College Football Playoff championship picks: SN experts favor Michigan over Washington

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The four-team College Football Playoff era will end with a perfect champion. 

No. 1 Michigan (14-0) and No. 2 Washington (14-0) will meet at NRG Stadium in Houston Monday. Game time is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. 

Michigan is a 4.5-point favorite. The Wolverines beat No. 4 Alabama 27-20 in an overtime-thriller at the Rose Bowl, and Jim Harbaugh has the Wolverines one step closer to a national championship with a core led by quarterback J.J. McCarthy and running back Blake Corum. Michigan allows 10.2 points per game as the nation's top scoring defense. 

Washington is no ordinary underdog. The Huskies beat No. 3 Texas 37-31, and Heisman Trophy runner-up Michael Penix Jr. passed for 430 yards and two TDs. The Huskies have won 21 straight games under second-year coach Kaleb DeBoer, and this is a chance to send the Pac-12 out with a national championship. 

SN's seven-person panel picked the championship game, and four of our experts picked the Wolverines. Our panel was 1-5 S/U and 1-5 ATS in the Alabama-Michigan game and 4-2 S/U and 4-2 ATS in the Washington-Texas game. Mike DeCourcy was the only one who swept the semifinals.

The championship game is much more polarizing for our panel. Sporting News staffers make their picks for the CFP championship game: 

MORE: McCarthy says Michigan needed 'even playing field' after Ohio State stole signals

Michigan vs. Washington predictions 

Bill Bender: Michigan 35, Washington 28 

Yes, that time Michael Penix Jr. shredded Michigan while with Indiana in 2020 is making the rounds, but the last time Michigan faced Washington in 2021 Blake Corum was the story. He had 177 yards and three TDs in a 31-10 victory. It's just another reminder that people believe what they want to believe. This is a stylistic fight, for sure. If Washington's offensive line gives Penix enough time, then he will have enough success against the Wolverines' secondary. If Washington can't stop the run or force a few mistakes from J.J. McCarthy, then they are in trouble. Look for Michigan to learn from last year's loss to TCU here, and the carry-over effect from beating Alabama is real. It's tight, but Jim Harbaugh delivers the program's first national title since 1997. Where he goes afterward is the real mystery.

Bill Trocchi: Washington 33, Michigan 31 

Washington was my pick before the semifinals, and I see no reason to change. Michael Penix Jr. reverted to the player he was in the first half of the season against Texas, and he and that receiving crew put together a brilliant game on the indoor track at the Superdome. This one will be indoors as well, and as good as Michigan’s secondary can be, Washington’s passing game still makes plays against good coverage. Can Penix play at that level two games in a row? Probably not to that level, but close should be enough.

Michigan was jittery against Alabama, with J.J. McCartney’s near pick to start the game, a botched extra point, a missed field goal, several punt return misadventures and some iffy flea-flickers. It still managed to win, in no small part thanks to offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore scheming up some perfect plays at key times. Texas was supposed to bully Washington, and it couldn’t do it. Michigan will try to do the same, but Penix will have the final answer in a back-and-forth affair.

MORE: Latest betting odds, trends for national title game

Mike DeCourcy: Michigan 28, Washington 22 

Washington has the better quarterback. That difference is significant, but not impossible to bridge. Michigan has a better running game, that advantage exacerbated if Washington's Dillon Johnson is compromised or unavailable because of the injury late in the Sugar Bowl semifinal. The Huskies have an edge at wideout. The Wolverines have more experience in these all-or-nothing games. It seems kind of even. Until we consider the Michigan pass rush. That’s the one element of this game that appears to be decisive.

Michigan plays great D; they're first in the nation in total defense. But the component that won the Alabama game was the pass rush that sacked elusive Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Milroe six times. That's coming for Washington’s extraordinary Michael Penix. He played well when pressured by Texas, but the Horns don't chase down QBs at the same level. 

Crissy Froyd: Michigan 34, Washington 27

The Pac-12 looks to go out with a bang in its final year of existence, and the conference will look to do that behind Washington’s No. 10 nationally ranked offense. While Washington has been electric on that side of the ball and standout quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is coming off of an explosive performance, they will face a test like none other as they go up against the No. 1 total defense and No. 2 passing defense.

Outside of Penix, one of the most important offensive pieces Washington has is running back Dillon Johnson, who is banged up after being carted off the field. Not ideal when facing the No. 8 rushing defense in the country. Washington has had its fun this season but it ends as it faces a true impregnable fortress unlike anything it has come across this season. Michigan wins and gets its first undisputed national title since 1948.

Edward Sutelan: Washington 35, Michigan 31

Michigan man-handled Alabama in a way few teams have accomplished since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. But Washington is a much better offense than the Crimson Tide. The offensive line is the best in the nation, its wide receivers rival any starting trio – perhaps even in the NFL – and Michael Penix Jr. is poised under pressure with a dangerous deep ball and impressive pocket movement.

Michigan is going to have its chances on offense. If Texas was able to run the ball effectively with CJ Baxter, then the Wolverines will torch the Huskies a few times with Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards and J.J. McCarthy. But can McCarthy use his arm to keep the Wolverines involved in a shootout? He's looked shaky over the past several games, and even against a vulnerable defense, a mistake or two could be the difference. 

MORE: Four-team CFP era sent off in style

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Nick Musial: Michigan 30, Washington 24

Can Michigan's defensive line get home against the Joe Moore award-winning UW offensive line and disrupt Michael Penix Jr.? If so, Jim Harbaugh's crew should be well-positioned to hoist some more hardware, as Penix Jr. hasn’t been nearly as efficient as a passer (77.7 passer rating) when under duress.

Michigan’s No. 2 ranked pass defense has a chance to keep Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan, and Ja'lynn Polk in check, and the potential absence of RB Dillon Johnson weakens Washington's ground attack. An inefficient Washington run defense gets worn down over four quarters by Sherrone Moore’s offense, helping the Wolverines earn CFP immortality.

Vinnie Iyer: Washington 27, Michigan 24

When Michigan meets Washington in a preview of their monumental initial all-Big Ten matchup next October, in Seattle, expect the team with the difference-making former Big Ten quarterback to win. Michael Penix Jr. ripped the Wolverines' defense when playing for the Indiana Hoosiers in the 2020 season, and he outduels J.J. McCarthy like he did Joe Milton. 

McCarthy will be feeling the spirit of Tom Brady vs. the Falcons in Super Bowl 51, but Penix will be more inspired by playing in the city where Washington legend Warren Moon once played. The college football gods, already angered by NIL, the transfer portal, ridiculous radical realignment and all those blowouts in meaningless bowls, just cannot reward Michigan one more time for sign-stealing. Washington brings it home one last time for the Pac-12 before becoming a consistent threat to win the Big Ten.

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Bill Bender is a national college football writer for The Sporting News.