College Football Playoff preview: Can Michigan break through against Alabama?

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy throws during NCAA college football practice Friday, Dec. 29, 2023, in Carson, Calif. (Ryan Sun/AP Photo)

Four teams, one goal, and it all comes down to New Year’s Day.

Three teams have been here before: Alabama, the only team out of the four to win a national title in the playoff era, while Michigan and Washington have made it to the top four but not out of the semi-finals.

As for Texas, who can finally say for the first time in a long time that they are “back”, they are making their playoff debut just two seasons after going 5-7 and missing out on bowl eligibility.

The College Football Playoff will expand to 12 teams next season, which means this is the final time just four teams will be battling it out for a shot at the national title.

Here’s a look at the bowl games that make up the College Football Playoff.

Rose Bowl: No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Alabama

Head-to-head record: The teams have only met five times, with Alabama taking a 3-2 lead in their matchup.

Last meeting: 2020 VRBO Citrus Bowl, Alabama 35 – Michigan 16

The matchup: There are two prominent storylines when looking at these two teams. For Michigan, who just three-peated in the Big Ten, dominating Iowa in the title game and also defeating their rival in Ohio State for a third year in a row, the goal is simple: Get the job done.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh has a less than stellar record in bowl games during his tenure at Michigan, and while some will say bowl games don’t matter, the Wolverines haven’t been able to find a win even in the ones that do. The last two times Michigan has appeared in the playoff they lost to Georgia and TCU in back-to-back years in 2022 and 2023.

As for Alabama, it’s all too familiar. They’ve been here before. In the playoff. As a fourth seed. Every storyline that there can possibly be for Alabama, they’ve lived it. After Florida State’s performance against Georgia, it’s clear why the committee thought to put Alabama in the final spot instead. With three national titles in the Playoff era, Nick Saban almost always has the answer on how to win.

Alabama missed out on the playoff last year, and the year before lost to Georgia in the title game. Since the playoff’s birth in 2014, Alabama has been in the title game six times, with three wins and three losses. But Alabama has never lost two title appearances in a row, and they’re coming off a loss.

X-factor: For Michigan, it’s their run game. Blake Corum led the Wolverines with 1,028 yards and 24 touchdowns, relying on Corum to get into the end zone more than any other player. Corum has had a multi-touchdown game in all of his last five games, going over 80 yards in three of the last four including a 145-yard, two-touchdown showing against Penn State.

Alabama only gave up 78 rushing yards against Georgia, but then Auburn rushed for 244 yards against the Tide in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide has always been known to be a defensive juggernaut under Saban, but their weaknesses have been exposed this season.

As for Alabama’s X-factor, it’s the fact that they simply never give up. Sounds cliche, but the Tide trailed five times in the second half in SEC games and came back to win, including an Iron Bowl victory for the ages as quarterback Jalen Milroe connected with Isaiah Bond on a fourth-and-31 touchdown for the win.

Milroe was benched in Week 3 against South Florida and has revitalized his game since, tallying 23 passing touchdowns as the Crimson Tide have won 11 straight games. He threw for 2,718 yards while adding another 468 on the ground – with 12 rushing touchdowns – as his ability to use his legs while also launching deep balls to receivers has drawn comparisons to the likes of Lamar Jackson; just ask Georgia head coach Kirby Smart.

Michigan has one of the best defences in college football, leading the country in fewest points allowed per game with 9.5, and finishing second in total yards allowed at 239.7 per game. They tied with Penn State for the most takeaways in the Big Ten with 24. They may not have seen a quarterback like Milroe this season, but the Wolverines have solid players to pressure him.

Player to watch: Michigan’s receiver turned cornerback Mike Sainristil had two forced fumbles in the Big Ten championship and tallied 30 total tackles, four interceptions and six pass breakups this season.

Alabama’s Jermaine Burton has title game experience – grabbing five touchdowns for the Georgia Bulldogs in their 2022 title-winning season as he played his first two seasons with the school. He leads all Alabama receivers with 777 yards and eight touchdowns.

Sugar Bowl: No. 2 Washington vs. No. 3 Texas

Head-to-head record: The teams have only met five times, with Texas taking a 3-2 lead in their matchup.

Last meeting: 2022 Alamo Bowl, Washington 27 – Texas 20

The matchup: The most recent meeting between these two teams is much closer than Alabama and Michigan, as they met at the end of last year in the Alamo Bowl with Washington taking the victory.

The significance for both of these teams is also that they look to claim national titles for conferences that they will no longer be a part of next season: Washington looks for its third national title before moving from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten. Texas looks to claim its fifth national title, which would be their last as a member of the Big 12 before moving to the SEC.

Washington has been here before, but only once, in a forgettable 24-7 loss to Alabama in the Peach Bowl in 2016. As for Texas, they make their first playoff after winning the Big 12 title for the first time since 2009. The last time the Longhorns had a chance at a national title was in the 2009-10 BCS Championship game at the Rose Bowl but lost to Alabama 37-21.

Huskies QB Michael Penix Jr. flourished after transferring from Indiana and finished runner-up in the Heisman rankings behind winner LSU QB Jayden Daniels. Penix Jr. finished the year with 4,218 yards and 33 touchdowns, including five games with four or more touchdown passes.

As for Texas, QB Quinn Ewers finished the season with 3,161 yards and 21 touchdowns, including a 452-yard, four-touchdown showing against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 title game.

The quarterbacks are just a small part of what will make this Sugar Bowl an entertaining game.

X-factor: Simply put, Washington’s X-factor is Penix Jr. He’s not the player to watch because everyone already knows who he is, but his consistency and accuracy will be the difference between the Huskies making it to the title game or not.

After dominating the first four games of the season, Washington had some too-close-for-comfort wins but held on to stay undefeated. Of course that doesn’t all rest on the shoulders of Penix Jr., but seeing performances like his 473-yard, four-touchdown thrashing of Michigan State set a high bar for the season.

He threw for just 366 yards and four touchdowns total in the final two regular season games against Oregon State and Washington State, winning each game by less than three points and completing less than 55 per cent of passes. He looked more in form against Oregon in the PAC 12 title game with a 319-yard, one-touchdown performance while completing 69.2 per cent of passes, and will need to be producing at that high level for any Huskies success against Texas.

The X-factor for Texas is their passing game, in the sense that they will be relying on it heavily after top running back Jonathon Brooks had to miss the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery for an ACL injury. Brooks had accounted for 1,139 yards and 10 touchdowns in 10 games.

Ewers will be looking to target Xavier Worthy, who tallied 969 yards and five touchdowns this season, as well as red zone threat Adonai Mitchell who accounted for 813 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Longhorns.

They have players like CJ Baxter and Keilan Robinson who will pick up the work on the ground game, but the offensive line will have to protect Ewers with a heavier reliance on the passing attack.

Player to watch: For Washington, running back Dillon Johnson accounted for 1,113 yards and 14 touchdowns on 201 carries averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Johnson exploded for 152 yards and two touchdowns in the Pac-12 championship game.

Texas’ player to watch is edge rusher Ethan Burke, who tallied 35 tackles, 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble this season. He forced a strip-sack in an overtime win against Kansas State and his emergence has been key for stopping the opposing run game.

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