Joel Klatt: What to expect from Michigan, Washington in CFP National Championship

As college football fans get ready for the biggest game of the year, the CFP National Championship, it’s important to keep the following lesson in mind when assessing both the Michigan Wolverines and Washington Huskies, who will face off at 7:30 p.m. Monday night at NRG Stadium in Houston.

Great football teams are not great because they have no weaknesses. Great football teams are great because they identify their strengths, and then they build habits, they build blueprints, they build game plans around those strengths. 

That is exactly what both Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines and Kalen DeBoer’s Washington Huskies do.

These are both elite football teams who execute their blueprint as well as anybody. That’s why both teams are in this spot, each sitting at 14-0 going into the national championship game. 

Both coaching staffs are great. DeBoer has been excellent everywhere he’s been. He’s 104-11 as a head coach, which is a ridiculously good record. On the other side, Jim Harbaugh has won everywhere he’s been, too, finding success at San Diego, Stanford, the 49ers and now, Michigan. Regardless of what you think of him personally, he’s an elite football coach. He’s brought his alma mater back to the place where it dreamed of being ever since it won its last title in 1997. 

In addition to being a great coaching matchup, it’s also a great matchup between the sidelines. There’s a ton of talent that we’ll probably see on Sundays in the not-so-distant future. 

Michael Penix Jr. is the premium talent among the players who will take the field on Monday. The Washington quarterback has played at such an elite level over the last two seasons, leading the nation in passing in back-to-back seasons. He is going to be the central figure of this game for a lot of people. As we know, the Washington passing attack is as good as any in the country.  

We know what each of these teams’ strengths are on the field. Now, let’s answer the biggest questions as we prepare for Monday’s title tilt. 

Does Washington resemble a national championship squad?

In some ways, you’ve got to be built similarly to the way other teams have been built to win this game. For the most part, you would say yes, these two teams are built to win a national title. 

But Washington’s case is a little bit different. This program is trying to make up for not having a national championship-caliber defense by having an elite passing game. The statistics bear that out. Washington’s defense ranks 54th in the country in scoring and 97th in total defense. If Washington were to beat Michigan on Monday, its defense would be the worst to win a title since the start of the BCS.

There are a pair of comparable teams to Washington that have won national titles since the start of the BCS era. In 2010, Auburn won it all with a defense that ranked 53rd in scoring and 60th in total defense. The 2019 LSU team, which many people are starting to compare this Washington team to, had the 32nd scoring defense and the 31st total defense. 

Like those two teams, Washington has elite play at quarterback. But those defenses are still, statistically, better than what Washington has, specifically LSU’s. Other than Auburn, there hasn’t been a team that has been ranked lower than 32nd in total defense to win a national title since the start of the BCS.

Those are a lot of numbers that show this Washington team is an outlier. It’s not a knock, it’s just the truth. The Huskies’ shortcomings on defense are made up by the fact that their offense, specifically their quarterback and wide receivers, are as good as you’ll find out there. That passing game is exquisite and beautiful. Watching this offense go to work against Texas on Monday night was a thing of beauty.

But, in a lot of respects, that matchup was really favorable for Washington. Texas doesn’t defend the pass very well. Michigan does, which leads me to my next question.

What is Washington’s path to victory?

Could Washington’s passing game help them earn the National Championship?

Could Washington’s passing game help them earn the National Championship?

1. Create as many possessions as possible

With its defense being ranked where it’s ranked, Washington has to play Monday’s game on its own terms. I don’t think Washington can win a game that’s played on Michigan’s terms. It has to play its style of game in order to win on Monday night. Washington has been able to play on its own terms pretty much all season long, with the exceptions being games against Washington State and Arizona State. 

If I’m DeBoer, I’m looking to maximize the number of possessions in Monday’s game. I want more margin for error on both sides of the ball. I want to see Penix on the field as much as possible.

It’s not just about the time of possession, but it’s the number of times they have the ball. When you have more possessions, it negates the possible impact of a defensive play, third-down sack or a turnover. It puts the odds more in your favor. If you’re going to throw the football quite a bit with the talent you have on the outside, you’re going to want to do that more than what the opposition wants.

There was an average of 12 offensive possessions per game in college football this season. But it’s lower than that in Michigan games, averaging about 11 per game, which is the 10th-fewest in the country. 

I would go fast if I were Washington. I want to get Michigan’s defense to tire out, specifically its pass rush. Doing that would also put an immense amount of stress on Michigan, not just because of the pace, but also with the urgency Michigan’s offense will have to play with in order to keep up. If you increase the number of possessions, you force J.J. McCarthy and Michigan’s offense to play an uncomfortable style of football. 

Michigan might still be able to win by playing that style of football. But it doesn’t benefit Washington to go the other direction and win a limited possession game. 

2. Michael Penix needs to be elite

Washington’s passing attack was elite against Texas, throwing for 430 yards as it continued to show off its top-ranked passing attack in college football, averaging 350 yards per game.

But now, this defense is going up against a very different animal than what it went up against in the semifinal. To put it bluntly, Texas is not even close to the same pass defense as Michigan’s. Texas ranked among the bottom-fourth in the country in pass defense. Michigan’s pass defense is ranked second, allowing just 150 yards per game through the air. 

I love the matchups between Washington’s receivers and Michigan’s secondary. Will Johnson is an excellent corner. When he becomes draft-eligible, the true sophomore will be a first-round talent. He’ll probably go up against Rome Odunze at times on Monday. Remember, he was Michigan’s primary corner on Marvin Harrison Jr. even as he dealt with a lower-body injury. 

Michigan also has Mikey Sainristil and Josh Wallace, but now that trio is going to have to defend Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan. I think the McMillan-Sainristil matchup out of the slot is intriguing. 

Michigan’s linebackers are probably going to have to play a big role, but it’s mainly going to be about the Wolverines’ defensive line and their ability to make Penix uncomfortable. It’s not just about sacks, either. We’ve seen elite passing attacks struggle at times over the last two decades in both the NFL and college, with strong interior pass rushers having the most effect on elite quarterbacks.

Penix excels with accuracy, pitch selection and leverage. Michigan is going to have to make him uncomfortable and push the offensive line into his lap. The Wolverines might not have a singular elite pass rusher like they did a couple of years ago, but they can push the interior and collapse the exterior of the pocket. That’s when you make a quarterback uncomfortable.

What’s Michigan’s path to victory?

Can Michigan’s defense stop Washington’s passing game to win the National Championship?

Can Michigan’s defense stop Washington’s passing game to win the National Championship?

1. A limited-possession game

Michigan is going to want to roll out the full boa constrictor, an analogy I’m taking credit for, one last time this season on Monday. Michigan plays patiently while it waits for its opportunity to just squeeze the life out of its opponent. The Wolverines were able to do that because they’re more complete and are really good or elite in a lot of areas, compared to their opponents. They can sit around and wait before they squeeze and attack you. 

So, a limited-possession game would benefit Michigan because it would heighten the impact of any defensive play it’s able to make. If the Wolverines can get a third-down stop in the red zone to force Washington to kick a field goal or just force it to make a kick of any kind throughout the game, that’s a win for Michigan. If Washington only has the ball nine or 10 times, those third-down stops become much more impactful, playing right into Michigan’s blueprint to victory. That’s how the boa constrictor works. 

Michigan wants to create panic among the Washington side, forcing a sense that every position means everything for Washington. The Wolverines want the Huskies to feel an urgency that they have to score every time they have the ball because they don’t know how many more times they’re going to get it. 

I think Michigan can win a high-possession game. Washington cannot win a low-possession game. 

2. Look at the blueprint from the 2021 win over Ohio State

There’s a very clear delineation between Harbaugh’s teams at Michigan pre- and post-COVID (no, it’s not Connor Stallions). Before COVID, Michigan was a really good college defense, particularly against teams it could dominate with its skill. But it didn’t have the speed necessary with its man coverage scheme to stop Ohio State.

Following the Wolverines’ debacle of a season during COVID, Harbaugh made a big phone call to his brother, John, about the defense. He told Gus Johnson, Jenny Taft and me that he asked his brother how to get the Baltimore Ravens’ defense. His brother offered him a pair of up-and-comers: Mike Macdonald and Jesse Minter. 

Harbaugh picked Macdonald, but he left following the successful 2021 season to become the Ravens’ defensive coordinator. Minter, who became Vanderbilt’s defensive coordinator in 2021, was hired to replace Macdonald. Now, Minter has to use a similar blueprint that Macdonald used to slow down Ohio State in 2021 on Monday night. 

Harbaugh made that decision to ask his brother for help in 2021 just to beat Ohio State. He changed everything about the program to win that game. Michigan needed to find a new scheme to match up with the talent Ohio State had at quarterback and receiver. 

Washington would’ve torched Michigan’s old style of defense. But the style the Wolverines employ now on defense uniquely matches up with the Huskies’ style of offense. You could make a strong argument that this Michigan team is built specifically to stop a team like Washington. 

Let’s take a look back at that 2021 Ohio State game, which I think will tell us a lot about that game. That Buckeyes team had C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, yet Michigan won, 42-27. Stroud threw for 394 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions in that game. If I told you before that game that Stroud was going to have that stat line, you probably would’ve thought Ohio State was going to win that game. Those three receivers combined for 28 receptions for 334 yards in that game. 

But Michigan wasn’t focusing on stopping the passing game. It wanted to build itself to win on the line of scrimmage offensively and limit Ohio State’s possessions. Michigan ran the ball 41 times for 297 yards that day. It ran the ball 20 times and threw it just four times in the second half of that game. 

Which gets back to a point I made earlier, there’s a difference between time of possession and number of possessions. Ohio State had a better time of possession in that 2021 game, but Michigan forced OSU to earn its way down the field, limiting the Buckeyes’ offensive possessions to 10. 

So, the stops in that game were magnified. And that’s exactly what Michigan is going to seek to do on Monday.

Who wins? 

During the Holiday Bowl, I was leaning toward picking Washington to win it all, which I mentioned on my podcast last week. But now that we’ve seen all the games, we know what the matchup is and how the semifinal games played out, I’m going to pick Michigan. 

If you leave this story remembering one thing, let it be this: This Michigan team, ever since COVID, was built specifically to beat Ohio State. It’ll face a version of that, perhaps a better version, but there’s a path where Penix can throw for 350 yards, two or three touchdowns and Washington still loses. 

Joel Klatt is FOX Sports’ lead college football game analyst and the host of the podcast “The Joel Klatt Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @joelklatt and subscribe to the “Joel Klatt Show” on YouTube.

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