A Rose Bowl–Style Matchup in Texas

A Rose Bowl–Style Matchup in Texas

College football’s ongoing battle between reality and the theories of “experts.”

Credit: WikiCommons

After college football’s semifinal matchups on New Year’s Day, Washington and Michigan remained the nation’s only two undefeated teams and the only two teams left standing. Each game was decided on its respective final play.  

Up by 7 points in overtime in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Michigan stuffed Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe’s rush up the middle on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line, smothering Milroe at the 2.

Roughly four hours later, near the completion of the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers attempted four potential game-winning passes from inside Washington’s 15-yard line in the game’s final 15 seconds. On the fourth-down play, for which the ball was snapped with just one second remaining, Ewers lofted a pass into the corner of the end zone toward 6’4” Texas wide receiver Adonai Mitchell, who had caught a touchdown pass in that same spot earlier in the fourth quarter. This time, Washington cornerback Elijah Jackson batted the ball away—as the Huskies won their 21st consecutive game across two seasons.

So, Pac-12 champion Washington and Big Ten champion Michigan, which squared off in the 1978, 1981, 1992, and 1993 Rose Bowls (with each winning twice), will now face each other in January for a fifth time. Rather than playing on grass amidst the natural splendor of Arroyo Seco Canyon and the architectural perfection of the Rose Bowl, they will play inside, on turf, in Houston. This time, however, the national championship will be on the line for both teams, so what the game might lack in aesthetic appeal it should make up for in high stakes.

The two squads’ paths to this point have hardly lacked drama. Washington has now won 10 consecutive games by 10 points or fewer, likely becoming the first team in the history of a sport that dates to the 1800s ever to complete that particular hire-wire act. Led by the Heisman Trophy runner-up Michael Penix and the first-team All-America wide receiver Rome Odunze, the Huskies have combined what is probably the nation’s best offense with an opportunistic defense and the illusive, intangible quality of knowing how to win.

Against a schedule that was far easier than Washington’s (but by no means easy), Michigan dominated most of its foes with an excellent defense and a strong offense, winning all but its final three regular-season games and its bowl game by 10 points or more. But the Wolverines had to convert a fourth-and-two from their own 33-yard line with just over 3 minutes left in the Rose Bowl—on a pass from quarterback J.J. McCarthy to running back Blake Corum—to sustain a crucial touchdown drive that tied the game and forced overtime against Alabama.  

It’s interesting that even before the College Football Playoff (CFP), and even before the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) that preceded it, these two teams would have met on the field as #1 and #2 (in the Rose Bowl). This is a matchup that would have happened under any of the sport’s postseason arrangements dating back to the start of the annual Rose Bowl pairing between the then-Pacific Coast Conference and the Big Ten in 1947. In other words, it appears to be a game that was destined to be played.

In the Anderson & Hester College Football Computer Rankings, which I co-created with Chris Hester and which were part of the BCS throughout its 16-year run (1998–2014), Washington is ranked #1 and Michigan #2. In fact, Washington currently has the highest post-New Year’s Day rating (.860) in the rankings’ 30-year history, as no other team has ever played as tough of a schedule through January 1 and gone undefeated. Amazingly, fully half of Washington’s 14 wins have been versus the current top 25. Michigan (.841) is the clear #2 team; no other squad is even close to these two.

Among the other former BCS computer rankings, Billingsley and Colley also rank Washington #1 and Michigan #2. Wolfe ranked Washington #1 and Michigan #2 going into the bowl games and is likely waiting until after the championship game to update his results. (The other two former BCS computer rankings, Sagarin and Massey, no longer publish the versions of their rankings that were used by the BCS.)

Not everyone agrees with this BCS computer consensus, however, as Michigan was seeded #1 by the CFP committee (Washington is #2) and is the clear favorite—according to those in Las Vegas—to win on Monday night.  

In fact, not everyone even agrees that these two remaining undefeated teams are the nation’s two best squads. The ESPN College Football Power Index, which the committee likely looks at when deciding how to rate teams, ranks Michigan 1st but ludicrously ranks Washington 12th.  The ESPN Power Index ranks Washington behind (among others) two-loss Texas (which the Huskies beat), two-loss Oregon (which the Huskies beat twice), four three-loss teams, and four-loss Kansas State.

So, on Monday night, the Huskies will once again get the chance to show the world that they are being underestimated by the so-called “experts”—which is exactly how the Dawgs like it.

In Houston, Michigan will be playing for its first national championship in 26 years, and Washington for its first in 32 years. Refreshingly for many Americans, no Southeastern Conference team will be present in the sport’s showcase event. Instead, it’ll be a classic Rose Bowl-style matchup—staged some 1,500 miles to the east.

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