Six reasons Michigan football should win the national championship

HOUSTON — After years of hand-wringing, underachievement, close calls, questionable plays and disappointing seasons, Michigan football is one game away from winning a national championship for the first time since 1997.

It will face a hungry Washington team that hasn’t won it all since 1991, when the Huskies were in their heyday. Both teams have a great deal going for them, but anything can happen in a one-game scenario.

The maize and blue are favored, but such was the case last year in the College Football Playoff semifinal in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl against TCU. Weird things can happen once the ball is kicked off, and Michigan is hoping to build off the momentum of beating an Alabama team that many thought would take down the Wolverines.

Though Michigan is favored, as said, a lot of pundits are wide-eyed at Michael Penix Jr. and the Washington pass game. While games aren’t played on paper, we’re giving you six reasons the Wolverines will emerge as the 2023 national champions.

Washington hasn’t seen a defense like this

Photo: Isaiah Hole
Photo: Isaiah Hole

As much as the Husky offense is touted, the Pac-12 is not a league of defensive juggernauts. Big 12 playoff semifinalist Texas wasn’t one either. Yes, Oregon is good under Dan Lanning, ranked highly, but this Michigan football defense is No. 1 in the country — for a reason.

Conversely, it could be said Michigan hasn’t seen an offense as potent as Washington’s (which is accurate). But the defense, coordinated by Jesse Minter, was built to face a team like the Huskies. Originally built by Mike Macdonald in 2021, the defense’s sole goal was to be able to take down an Ohio State team with the most prolific passing offense in the country.

And the past three years, it has been mission accomplished. In fact, in the two years with CJ Stroud at the helm, the mission was so accomplished that OSU transitioned into a more of a balanced attack, only to lose again in 2023.

So, you could say Michigan was literally built for this. Yes, Washington will move the ball and score points, but given that this is easily the best pass rush and secondary that the Huskies will have faced, you can bet that Michigan will find ways to either get the ball back or hold UW to 3 instead of 7.

The Washington defense is among the worst Michigan has seen

Photo: Isaiah Hole
Photo: Isaiah Hole

If Washington wins the national championship, it would be the worst defense to do so since before the BCS era started in 1998. In fact, no entrant into the national championship game has fielded a defense this porous. TCU was ranked 95th last year. This Washington D comes in 97th.

Many decry the Michigan offense because it doesn’t jump off the page statistically, but that’s because for more than half of the Wolverines’ games, the lead was insurmountable around halftime. The maize and blue are as efficient as the best teams in football offensively (they’re about equal to the Huskies in that regard). But while Washington relies on big-time playmaking, Michigan is content to hold onto the ball and methodically move down the field. This is a defensive unit that should allow the Wolverines to do just that.

Michigan may be hungrier

Photo: Isaiah Hole
Photo: Isaiah Hole

Now, of course, both teams want to win. But unlike Washington, Michigan football has been in this position each of the last two years, only to go out in the first game. The Wolverines even played a sloppy brand of football at times against Alabama in the Rose Bowl and still managed to win, doing so late with pure grit and tenacity.

Washington has been to the playoff before (in 2016) but none of these players were around for that. But nearly all of the Wolverine playmakers have had the sour taste in their mouth of an early ending, and that should resonate in this one.

Both teams are of the variety that have found ways to win close games and Washington has been in that position significantly more than Michigan, having won eight games by one score. But Michigan has been through arguably more adversity, having to win the biggest games without Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines while having injuries at key positions, all while being spoken of as persona non grata in the college football world due to an alleged scandal.

Washington may have long been an underdog, but it’s Michigan with the most to prove.

Returning talent

Photo: Isaiah Hole
Photo: Isaiah Hole

First, it should be noted that Washington QB Penix is a sixth-year player who has experience beating Michigan (2020 at Indiana). And you can’t teach experience. But the Wolverines are loaded with even more experience across the board and have a lot of fourth-, fifth- and even sixth-year leadership on this team.

As Jim Harbaugh often says, players get better at football by playing football, and Michigan has a lot of players who have played a lot of football. It always seems like those veteran players come up in big moments, from Mike Sainristil to Mike Barrett to Trevor Keegan to Blake Corum. OK, we’re just naming captains here, but that’s the type of group Michigan has. What’s more, Michigan is known as a team that doesn’t make mistakes. If the Wolverines lose, it would likely be because they played unlike themselves.

It will still be a tall task, but if any Michigan team was up for the challenge, it’s this one.

Washington will be under a lot of pressure

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Arguably more so than Michigan, and we’re not just talking about the pressure of playing in the national championship game.

We’ve referred to this already, but the complementary nature of the team should help Michigan immensely. If Michigan can force the Huskies to play its brand of football (as its tended to with most teams), Washington will need to make the most out of every drive offensively, while desperately needing to get the ball back on the other side. The Wolverines want to limit possessions while Washington wants to get as many as it can so it can throw more downfield. Missed opportunities don’t usually matter as much because other teams aren’t, as Joel Klatt often calls the maize and blue, a boa constrictor.

Against defenses like Washington’s, Michigan customarily puts up around 45-50 points per game playing a very methodical brand of offense, all while the defense suffocates the other side. Sure, this is a much more explosive and capable offense than what Michigan has seen, but if the defense can limit the scores while the offense looks more like it has against similarly ranked defenses, it will be awfully difficult for the Huskies on Monday.

Michigan still hasn’t even played its perfect game yet

Photo: Isaiah Hole
Photo: Isaiah Hole

The past two years, we saw Michigan come out guns a-blazing in the biggest games — think Ohio State in 2021-22, Penn State in 2022 and Washington and Wisconsin in 2021. This year, Michigan has had dominant performances (at Nebraska, Minnesota, and Michigan State) but none were of the variety where it felt like we were seeing the Wolverines operating at full capacity.

Considering what we know this team is capable of and that it’s been a mantra all year of ‘natty or bust,’ expect this Michigan team to come out with its hair on fire.

Both teams can empty out the playbook in this one, but if there’s one team that likely has a lot up its sleeve compared to the other, it’s Michigan. Because it hasn’t needed its A game to beat the teams on its schedule to this point. Now, might as well empty the bag.

Story originally appeared on Wolverines Wire