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College Football Playoff first look: Previewing Michigan-Alabama and Washington-Texas

Written by 
Published in Breaking News
Sunday, 03 December 2023 21:22

The final four-team College Football Playoff field is set, with the selection committee having to make the toughest decision it had ever faced.

We knew going in that history would be made and that at least one team and its fan base would be left with some serious gripes. Would an unbeaten Power 5 champion be left out for the first time? Would the SEC be shunned? Would the No. 1 team going into the conference championship games fall out?

In the end, Big Ten champion Michigan was awarded the No. 1 seed and will face No. 4 Alabama of the SEC in a matchup of two of the sport's bluest blue bloods. In the other semifinal, Pac-12 champ Washington, the No. 2 seed, will face No. 3 Texas of the Big 12.

Here's our first look at the four-team field, including key players, X factors and what each team has to do to claim the national championship Jan. 8 at NRG Stadium in Houston.


No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 4 Alabama
CFP Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Prudential
When: Monday, Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ET
Where: Rose Bowl (Pasadena, California)
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line: Michigan -2

Michigan moved up to the No. 1 spot in the rankings after beating Iowa in the Big Ten championship game, and its reward is playing an Alabama team that is peaking at the right time.

The Crimson Tide offense looks much improved since the beginning of the season, and credit quarterback Jalen Milroe with leading the way. That offense, however, will have its hands full with Michigan's defense, which ranks near the top of most major categories.

While the Wolverines have made it unscathed through the entirety of their season (despite their share of tumult off the field), they will face their toughest test yet to make it to the championship game and get a shot at the national title.

Michigan (13-0)

Key player: RB Blake Corum
Corum tied Michigan's career rushing touchdown record in the Big Ten championship game with his 55th touchdown. He has carried the load for the Wolverines the past few seasons, and the offense has gone through him. He led all FBS running backs with 24 touchdowns and had his third 1,000-yard season. When Corum is productive, it opens up the rest of Michigan's offense and creates an easier path for the passing game. Corum is a team leader as well, and his two touchdowns against Ohio State put Michigan over the top and propelled the Wolverines toward the playoff.

X factor: CB Mike Sainristil
Sainristil doesn't get a lot of the attention, but he has been a leader on Michigan's defense. He came up with two forced fumbles in the Big Ten championship game against Iowa and was integral in stopping the Hawkeyes offense. He had 30 total tackles on the season and four interceptions along with six pass breakups. He started his career at receiver before making the switch to corner, and over the past two seasons has built himself into a potential NFL draft pick on defense.

How Michigan wins: The offense performs at its peak
The offense hasn't been at its best the past few weeks, but it has done enough to stay undefeated. In the postgame news conference after the Big Ten title game, Jim Harbaugh said the team will have to clean up some things up in pass protection and the running game in order to have success in the playoff. The defense has been outstanding all season, but against the teams that Michigan will face in the playoff, the Wolverines will have to put up more points. That means Corum putting up big numbers and quarterback J.J. McCarthy complementing the running game with the passing attack we saw early in the season. -- Tom VanHaaren

Alabama (12-1)

Key player: QB Jalen Milroe
Since his benching against South Florida in Week 3, Jalen Milroe has been one of the most dynamic players in college football. He has accounted for 28 touchdowns and turned the ball over just five times in leading the Crimson Tide to 11 straight wins. His ability to scramble for big gains and buy time in the pocket make him extremely difficult to defend for any defense, but he also has a big arm and has repeatedly connected with his receivers on deep throws. Georgia coach Kirby Smart compared the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Milroe to Lamar Jackson last week because of his acceleration in the open field and arm strength to push the ball down the field. Alabama coach Nick Saban said the Crimson Tide wouldn't be in this position had Milroe not responded to his benching the way he did and continued to improve and "be our point guard." Milroe's decision-making has gotten significantly better as the season has progressed, and he said a lot of that is because he's played with more freedom and confidence since Saban told him unequivocally that it was his job.

X factor: OLB Dallas Turner
Turner has been Alabama's biggest disruptor on defense. The junior is the Tide's best pass-rusher and can change the complexion of a game with a big sack or a tackle for loss that kills an opposing offense's drive. Turner leads Alabama with 14.5 tackles for loss, 9 sacks and 13 quarterback hurries. Championship teams need a big-play defender who can cause the opposing offense to get out of its rhythm. The 6-4, 252-pound Turner is that player for the Crimson Tide.

How Alabama wins: Hanging around and being there at the end
Alabama has been one of the more resilient teams in the country. The Tide trailed five times in the second half in SEC games this season and rallied to win. In other words, they know how to win close games, and the more they've played, the more confident they've become in being able to finish games. Alabama's offense isn't necessarily built to get into high-scoring showdowns and having to come back from big deficits. But if the Tide are in the game in the fourth quarter, that's their comfort zone. They don't get rattled, and Milroe has delivered in pressure-packed situations. -- Chris Low


No. 2 Washington vs. No. 3 Texas
CFP Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl
When: Monday, Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m. ET
Where: Caesars Superdome (New Orleans)
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line: Texas -4

New Orleans will be the unlikely site to see Texas coach Steve Sarkisian reunited with the program, Washington, he led for five seasons before leaving for USC. Both teams won titles in their final seasons in their respective conferences, Texas in the Big 12 and Washington in the Pac-12, before realignment moves them to the SEC and Big Ten next year.

In two seasons at Washington, coach Kalen DeBoer has taken the Huskies to new heights, winning 24 of 26 games as they head to the playoff with a national-best 20-game winning streak. Sarkisian's turnaround in Austin didn't happen overnight, but it has taken him just three seasons to restore the Longhorns as a national power. The game will feature two of the nation's top quarterbacks in Washington's Michael Penix Jr. and Texas' Quinn Ewers.

Washington (13-0)

Key player: WR Rome Odunze
Even as quarterback Michael Penix Jr. generated Heisman Trophy consideration, Odunze has always been the Huskies' best player. Whenever the team has needed a big play, Odunze has gotten the call. It happened, most notably, in the final minutes against Oregon in the regular season, when he hauled in the game-winning touchdown. Then it happened again in the Apple Cup when he took an end around to pick up a monumental first down on fourth-and-1 from the Huskies' 29-yard line. Odunze finished the regular season No. 4 in the country in receiving yards (1,326), No. 6 in receiving touchdowns (13) and is sure to be one of the first receivers off the board in the 2024 NFL draft.

X factor: RB Dillon Johnson
As teams devoted more effort to stopping the Huskies' prolific passing offense as the season went along, Johnson became a more valuable asset. He rushed for 615 of his 961 regular-season yards over the last five games, with seven touchdowns in that span. The Mississippi State transfer ran 28 times for 152 yards and two scores to help take down the Ducks on Friday night and should be a key factor in this game.

How Washington wins: Penix finds his early-season form
At the halfway point of the season, Penix was the clear Heisman front-runner. He had the numbers. He passed the eye test. There wasn't anything, it seemed, that could slow him down. But as the season went along, something felt off. He was still good enough to lead the Huskies to a 12-0 mark and ranked No. 2 in passing yards (3,899), but his accuracy regressed and the big plays weren't as plentiful. When he's at his best, though, Washington can beat anyone, as evidenced by the Huskies' 34-31 win over the Ducks on Friday, when Penix threw for 319 yards and a score. -- Kyle Bonagura

Texas (12-1)

Key player: DL T'Vondre Sweat
Sweat came back for a super senior year to try to help Texas complete its turnaround. It's fair to say that decision has been a massive success, as Sweat became a force in the interior as the Big 12 defensive player of the year and helped the Longhorns win the conference championship. At 6-4 and 362 pounds, Sweat is literally a massive piece of the Texas defense. But as big as he is, he's so quick and agile that he wreaks havoc even on passing plays, despite having just two sacks on the season, because he draws so much attention that it frees up other players, including 6-1, 308-pound Byron Murphy II, who plays next to Sweat and was the league's defensive lineman of the year. In the conference championship, Sweat even added a touchdown reception and a Heisman pose. The man contains multitudes.

X factor: TE Ja'Tavion Sanders
With the addition of Adonai Mitchell as a receiving threat opposite Xavier Worthy, Sanders has seen a dip in his production, with a few nagging injuries also a factor. Last season, he caught 54 passes for 613 yards and 5 TDs; this year he settled for 31 catches, 502 yards and one score in the regular season. But at 6-4, 243, Sanders is a nightmare matchup for linebackers and a big target for quarterback Quinn Ewers. He can be a key outlet, particularly near the goal line, where Texas has struggled for most of the season, ranking 104th nationally in red zone offense. Sanders averaged 4.2 catches per game last year, down to 2.6 this year. Entering the Big 12 championship game, he'd caught five passes in a game only twice this year, and both times he went over 100 yards, including 114 yards against Alabama. But against Oklahoma State on Saturday, he had a season-high eight catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. Sanders could be the cure for the Longhorns' woes in the end zone if they keep him going, particularly with Worthy's ankle injury suffered against OSU adding concern.

How Texas wins: The offensive line protects Quinn Ewers
The Longhorns have the heft along both lines to match up with pretty much anyone, but with Jonathon Brooks, who had 1,138 yards in 10 games, lost for the season, they'll have to find a back to make the running game a factor. But it will take a strong performance from quarterback Quinn Ewers and the passing game to key the Texas attack. If the offensive line can protect Ewers and keep him upright, the Longhorns have the speed to make big plays on the outside, and the offense has shown the potential to deliver when it's needed most. -- Dave Wilson

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