Tomorrow's Pac-12 championship game represents the culmination of two programs whose paths to the title game could scarcely have been more different. On one hand, the Washington Huskies were the trendy preseason pick for breakout team among college football’s national media, and began the year at No. 14 in the preseason AP poll despite finishing 7-6 and unranked in 2015. On the other hand, the Colorado Buffaloes were widely regarded as the creampuffs of the Pac-12 since joining the conference in 2011, and from 2011 to 2015 amassed a 5-40 record against in-conference opponents. Picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South division at the conference’s media event in July, the Buffs instead became the biggest surprise in college football by finishing the regular season at 10-2.
Whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s game, it is certain to be historic. It features the only two-time winner of the Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Award in Washington’s Chris Petersen, against the man almost certain to win the award this year in Colorado’s Mike McIntyre. Washington’s last Pac-12 title came in 2000, while Colorado last won its conference as a member of the Big 12 in 2001. And neither team has played for a national championship in the College Football Playoff era, nor the BCS era that preceded it, though Washington’s path to this year’s playoff is much clearer than Colorado’s.
On the field, both teams share similarities in their construction. Washington and Colorado’s defenses rank Nos. 10 and 13 in scoring and Nos. 17 and 13 in total defense, with future NFL players comprising the secondary. Offensively, Myles Gaskin and Phillip Lindsay rank Nos. 2 and 3 among Pac-12 rushers in yards per game, while Shay Fields’s 68.3 yards per game sits between John Ross’s 89.3 and Dante Pettis’s 65.6.
The biggest X-factor in this game is going to come from the production each team sees from its quarterback. Colorado’s 6-4, 230 lb. Sefo Liufau doesn’t play quarterback so much as he plays a physical running back who also passes, as his tendency to run the ball between the tackles represents a huge part of the Buffs’ ground game. If Washington’s best-in-the-conference rushing defense is able to mitigate the threat posed by his legs, though, it’s not hard to look favorably upon Washington’s chances against a one-dimensional passer with players like Budda Baker, Sidney Jones, Kevin King, and Taylor Rapp dropping into coverage downfield.
The Huskies have feasted this season upon opponents by jumping out to big first-half leads, then methodically running the ball and killing the clock during the game’s stretch run. Though Colorado’s pass defense is as good as any Washington has faced this season—they yield just 5.4 yards per attempt, tied for first in all of the FBS—I think that the balanced Washington offense will be the game’s deciding factor as the Huskies bring home their first conference title in a generation and position themselves for a run at the national championship in the College Football Playoff. Washington 31, Colorado 24.
On just about any dimension, this matchup looks like a wash. Pass D stats, rush D stats, turnover margin, third down conversions, third down prevention, big play prevention...the list goes on. Heck, this game between evenly matched teams is further normalized by the fact that it will be played on a neutral field.
So, what to do?
There are a few key stats areas that might help shed some light on a likely outcome. The biggest one is red zone offense. UW leads the PAC with a 77% TD conversion rate. Colorado only converts 65% of those opportunities for 6th best in the PAC.
Another key area is special teams. The kicking functions are relatively similar, but the return prevention stats heavily favor UW.
So, if you were going off stats, you'd say that UW is more likely to win and will likely do so based on one extra drive that gets six instead of three and a field position advantage based on kick/punt returns.
The eyeball test would seem to support that conclusion. While Colorado can claim some advantages—they are an older team with more cumulative experience—UW seems to have more. Browning is a more accurate QB who has more success pushing the ball downfield. The UW defensive tackles would appear to have a matchup advantage over interior of the Buff O-line. Finally, UW's running back depth—in particular with Lavon Coleman playing so well in a reserve role—could be a major factor in a close game.
This is going to be an emotional, tough, balanced game. It will test the patience of fans on both sides and the tempers of both coaches and players. I do like UW to pull it out in the end. I can see them pulling away late, not unlike how Michigan did earlier in the season, and the Huskies making their claim to a playoff invitation. Colorado 23, Washington 35.
I remember early in the season (when both teams began to emerge as contenders) saying that it would be awesome if the Huskies faced Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Well, it has happened; and yes, it is awesome.
Any time the 2016 Huskies have been confronted with a running QB, the immediate fear is a repeat of what Brandon Dawkins did to UW in the Pac-12 opener. Sefo Liufau is a threat as a runner, but he is a downhill bruiser as opposed to a healthy Dawkins and his 4.5 speed. It remains to be seen how effective Liufau will be carrying the ball in this game, but UW's huge, stout defensive line should be able to keep him in check.
Both teams have great defenses, good receiving corps, and star running backs. Both squads are well coached and boast outstanding secondaries. It is a really even game on paper. Whichever team is able to run the ball is likely to come out on top. I like the Huskies’ ability to move it on the ground after Browning loosens up the Buffs' defense in the passing game. UW 31, CU 24.
What is 49-0, Alex?
Just kidding, still. You all know by now that I plagiarize backspindawg with that answer when I get nervous about a game.
I think this will come down to both team's defensive lines. If Washington's can be disciplined and contain Sefo Liufau, then I believe the rest of the defensive units will be able to do their jobs and prevent the Colorado offense from being too explosive. If not, I think Liufau's thunderous mobility (seriously, that guy just trucks people) could force the linebackers and secondary out of position to compensate, opening up room for some drives from CU that will be frustrating for Washington fans.
On the opposite side, if Colorado's defensive line can stuff the run and force Browning to throw 30+ passing attempts, it'll be a struggle. This is especially true because I anticipate that, if they can do the former, they'll probably be putting a lot of pressure on Jake as well, and we saw how that worked out against USC. If the Huskies are disciplined with the run and pass protection, they should be fine.
I think the end result will probably be neither of the two extremes I listed here but somewhere in the middle. With this in mind, I'm calling the Huskies to win it but in a game that's close and stressful enough that it isn't enjoyable at all and I end up spending half the time stress-shouting at whomever I'm watching the game with that I hate football and this is a stupid sport. Final: Washington 31 - 24 Colorado.
Colorado is a hard-nosed, experienced, well-coached team that will pose problems for the Huskies. The key matchup everyone is talking about is Colorado's incredible secondary against Jake Browning and the Husky receivers. The only team this year to really slow them down significantly was USC, simply because they were able to run with the athletes on Washington's defense, and got pressure on Browning. Colorado doesn't have the same caliber of athlete but their DBs are just as skilled, if not more so. Players like S Tedric Thompson will intercept underthrown deep balls, and Chidobe Awuzie, like our Budda Baker, seems to be everywhere on the field.
Because of this strength-on-strength matchup, the UW run game will need to be ready to move the ball. Colorado has an incredibly underrated NT in Josh Tupou, but will need to run the ball in order to take the Colorado secondary's attention away from Husky receivers. When the Buffs have the ball, Washington will need to keep doing what it has done all season, which is not to allow big plays, and make the opposing offense earn every yard. Colorado can be dangerous with the experience across the board and three stellar WRs, but it's QB Sefo Liufau's running that should scare this Washington offense. He's not a burner, but at 6'4" 240 pounds, he can break tackles and run guys over. The physical running of both he and RB Phillip Lindsay will be something to watch, especially without UW's physical stalwart in the middle, Azeem Victor. Keishawn Bierria, D.J. Beavers, and the rest of the LBs will need to be alert to designed runs and scrambles in the red zone.
How will Washington react if the offense is frustrated by Colorado's DBs? They'll give Dante Pettis and John Ross a lot of attention, so it will be up to Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia, and the TE duo of Will Dissly and Drew Sample to get open and catch the ball. However, the ultimate X-factor for this offense is Chico McClatcher, and he will get his opportunities on Friday night.
So where does this leave us? I think Washington defensively puts the team in a position to win. Will they totally shut down Colorado? Probably not, but it will be the offense that determines if we win this game. A few turnovers, and not taking advantage of chances in the red zone, will give Colorado the game. Outside of that happening, Washington's defense will take care of the rest. Chico McClatcher has another good day with key catches on screen passes, Lavon Coleman has a few big second-half runs, and Jake Browning finds the end zone with his legs once. Washington pulls away late, 34-20.