stuff rate of 13.8%, 64th.
* Percentage of broken tackles + missed tackles: 68th. The worst. The Huskies are 51st among the 68 teams in average yards yielded after contact.
* Opponents have a first-down percentage of 32% when rushing against Washington; that’s the seventh worst rate by a Power 5 defense.
* Washington’s defense is the fifth worst among Power 5 teams in EPA per play against the run.
* Opponents have a “bust” percentage of only 4.6% in runs against the Washington defense. That’s also the poorest percentage by a Power 5 run defense.
Texas had no problem clearing Washington’s rushing defense in the Sugar Bowl, averaging over 6.0 yards per run.
If Michigan can roll up heavy possession time with a ball-control push on the ground, that would reduce the number of opportunities for Penix and his Washington receivers to get after Michigan’s secondary. That’s an important factor.
Penix vs. the Michigan pass defense
If Penix has time to throw – and his quick release is an asset – Michigan most likely will be vulnerable. Among the 68 Power 5 defenses, Michigan ranks 64th in opponent’s passer rating (117.0) The only defenses to do worse than that were Oregon, LSU and USC. And opposing quarterbacks have averaged 8.6 yards per pass attempt vs. Michigan this season – the 12th-worst rate for a Power 5 defense.
But here’s the deal. As we saw in watching the Wolverines sack Milroe six times and fluster him repeatedly, Michigan can bring the heat. And that’s one way to slow Penix down. On the positive side for Penix, the Huskies do a good job in pass protection, ranking fourth best among Power 5 offenses in opponent sack percentage. And the pressure rate by defenses against Penix (28.4%) puts Washington at 24th among Power 5 offenses. That’s an above-average rating for handling pressure.
The Huskies can’t do an Alabama and get their offensive line overrun. And Michigan is capable of doing just that.
This season the Wolverines ranked No. 1 among Power 5 defenses in pressure rate (45.3%), third in quarterback hits, and fifth in sack percentage (20.8%.)
So this fight should come down to these two areas: Washington stopping Michigan’s running game, and the Huskies doing an effective job of keeping the Wolverines away from Penix. Even if Washington’s defense gets trampled on the ground, there’s still a way for the Huskies to win this game. But it would take a clean pocket to give Penix what he needs to sting Michigan for 350-plus yards in the air with multiple touchdown throws.
And let’s not forget about Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy. I’ve already overloaded you with stats so I’ll try to keep this brief. But on all of the key passing metrics he compares well to the rate stats generated by Penix.
The quarterback competition is probably closer than we think. In a comparison to Penix, McCarthy has the higher passer rating and completion percentage. He has a higher percentage of on-target throws and catchable balls. McCarthy has a slightly higher pass-play success rate than Penix, a slightly higher percentage of passes that result in a touchdown and has averaged about the same as Penix in yards per attempt. In the expected points earned metric, McCarthy ranks second to LSU’s Jayden Daniels among Power 5 quarterbacks. But Washington’s pass defense is surprisingly better than perceived, and McCarthy’s efficiency looms as an important factor.
Thanks for reading …
Have a swell weekend …
And pardon my typos ..
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb
All stats used in this column were sourced from Sports Info Solutions.
For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.