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2024 Sugar Bowl Preview: Are They Back?

From the ground up, these two programs were years in the making. Now, titans clash on the field.

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Valero Alamo Bowl - Washington v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

For the second straight season, the Washington Huskies will meet the Texas Longhorns down South for a postseason game, this time in the Sugar Bowl as the #2 and #3 seeds respectively in the College Football Playoff.

The History

To understand this match up it starts with implications. For those of us who can’t make the late times to watch the Huskies play or those of us who are turned away from Texas for rivalry reasons, this is to examine everything that may have been missed previously.

Washington v Stanford Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images

The Washington Huskies, a perennial Pac-8 and Pac-10 winner faced a period of about 14 years where the school collapsed under the weight of sanctions placed on them from the 90’s. They even became one of the only power five teams West of the Mississippi to reach 0-12 in the past 30 years. Now, with Chris Petersen’s pieces in play, DeBoer has seemingly revived the program back to the top of the league right before a titanic shift in conference geography. Is Washington back?

The Texas Longhorns meanwhile rank fourth all-time in wins in NCAAF history and after a middling period in the eighties and the nineties it was Coach Mack Brown who brought them roaring back to life with a 158-48 record. The Longhorns didn’t suffer quite the same type of fall as Washington did but they did go 13 seasons without eclipsing 10 wins before this year after doing it 4 of the 6 previous years under Brown. This year marks a potential return to the elite of the sport And the coach? Steve Sarkisian, a former Washington Husky coach who couldn’t cross the eight win regular season mark and was almost out of CFB for good due to personal reasons. If anything, this is a revival for him. Is Texas back?

The answer to each question is yes, both teams are back. And regardless of who walks away with the victory, obtaining two of the top three seeds in all the land is good enough to be taken seriously going forward in what will be a completely revamped CFB landscape next year between conference realignment, affecting both these teams, and the new 12-team Playoff format.

BYU v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

It makes previewing the game a little easier since these teams have just met. Many of the Texas players who ended up declaring for the draft opted out of the 2022 Alamo Bowl which means that this Texas team is almost the same from last year. And after Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. dramatically announced his return to Montlake, it was the defensive players and skill players with remaining eligibility that chose to come back as well. And in the environment that the Alamo Bowl provided, a heavily lopsided Texas crowd, Washington won 27-20.

While it makes for the perfect whiteboard message, Remember the Alamo, it seems to be Washington who is best at playing with chips on their shoulders.

Let’s break it down.

The Resumes

Texas is the only team in this matchup to suffer a loss so far, but to compare the teams let’s look at their three worst wins, wins where the teams failed the eye test and wins where the rest of CFB will always return to justify a lower rank. For Texas it was Kansas State, a 33-30 escape in OT, Houston, a bottom of the Big 12 team that came within one score and a play to win, and TCU who lost in a heart breaker by three points.

These wins were less than stellar for obvious reasons while most of the others were by more than one score. For Texas, star QB Quinn Ewers went down late in the season but still started against Houston giving them only 211 yards of production. They went on to beat the Cougars, but for a team that went 2-7 in conference play and 4-8 overall, it was extremely underwhelming.

Texas Tech v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

This draws familiar comparisons to the Huskies 15-7 win over Arizona State when the team was battling the flu and rain. ASU, a fairly bad team by virtually any metric, held the Huskies to their lowest point total of the season season as they squeaked out an eight point victory in a game that didn’t see an offensive touchdown from the Dawgs.

Texas’s second game to look at is Kansas State, a 5-4 Big 12 team that would likely compare well with Washington’s game against Oregon State for another bad win. Texas squeaked out 33-30, but looking closely it doesn’t appear as devastating. For one, Maalik Murphy made the start in place of an injured Ewers going 1:2 in touchdowns to interceptions. Despite Murphy’s raw talent ,his play as the backup represented a clear stepdown from Ewers.

Against OSU, Washington had to go to their rushing attack as well, but for different reasons. The rain and wind were intense that game so we’d be willing to cut both teams the same slack for these average wins. The only issue is OSU is a noticeably better team than KSU which drives home that for this thread, UW’s resume is better.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 Valero Alamo Bowl Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But what happens when we compare Texas’s win against to TCU to say Washington State? Neither team gets an excuse under the guise that they still won, which is all that fundamentally matters. Starting QB production was low, but both teams found a way to win.

One thing yet separates Washington in terms of resume. The first of which is that Texas played three games against currently ranked teams — one of which is a victory Alabama, and lost one of them. Washington has played four and won every single one of them — to include two against Oregon. In terms of how big it is to beat Oregon twice imagine if Texas got to play Alabama twice and won both times. Legions of football fans would be singing their chorus and supporting what would otherwise be hailed as the best resume around.

So when it comes to resume, a 13-0 Washington shows us what it means to be a master of winning.

The Matchups

Both teams have strong passing games facing off against secondaries that are often considered the weak point of their respective defenses. Comparing the two quarterbacks, Ewers threw for 287 yards and 1.9 TDs per game while Penix Jr, put up 324 yards and 2.5 TDs per game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 04 Washington at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Following what our friends over at Burnt Orange Nation were able to put together in their advanced stats preview, we see that Texas is an expert at using play action to their advantage. In fact, more than half of their dropbacks have been on play action and it’s even more interesting that when looking down the center, the highest targeted region is behind the line of scrimmage with the depth of 0-10 yards targeted heavily as well.

Where has Washington heard this story before? Oregon. Oregon’s signature for a while was to run play action or screen passes behind the line of scrimmage and let their talented skill position players get yards after the catch. Obviously, the undefeated Huskies ended up beating them twice, a matchup the secondary loves although the Ducks cracked 30 points both times.

There will be opportunities for UW’s secondary to get the best of Ewers who has had down games unsettled by coverage mismatches and doesn’t always throw with touch to layer balls in between levels. While giving up yards is the hallmark of a prevent defense, it’s the clamping down on big plays that gives the defense their taste. And one more thing that isn’t talked about enough is the tightening of the defense later on in the season.

It was clear from the first drive that Washington was winning the LOS against Oregon easily and they had their way for most of the game. So what does Texas have on Washington?

A far better defensive line, for sure. The Longhorns boast what is undoubtedly the best 1-2 punch at the defensive tackle spot in T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy II. It’s no secret that the Huskies meanwhile were down on the line this year, not completing QB pressures as much as they should’ve been and sometimes struggling against the run. It helps the Huskies’ cause that Quinn Ewers is nowhere near as mobile as some QBs like Bo Nix and Caleb Williams that have given UW fits with their ability to evade a pass rush and make plays either with their legs or in a scramble drill situation. Ewers is big enough to shrug off tacklers but he won’t take off for 40 yards downfield afterwards or spin and run away from the 2nd guy.

It’s reasonable to take Texas’s offensive line over Washington’s defensive line, but it should be a close matchup. Each side of the trenches features relatively evenly matched groups with the weaker units facing off (Texas OL vs. UW DL) and the stronger ones going head-to-head (Texas DL vs. UW OL). This is the once again the biggest game of the season for Washington and there will certainly be plays where Penix will have ample time but others where Texas’s DTs break through and cause havoc.

Theoretically, it can go either way with the Texas juggernaut getting behind the LOS easily. As well, there are typically more blockers on the offense than attackers on the defense and since more secondary may need to be utilized for the threat that Odunze, MacMillan and Polk provide, this could open up things up. Washington has become infinitely better up there since their October/early November stretch that saw even Stanford getting pressure. How so? Injuries being replaced well and the running back serving as an extra blocker that drives down running back catches.

The Predictions

Washington is a 4-point underdog at DraftKings which means of course that Texas is the betting favorite. They should have a sizable advantage in fan support as the trip from Austin to New Orleans is about 6 hours versus a lengthy plane ride for UW fans coming in from Seattle.

It’s certainly not a unanimous opinion that Washington has no shot. Picks for the Huskies to prevail are in from Bryan Fischer at Fox Sports, Adam Rittenberg of ESPN, Bruce Feldman at The Athletic, as well as 3 of 7 other pickers from The Athletic.

However, both pickers at 247 Sports have Texas scoring into the mid-30’s against the Dawgs with Chris Hummer predicting a one-point Texas win and Brad Crawford calling for a blowout Longhorns victory.

The Conclusion

This game looks set up to become an epic and this is a perfect matchup for not only Texas but also Washington. Texas should be getting to the RB, but can they stop the pass? Similarly for Washington they should be able to weed out the short passes, but can they eliminate the threat that Texas rushing provides?

It’s no doubt that Washington played a tougher schedule while going undefeated, but it’s also no doubt that Texas is indeed the third best team in the nation.

All eyes will be on which story will win, but one question remains. Are they back? Logic says both are. But logic also says one moves on. The Sugar Bowl will decide that on Monday, January 1st, 2024 at 5:45 PST.