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CFP Tale of the Tape: Who has the edge at each position group?

Julian Catalfo / theScore

The field of 133 FBS teams is down to two with Michigan and Washington facing off for the national championship Monday in Houston.

Contrasting styles of play should make for a very intriguing matchup between the future Big Ten foes, with both programs in search of their first national title in the playoff era.

Here's how the two teams stack up at each position.


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Although Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh may hail J.J. McCarthy as the best collegiate quarterback Michigan has ever had, he's a distant second in the matchup with Michael Penix Jr. Caleb Williams is likely to be the No. 1 pick in the draft and Jayden Daniels claimed the Heisman, but Penix, the nation's leading passer, is also the best. That was on full display in his surgical performance in the Sugar Bowl as he threw for a whopping 430 yards and two touchdowns.

Penix sits at 4,648 passing yards on the season with 35 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He's the first collegiate quarterback since Patrick Mahomes to have back-to-back 4,500-yard seasons.

McCarthy isn't asked to do nearly as much in the Michigan offense as Penix does for Washington, but he is relied upon heavily to convert crucial third downs and move the offense as efficiently as possible. He's done just that throughout the season, rising to the occasion. However, no one carries the load that Penix does for the Huskies, and he owns a clear edge at the position.

Advantage: Washington

Running back

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Blake Corum once again showed his worth to Michigan in the Rose Bowl, converting two crucial fourth downs and eventually scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime. With two scores against Alabama, Corum is up to 26 on the campaign - by far the most in the country. The phrase "nose for the end zone" is often overused, but it fits the senior star. The Wolverines use Donovan Edwards to give Corum a break, and he's flashed game-breaking potential during his time with the program. However, Edwards only averages 3.5 yards per carry this season - more than a yard shy of Corum's mark.

Dillon Johnson is making a push to compete with Corum in the last few weeks. The Washington rusher has come on strong in the second half of the season, scoring 10 touchdowns in his last six starts. He rushed for at least 80 yards in five of those games as the Huskies leaned on the running game more than they did to start the season. Unfortunately, Johnson now comes with a massive question mark after the Mississippi State transfer was carted off at the end of the Sugar Bowl with a foot injury. If he can't go against Michigan, Washington will enter the contest without an active player who's rushed for over 200 yards on the season.

Advantage: Michigan


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This may be the biggest position advantage on the field - Washington's receiving group ranks above any other team in the country. The depth of the Huskies' pass-catchers is unmatched, as they showed in the Sugar Bowl with five players totaling at least 45 receiving yards. Rome Odunze is worth every headline he gets and has a legitimate argument to be the first receiver taken in the upcoming draft over Marvin Harrison Jr. And it's not just Odunze that Michigan needs to worry about: Ja'Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan are also set for successful NFL careers. The most impressive skill Washington's receivers bring to the table is their ability to make contested catches in coverage.

Michigan simply doesn't rely on its receivers to the same degree as Washington does. The Huskies possess two 1,000-yard pass-catchers this season, while Roman Wilson leads the Wolverines at 735. Wilson showed his quality in one of the biggest plays of the Rose Bowl, adjusting to make a ridiculous leaping grab late in the fourth quarter off a tipped pass to set up the tying touchdown. Cornelius Johnson and tight end Colston Loveland are also good options for McCarthy in the passing attack, but they're a notch below Penix's plethora of weapons.

Advantage: Washington

Offensive line

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Both teams boast one of the country's best offensive lines in what's possibly the closest position-group matchup on the board. The Joe Moore Award is handed out annually to the best offensive line in college football, and the Wolverines captured back-to-back honors in 2021 and 2022 before the Huskies claimed the trophy this season.

Washington's offensive line is built to keep Penix clean in the pocket and let the nation's top passing attack go to work. The Huskies allowed just 11 sacks through 14 games on the season, and Texas couldn't take Penix down at all in the Sugar Bowl. The star passer has shown time and again that he's lethal with time to operate - something the offensive line has given him all season long.

Michigan's offensive line gave up 19 sacks on the season but held Alabama's talented pass-rush to one in the Rose Bowl. That's even more impressive given the absence of preseason All-American guard Zak Zinter. The Wolverines' line isn't asked to hold up in pass protection nearly as much as Washington's, since the Wolverines attempt 13 fewer passes per game. Where Michigan's line thrives is in short-yardage situations, mauling the opponent when necessary for crucial conversions or scores. Both units are first-class, but the Huskies get the slight edge here since they rank ahead of Michigan in both yards per rush attempt and sacks allowed.

Advantage: Washington

Front seven

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Michigan's elite front seven holds a clear advantage over its Washington counterpart. The Wolverines' pass-rush showed its full potential in the Rose Bowl, sacking Jalen Milroe six times and posting 10 tackles for loss. While this year's team doesn't feature a superstar on the edge like Aidan Hutchinson, it's as deep as you'll find - a strength that defensive tackle Kris Jenkins highlighted following last week's victory.

"We preach that we play defense as one cohesive unit," Jenkins told Zach Shaw of 247 Sports. "It's not just one star; everybody's gonna eat if we handle our business and do our jobs. The amount of trust we have in these guys, the work we've been able to put in since the offseason - everybody that has the opportunity to eat's gonna eat."

Running the ball on the Wolverines is a fool's errand, with the front seven allowing just 3 yards per carry on the season. That forces opponents to rely on passing - something that rarely turns out well for them. Michigan is third in the country in passer rating allowed.

Washington's defensive front ranks 86th in yards allowed per rush and struggled to stop that element of Texas' offense in the Sugar Bowl. The Longhorns piled up over 6 yards per carry but had to lean on the pass after two fumbles in the second half put them down multiple scores. When the Huskies play with a lead, their defense thrives, with star edge-rusher Bralen Trice able to tee off on opposing quarterbacks in obvious passing situations. Trice has four sacks in his last four games, capped by a standout performance versus Quinn Ewers in the Sugar Bowl.

Advantage: Michigan


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Michigan's secondary is also among the best - and the Wolverines will need it against Washington's explosive receivers. Will Johnson, arguably the top corner in the Big Ten, will likely draw the task of stopping Odunze on Monday. Mike Sainristil is a constant thorn in the opposition's side, lining up all over the field to confuse quarterbacks. The veteran defensive back has five picks on the season and has taken two back for touchdowns. Overall, the Wolverines rank second nationally in passing yards allowed per game, but they've faced only two top-50 passing attacks this season.

A data point that's frequently been misrepresented during the playoff is Washington's defense ranking 123rd against the pass. While the Huskies do allow 267 yards passing per game, their rank is incredibly misleading given that opponents throw more against Washington than any other team. That's mainly because the Huskies' offense puts so much pressure on the opposition to score quickly to keep up. In terms of passer rating against, the Pac-12 champions are actually inside the top 35 nationally and have beaten two top-20 passers in consecutive games in Ewers and Bo Nix. Jabbar Muhammad has emerged as a shutdown corner and will likely tail the Wolverines' Wilson throughout the game.

Michigan's secondary is superior to Washington's, but it will have to show it if the Wolverines are to emerge as champions. Given these teams' divergent offensive approaches, the battle between the Huskies' receivers and the defensive backs from Michigan will go a long way toward deciding Monday's outcome.

Advantage: Michigan

Special teams

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In the semifinals, both teams looked awful in the return game, each fumbling to set up a touchdown for the opposition. Michigan nearly took it a step further with a botched fair catch in the dying minutes that almost gifted Alabama a winning score. Extra possessions will be key in this contest, so look for both squads to spend plenty of time practicing fielding punts this week.

Considering they are meeting in the national championship, it's no surprise that Michigan and Washington haven't punted much: Through 14 games each, the teams total 48 and 41 punts, respectively. Both programs have solid kickers who connect on at least 80% of their field goals, but they arrive in Houston with different levels of confidence. Washington's Cody Gross was crucial to the Huskies' win in the Sugar Bowl, supplying the final nine points versus Texas in the second half. On the other side, Michigan's James Turner missed a late 49-yard field goal versus Alabama and also saw a botched snap ruin an extra-point attempt. The kicking unit rebounding from those struggles could be crucial to a Wolverines win.

Advantage: Draw


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Jim Harbaugh is one of the most recognizable people in the sport, and Kalen DeBoer could walk uninterrupted through virtually every airport in America. However, both have returned incredible winning rates at every stop in their coaching careers.

The biggest question around Harbaugh is whether this is his final game with the Wolverines. Another suspension probably looms for the veteran coach, so a return to the NFL looks likely regardless of Monday's result. He'd love nothing more than to deliver the one thing missing from his collegiate coaching resume to his beloved alma mater. Michigan's coaching staff was exceptional in taking down Alabama, with defensive coordinator Jesse Minter getting pressure on Milroe all game and offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore confusing Nick Saban's outfit by varying tempo and huddling. Perhaps no college football staff knows its identity and plays to its strengths like the Wolverines.

DeBoer has an astonishing record through stops at the NAIA level, Fresno State, and now Washington. Defeating Texas improved his overall mark to 104-11 overall. He's 25-2 in his tenure with the Huskies and has shown time and time again that he's best at decision-making in a close contest - Washington has won 10 straight games by 10 points or less.

However, there are serious questions as to whether the pass-heavy Huskies can properly kill a game off and run out the clock. That was evident from Texas' furious late comeback in the Sugar Bowl. For that reason, the Wolverines narrowly get the nod here.

Advantage: Michigan (slight)

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