In September 2021, the second Saturday of college football featured a prime-time matchup between the Michigan Wolverines and the Washington Huskies in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Looking back at the state and perception of the programs at the time makes it even more shocking to see the teams facing off Monday night with the College Football Playoff national championship on the line.
That night, Michigan was unranked and coming off a 2-4 record during the pandemic season, and Jim Harbaugh's base pay had been reduced by half and tweaked to include performance incentives that could make him whole by year's end. The Wolverines hadn't beaten Ohio State since 2011.
Washington was coached by Jimmy Lake, who produced some success during the pandemic season, going 3-1 but missing the Pac-12 title game due to COVID-19 protocols. But internally, Lake's program was a mess. That fact spilled into the public view later that season when Lake shoved a player on the sidelines. Then-Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen, now in the role USC, fired Lake before the Huskies' disastrous 4-8 season was complete.
That Michigan-Washington game was the start of something special for the Wolverines, as it turned out. A sophomore running back named Blake Corum carried the ball 21 times for 171 yards and three touchdowns, and Michigan won 31-10. By season's end, the Wolverines' revamped physical style led them to a resounding win over the Buckeyes, a Big Ten championship and a trip to the CFP. The Wolverines have now accomplished those feats three straight times.
While Michigan prepped for its first CFP, Cohen had a coaching search on her hands. She nailed it, plucking Kalen DeBoer from Fresno State. DeBoer's first big move was to entice Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr., whom DeBoer coached when he was offensive coordinator in Bloomington, out of the transfer portal.
Very quickly — and quietly — the pieces were now in place for the most surprising CFP championship game of the 10 years with the four-team format. These proud programs each shared national championships in the 1990s — Washington in 1991 (after beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl) and Michigan in 1997 — but one will rule the college football world Monday night.
Michigan opened as a 4.5-point favorite after beating Alabama, 27-20, in overtime at the Rose Bowl, but this Washington team has thrived all season while being doubted, even after proving itself again and again.
Here are five things to watch as the Wolverines and Huskies pursue immortality at NRG Stadium in Houston on Monday (4:45 p.m. PST; ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNews, ESPN Deportes).
How much can Michigan take from its Ohio State experience with his Washington team?
As Harbaugh evaluated the deficiencies of his program after 2020, he kept coming back to the reality that, for him to get his alma mater back to the top of the sport, Michigan had to start beating Ohio State.
And what did Ohio State look like? Well, the Buckeyes were built like a bright-red Ferrari, with future NFL rookie sensation CJ Stroud at quarterback, throwing passes to future NFL wide receivers Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Ohio State was so loaded that Marvin Harrison Jr. rarely got on the field that season as a true freshman.
Harbaugh knew he had to build a defense that schematically could limit a pristine passing offense and supplement it with an offense that ate up yards — and time — on the ground. He hired a young defensive coordinator named Mike Macdonald from John Harbaugh's Ravens staff, handing him the former task. And, after a few years toying around with a spread offense, Harbaugh went back to his roots, chiseling a dominant running attack behind a grisly offensive line.
Obviously, it worked. And what Washington fans should fear Monday night is that the Huskies' vaunted aerial attack won't seem so different than what Michigan has dealt with against Ohio State.
One could make the argument that the veteran Penix is a better college quarterback at this juncture than Stroud was, but, if so, certainly not too much better. One could argue that the trio of Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja'Lynn Polk is on par with the Buckeyes trios as well.
The mind and savvy of DeBoer and his offensive coordinator, Ryan Grubb, are what could be the difference in helping Washington fare better than Ohio State has of late breaking the game open against this Michigan team.
What will Michigan do to pressure Penix?
It seemed that no matter what Texas tried in the Sugar Bowl, the Longhorns could not get to Penix. He deftly avoided trouble en route to completing 29 of 38 passes for 430 yards and two scores.
Meanwhile, no matter what Michigan threw at Alabama's Jalen Milroe in the Rose Bowl, it seemed to work. The Wolverines sacked Milroe five times in the first half, flat-out embarrassing the Crimson Tide offensive line.
Sacking Penix will be a much tougher task, and it will be interesting to see what Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter decides to do. Conventional logic is that you have to pressure a great quarterback at all costs, but if the Wolverines aren't getting there, they're risking giving up the big play in the secondary.
If Michigan has to blitz to get pressure, Penix has shown time and again he can create just enough time to hurt you.
Can Washington stop the run? And, if so, can J.J. McCarthy make the Huskies pay for it?
Nearly every team that plays Michigan devotes most of its resources to forcing the Wolverines to throw. It hasn't worked, because Michigan is stubborn about its ground game and eventually imposes its will, and also because J.J. McCarthy has been good enough when he has been asked to go win a game. (See Michigan's tying drive in the fourth-quarter against Alabama).
Washington is 41st nationally in rush defense, giving up 137.1 yards per game. Texas, playing without starting running back Jonathon Brooks, rushed for 180 against the Huskies, who were undoubtedly more focused on stopping Texas' passing game.
Washington's defense is ranked 94th in total defense, giving up 404.1 yards per game. You could look at Michigan's total offense being 70th nationally and conclude that Washington doesn't have much to worry about, but that would be ignoring who the Wolverines are.
They are not concerned with yardage but controlling the game flow, and they did that so well the first nine games of the season that their starters hardly played in the fourth quarter.
How healthy is Washington running back Dillon Johnson?
Johnson went down in the last minute of the Texas game, aggravating a foot injury he has been dealing with all season. He had to be helped off the field and was in noticeable pain.
DeBoer says that Johnson expects to play Monday night, but how close to full strength he is remains to be seen.
Washington is a pass-heavy team, but Johnson is a key cog in the machine nonetheless. He has kept defenses honest to the tune of 1,162 yards and 16 touchdowns and caught 22 passes out of the backfield.
The guys behind him are inexperienced. Tybo Rogers has 43 carries, Will Nixon 31.
Washington would greatly miss Johnson if he isn't able to play up to standard.
Can Michigan's special teams recover from Rose Bowl miscues?
The Wolverines are lucky to have survived an all-time meltdown on special teams against Alabama.
Michigan muffed a punt that gave Alabama the ball in Wolverines territory, missed an extra-point attempt on a bad snap, missed a field-goal try, averaged just 39.5 yards per punt and muffed a second punt in the game's final minute that nearly lost the game.
The moment was too big for Michigan's special teams, and that can't happen a second time against a team as good as Washington.