Sugar Bowl preview: Washington, Texas both trying to end long national title droughts

Sugar Bowl: No. 2 Washington vs. No. 3 Texas (CFP semifinal)

Location: New Orleans

Date: 8:45 p.m. ET, Jan. 1

TV: ESPN

Line: Texas -4

Total: 63.5

How these teams got here

Washington (13-0): The Huskies have been incredible in the two seasons of the Kalen DeBoer era. Washington hired DeBoer from Fresno State after a 4-8 season in 2021 and the addition of DeBoer and former Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr. paid immediate dividends. The Huskies made the biggest leap of anyone in college football a season ago and finished 11-2 after beating Texas in the Alamo Bowl.

This year, Washington was even better. Penix became a Heisman finalist as the offense has averaged over seven yards a play. The Huskies started the season with a statement win over Mountain West champion Boise State and then easily dispatched Michigan State before conference play began.

From there, Washington established itself as the best team in a very deep Pac-12. But there were some close calls along the way. Washington needed a missed field goal to avoid overtime in a 36-33 home win over Oregon on Oct. 14 and then looked lethargic the following week in a 15-7 win over Arizona State.

The Huskies didn’t win a game by more than 10 the rest of the season as they beat Oregon State 22-20 in a downpour in Week 12 before needing a last-second field goal to beat in-state rival Washington State to end the regular season.

The Pac-12 title game brought a rematch with Oregon, and Washington jumped out to a big lead before Oregon came back in the second half to go in front. But two touchdowns in the fourth quarter preserved Washington’s undefeated season and sealed a playoff berth in a 34-31 win.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 01: Washington Huskies head coach Kalen DeBoer and quarterback Michael Penix Jr. (9) meet on the field at the conclusion of the PAC-12 Championship Game between the Oregon Ducks and the Washington Huskies Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Marc Sanchez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Washington has won 24 games over the last two seasons with QB Michael Penix Jr. and coach Kalen DeBoer. (Photo by Marc Sanchez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Texas (12-1): The Longhorns are in the College Football Playoff for the first time and scored the school’s first 12-win season since an undefeated 13-0 season ended with a loss to Alabama in the BCS title game at the end of the 2009 season.

Texas announced that it was a contender in Week 2 when it took down Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The win vaulted the Longhorns from No. 11 to No. 4 in the AP Top 25 and they stayed there the rest of the season, even after a 34-30 loss to Oklahoma on Oct. 7.

Texas overcame a 10-point second-half deficit in that game and took the lead with 1:17 to go. But Oklahoma drove down the field as Dillon Gabriel found Nic Anderson for a 3-yard TD pass with 15 seconds to go.

The Longhorns enter the playoff on a seven-game win streak despite QB Quinn Ewers missing two games because of a shoulder injury sustained in a 31-24 win over Houston and a season-ending knee injury to leading rusher Jonathon Brooks.

Brooks was injured in Texas’ win over TCU on Nov. 11 and the Longhorns’ offense has somehow not missed a beat without him. After a 26-16 win at Iowa State, Texas outscored Texas Tech and Oklahoma State 106-28 in its last two games of the season.

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 02: Texas Longhorns quarterback Quinn Ewers (#3) lifts the Big 12 championship trophy during the Big 12 Championship football game between the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma State Cowboys on December 02, 2023 at AT&T Studium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Texas QB Quinn Ewers had the best game of his career in the Longhorns’ win over Oklahoma State in the Big 12 championship game. (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Players to know

Washington RB Dillon Johnson: Penix is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and receivers Rome Odunze, Ja’lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan will all be playing on Sundays in the near future. But don’t overlook the role that Johnson has played in Washington’s offensive success in 2023.

The former Mississippi State running back has logged at least 16 carries in each of Washington’s last six games. He rushed 26 times for 256 yards and four scores as the Huskies put up 52 points against USC and had 28 carries for 152 yards and two scores against Oregon.

He was also pivotal in Washington’s Week 4 win over Arizona. The Huskies won that game 31-24 despite Penix not throwing a TD pass. Johnson rushed 16 times for 91 yards and two scores and had a season-high five catches for 48 yards.

For the season, Johnson has 201 carries for 1,113 yards and 14 scores. If Texas puts all its focus into stopping Washington’s passing game, Johnson and Washington’s big offensive line will get chunks on the ground.

Texas WR Adonai Mitchell: The former Georgia wide receiver has helped unlock the Texas passing offense in 2023 by giving Ewers another top target to go along with leading receiver Xavier Worthy. Worthy suffered an ankle injury in the second half of the Big 12 title game win over the Cowboys but has been practicing and is expected to play on Monday.

If Worthy isn’t at 100%, Mitchell could be an even bigger part of the Texas offense. He leads the team with 10 touchdown catches and has 51 catches for 813 yards. He had three catches for 78 yards and two scores against Alabama and had six catches for 109 yards and a TD against Oklahoma State. He’s been a big-game wide receiver throughout his college career.

In 2021, Mitchell had four TD catches as a freshman but two of those came in the College Football Playoff. He had two catches for 34 yards and a score against Michigan and then two catches for 50 yards and a TD against Alabama.

A year ago, Mitchell played in just six games due to injury and caught three touchdown passes. And just like in 2021, two of those came in the CFP. He had three catches for 43 yards and a score in the Bulldogs’ 42-41 win over Ohio State, and then his only catch in Georgia’s title game blowout of TCU came on a 22-yard score.

If Mitchell scores on Monday, Washington could be in real trouble. His teams are 15-0 when he has at least one TD catch.

What’s on the line

Washington: The Huskies are looking for their first undefeated season since 1991. That’s the only time Washington has ever claimed a national title as Billy Joe Hobert and Mario Bailey led the Washington offense.

Washington is also hoping for its first CFP victory. The Huskies’ only other playoff appearance came after the 2016 season where Washington lost to Alabama in the Peach Bowl.

Texas: The Longhorns are looking for their first national title since Vince Young scampered into the end zone against USC to win the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2005 season. And even though Texas is heading to the SEC, the Big 12 would probably take a small bit of pride in a Texas win. Texas would be just the second Big 12 team after TCU to play for the national title in the CFP era.

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