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Sugar Bowl preview: 3 areas of focus for Washington-Texas

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The Rose Bowl between Alabama and Michigan might garner more headlines, but the Sugar Bowl nightcap featuring Washington and Texas will arguably turn out to be the more entertaining affair.

History is on the line with both teams looking for their first national championship berth in the College Football Playoff era, and offensive fireworks are expected to be on full display in New Orleans.

Here are three areas of focus that will decide who will be victorious and advance to the title game.

Washington O-line vs. Texas D-line

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If you like big-boy football, may we direct your attention to Washington's award-winning offensive line against one of the country's best defensive fronts? The Huskies claimed the Joe Moore Award this season as the top unit in the nation while the Texas interior combo of T'Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy has dominated opponents throughout the campaign.

The Longhorns' defensive front must get to Penix throughout because the secondary likely can't be trusted to hold up against Washington's talented trio of receivers. Penix was only sacked 11 times all season - fourth in the country - and will pick apart any team if given the time. That time in the pocket allowed the standout quarterback to lead the nation's top passing attack at 342 yards per game. As Texas ranks outside the top 90 in passing yards allowed, the defensive line must get pressure to keep Penix from throwing it all over the field.

While Penix and the passing attack will get most of the focus from Texas, it's far from the only area of concern from Washington. Dillon Johnson has cranked up the production in the ground game down the stretch, piling up over 135 yards per contest in the final five contests. He was especially crucial in the Pac-12 title game win over Oregon, topping the 150-yard mark on the ground and finding the end zone twice.

It's highly unlikely that Washington can win a defensive battle with Texas as the Huskies' defensive unit simply doesn't have the same talent level as the Longhorns'. The Pac-12 champs need the scoreboard to be active should they stand a chance at advancing to the national title game. The battle between the lines will arguably be the biggest deciding factor in whether that happens.

Converting in the red zone

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Texas is one of the nation's most complete teams with nary a weakness to be found ... until it gets inside the opponent's 20-yard line. The Longhorns' offense moves the ball at a top-10 rate but sputters greatly once it approaches the end zone. The Big 12 champs sit an astonishing 121st of 133 FBS teams at converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, finding paydirt just under 50% of the time. Those issues cost them greatly in the lone loss of the season, scoring a total of three points in three red-zone trips versus Oklahoma.

Washington doesn't experience the same issues in the red zone, with the Huskies cashing in touchdowns a whopping 70% of the time, which ranks 19th nationally. If this game is decided by who converts best in the red zone, Washington will likely be the team dancing in confetti late Monday night.

However, there's reason for hope for Sarkisian and the Longhorns' offense in the red zone as Washington struggles to stop teams at almost the same level as Texas does to score. The Huskies sit 119th in the nation at preventing touchdowns inside their 20-yard line with opponents scoring six over 70% of the time. The Texas defense is elite all over the field but especially when backed up inside the 20, allowing touchdowns only 45% of the time to rank ninth nationally.

Offensive coaching battle

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Texas enters the contest knowing it likely has the best offensive play-caller in the sport with Sarkisian. The veteran coach has long been revered for the way he calls his offense, but he really established his footprint during his time as Alabama's offensive coordinator. His slogan of "all gas, no breaks" made its way to Austin where his ideas continue to stand out.

"It's aggressive. He's like a wolf," offensive lineman Christian Jones told Ralph Russo of The Associated Press. "He's very out there with the calls."

Sarkisian has history in the CFP with perhaps his finest play-calling performance coming in the 2021 national championship in his final game with Alabama. The veteran coach identified a major mismatch between Devonta Smith and the Ohio State defense and used the Heisman winner all over the field in a variety of formations. The final numbers were devastating to the Buckeyes - an absurd 12 catches for 215 yards receiving and three touchdowns in a single half of football.

There's nobody of Smith's ability on this Texas team, but Xavier Worthy and Adonai Mitchell both have game-breaking potential. It'll be very intriguing to see what Sarkisian has schemed up for quarterback Quinn Ewers and the offense with over three weeks of prep.

If Sarkisian is the country's best offensive coach, you don't have to go too far down the page to find the head coach/coordinator combo of Kalen DeBoer and Ryan Grubb. The duo has transformed Washington's offense to lead the country in passing yards in the last two seasons. DeBoer is heavily involved in planning, but it's Grubb who calls the plays on gameday.

It's clear both men have full trust in Penix to execute at a high level in the biggest situations. A perfect example of trust in a creative game plan came in the Apple Cup against Washington State, with Penix running an option play to perfection to convert a crucial 4th-and-1 and seal the win.

The game total for the Sugar Bowl currently sits at 63.5, almost 20 points higher than the Rose Bowl contest between Alabama and Michigan. That's a testament to the reputation both offensive staffs have entering play. It's likely both will have excellent schemes to create space for playmakers, which could leave things to in-game adjustments to decide a winner.

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