Rose Bowl Game - Alabama v Michigan
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No. 1 Michigan and No. 2 Washington have taken different paths to the College Football Playoff National Championship, even though they share a 14-0 record and the privilege of standing as the final two undefeated teams in the sport. 

The Wolverines began the year as one of the top teams in the country and have delivered on those preseason expectations with a third straight Big Ten title and CFP appearance. Star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and the Huskies, meanwhile, have been overlooked in nearly every high-profile spot this season only to prove doubters wrong amid what's now a 21-game winning streak that dates back to the 2022 season. 

Michigan boasts the best scoring margin in the country, defeating opponents by an average of 25.8 points per game, while Washington has won 10 consecutive games by 10 points or less. The Wolverines were a slight favorite in their CFP semifinal win over No. 4 Alabama and got the job done in overtime, while the Huskies, for the third time this season, won outright as the betting underdog over No. 3 Texas

It's in those semifinal wins that we find a few commonalities between these title game participants and possibly a key to Monday night's showdown in Houston. Because while Michigan and Washington share thrilling victoties, both teams probably could have (or should have) had the game wrapped up before the final play and cut the need for defensive heroics to keep their championship hopes alive. 

You could argue that Washington's penchant for drama is simply part of the team's DNA, but inside that locker room after the win, there was the understanding on both sides of the ball that the game maybe should not have been so close. Offensively, there were three second-half drives that ended in field goals instead of touchdowns. On defense and special teams, there were mistakes that allowed the Longhorns to provide some quick-strike answers and have the game tied 21-21 at halftime.   

"It maybe should have been a 14-point game [at halftime], but our own mistakes let them stay inside. So that's what we were stressing: clean up the mistakes, play good football and we'll be alright," senior defensive lineman Zion Tupuola-Fetui told CBS Sports after the game. 

Tupuola-Fetui pointed to the month off between the Pac-12 Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl as a potential cause for some of the "loose ends" in the win against Texas. That's where it could be advantageous for the Huskies to get right back to work in the flow and regiment that has helped them during this magical run.  

 "I think, obviously, you want time to get rid of any nicks and bruises that may have come with this game, but at the same time I do believe that the flip in schedule where we can just stay in game mode is healthy for this team. We've got a way about moving amongst ourselves that helped us get this far, so we're going to be able to tap back into that heading into this final game." 

Michigan faced a similar situation in the Rose Bowl, where the Wolverines defense held Alabama out of the end zone for 40:11 of game time from the third possession of the game until the first minute of the fourth quarter. Special teams miscues and second-half offensive execution set up Alabama with opportunities not only to climb back into the game but hold a one-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter. Everything seemed to be climaxing to another example of a Nick Saban-led Alabama team hanging around long enough to steal the victory from its opponent. But Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy and running back Blake Corum refused to allow this to be another Tua-against-Georgia or Milroe Iron Bowl Miracle moment. 

When the money was on the table, Michigan did its best Washington impression by delivering the biggest plays in the biggest moments. The Huskies have won more close games because they've been in more close games. In the few times when this otherwise-dominant Michigan team has been in a tight spot -- Alabama, Ohio State, even a late-season upset scare at Maryland -- the Wolverines have not been rattled.

That's where we get back to some similarities between the last two teams standing in college football. Washington is old, perhaps one of the oldest elite teams we will ever see in college football. But Michigan has also been building to this point with top-notch player evaluation and development. There are more five-star prospects on Michigan's roster than Washington's but far less than the Alabama and Texas teams that were ousted from the field on New Year's Day. 

Michigan, much like Washington, has grown together in pursuit of greatness and has a confidence that comes with maturity. When things don't go well, such as in those hard-fought semifinal wins, they don't hang their heads and start fighting with each other on the sidelines.   

The advantages Michigan and Washington have had on other teams may not play into this matchup, however. The mistakes that were made by both teams last weekend would be more costly if they re-emerge in the national championship game. That's not lost on anybody, especially the underdog Huskies, who face their toughest test of the season. 

"Every margin of error just gets smaller and smaller every week, from the start of the season and now into November and December," Washington offensive lineman Roger Rosengarten told CBS Sports. "Now that we're into January, that margin of error is very slim. It's the two best teams in the country, No. 1 and No. 2, so that margin of error is very small."  

The smallest margins and the highest stakes for two of the most experienced and impressive teams of the 2023 season. College football fans everywhere get the lucky bounce in seeing the four-team playoff model finish with such a fantastic matchup.