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College Football Playoff Picks 2023-24: Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl

Rome Odunze, Washington

Rose Bowl: (#4) Alabama Crimson Tide vs. (#1) Michigan Wolverines

Line: Michigan -1.5

O/U: 44.5

For as strange of an offseason as it has been off the field for Michigan, the Wolverines enter this year's College Football Playoff a perfect 13-0, fresh off their third consecutive Big Ten Title. The program has to feel as though they have something to prove after a pair of short-lived Playoff appearances, and now get an opportunity against Nick Saban and the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama's controversial inclusion in the Playoff aside, the door is open for Saban to claim his seventh National Title with the Tide, this time as the "underdog" in the four-team field.

In a sport increasingly defined by elite quarterbacks and wide receivers, Michigan feels like a bit of a throwback to a different era in college football. That's not to take anything away from J.J. McCarthy, who has had an impressive year, but this Wolverine team is predicated on a power-run attack behind a physical offensive line, with an elite defense going the other way. Blake Corum is fully healthy this time around and will join up with Donovan Edwards to give Alabama's rush defense their toughest challenge of the 2023 campaign. On the outside, the Wolverines don't feature a superstar, but Roman Wilson and Cornelius Johnson provide plenty of explosiveness, while tight ends Colston Loveland and A.J. Barner operate underneath. They should be an interesting test for an Alabama secondary that has several future NFL pieces, most notably the likely first CB off the board this spring in Kool-Aid McKinstry, but has experienced plenty of ups-and-downs. The Tide defense does seem to be playing their best ball at the right time, and I expect them to come out aggressively - this game could end up coming down to the chess match at the line of scrimmage between the Alabama front and Michigan O-Line. The Wolverines have been great up front, but Dallas Turner and company will be fired up and ready to go. It feels like this Tide defense is going to see whether McCarthy has the tools to beat them, a guy who has something to prove himself after several key turnovers in last year's loss to TCU. McCarthy has played big at the most important moments of the 2023 season, but is he ready for this type of stage against this Tide defense? This is the type of game where a quarterback can step up and become a forever campus legend - just ask Stetson Bennett.

We've become accustomed to such dominant Alabama teams that this year's 12-1 finish and SEC Title doesn't feel altogether very special. But, the reality is that this is probably Saban's best coaching job since he's taken over in Tuscaloosa, keeping the Tide on track after a rough September and seemingly getting better each and every week. Quarterback Jalen Milroe has had a turbulent season, but the dual threat has been tremendous over the last two months of the season, and gives this Tide offense an element they haven't had in the past with his legs. Milroe is still prone to the turnover or mistake, which is a concern against an opportunistic Michigan defense, but he has the ability to open up games in a way this Wolverine defense hasn't seen much of on the year. What's even more amazing about Milroe is that he's kept the Tide offense firing even though his supporting cast has felt very un-Alabamaesque, with Jermaine Burton on the perimeter and Roydell Williams and Jase McClellan out of the backfield. Burton has evolved into the big-play threat this team needs, but I am curious if another Tide pass-catcher will step up - Isaiah Bond is the obvious candidate, but both face down a stifling Wolverine secondary. Much like the matchup the other way, the action at the line of scrimmage is also going to play an outsized role. The Tide offensive line has improved drastically after a rough start to the season, but they still face quite the challenge in this one. The Wolverines don't have just one elite pass rusher this season, but they're deep and experienced, the type of defensive front that is going to play well deep into this contest. It feels like whichever group comes out with more energy and an edge in the physicality contest is going to put their team in position to come out on top.

For all the frustration from Florida State fans over their team being left out of the four-team field, all of which I believe to be valid, what a semifinal matchup this one is going to turn out to be. Two of the sport's most recognizable brands, two elite head coaches, and two tremendous football teams set to battle it out in college football's best venue ... what more could you ask for? It should be a good game, too, with neither side having a clear advantage either direction. Michigan was my preseason National Title pick so it feels only right for me to stick with them to conquer the Tide and set the program up for their first in over two decades.

The Pick: Michigan, 31 Alabama, 28

Sugar Bowl: (#3) Texas Longhorns vs. (#2) Washington Huskies

Line: Texas -4

O/U: 64.5

Not since an unfortunate injury to Colt McCoy in the 2009 National Championship Game have we seen a Texas team this close to hoisting a National Title, but standing in their way is the undefeated Washington Huskies and Heisman winner Michael Penix. As opposed to the Rose Bowl, which has the looks of a physical, grind of a football game, the Sugar Bowl has all the makings of a fun, high-scoring affair between two programs looking to prove themselves on one of the sport's biggest stages.

The transfer portal has become somewhat of a boogeyman in the world of modern college football, but it's always a great story to see a situation where it worked out to perfection, as is the case with Penix and Washington. After several injury-plagued seasons at Indiana, Penix connected with his old play-caller Kalen DeBoer, now the head man at UW, and has put together a pair of record-setting seasons. That includes a 2023 campaign in which he has eclipsed 4,000 yards and 36 total touchdowns, while helping Washington to a perfect 13-0. It's not just the fact this Washington offense puts up gaudy stats, it's a genuinely fun team to watch every time they take the field. Penix has unlimited arm strength, and is flanked by arguably the nation's top receiver corps, including Rome Odunze, Ja'Lynn Polk, Jalen McMillan, and Germie Bernard. DeBoer and coordinator Ryan Grubb are masterminds at finding a way to get their playmakers open, and Penix has showed up each and every week. Then there's the unsung heroes of the offense, the O-Line and tailback Dillon Johnson, who provide just enough balance to keep defenses honest. Johnson quietly surpassed the 1,000-yard mark on the year and has been instrumental in Washington's success down the stretch, while the Husky offensive line won the Joe Moore Award as the nation's best. All in all, it's quite the challenge for a Texas defense that has been significantly improved all year, but still is prone to occasional lapses. Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski did come from Washington and may have a few tricks up his sleeve, but what DeBoer and staff have been running is far different from what Kwiatkowski saw under Chris Petersen just a few years ago. The Huskies are going to attack down the field and if this Longhorn defense isn't ready, this one could quickly devolve into a shootout.

Even with several important injuries, the Texas offense keeps on rolling, coming off a Big 12 Championship Game in which they dropped 49 points. Quarterback Quinn Ewers missed several weeks but appears close to 100 percent and should be ready to go. He's still a bit streaky, but there are few quarterbacks in the nation as impressive as the redshirt sophomore when he's on his "A" game - simply go back and watch the tape from the Alabama win. Ewers has plenty of help as well, with Xavier Worthy and Adonai Mitchell on the outside and tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders creating matchup problems underneath. With that being said, I am curious whether the Longhorns will be able to maintain the offensive balance that this has defined this unit in 2023 as they prepare for another game without Jonathon Brooks. Brooks was having a dominant year before a torn ACL in early November and although the Longhorns have managed well without him, these are the types of games where he would make all the difference. C.J. Baxter and Jaydon Blue have been impressive in relief, but it still feels like this unit isn't at complete full strength, which is a problem when you consider who they're facing the other way. With that being said, they should be able to still move the ball against a Washington defense that has been leaky at times this season, although they are coming off a strong showing in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Huskies did a great job disrupting the rhythm of Bo Nix in that one, and they should be able to draw up something creative to do the same against Ewers.

I've been skeptical about both of these teams at different points throughout the season and yet here they are, playing for a chance at a National Championship Game berth. Washington in particular has left quite the impression on me - they've had off weeks and tough matchups, yet have answered the call at every point on the year. Instead of slowing down, they seem to be getting even stronger at the right time, and I think this is the opportunity to show out against a fantastic Texas team. I like them to move on, setting up a National Championship Game featuring two future Big Ten foes for all the marbles.

The Pick: Washington, 41 Texas, 31

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