When the No. 2 Washington Huskies and the No. 3 Texas Longhorns face off in the Sugar Bowl for a shot in the CFP Final, it will be the second time in just over a year that the two squads have faced off in the postseason.
In the 2022 edition of the Alamo Bowl, Washington managed to hold off a late push from Texas — who had the ball down one score with time left on the clock. The Longhorns fought to the final whistle, closing the game with a 46-yard fourth-down conversion from Quinn Ewers to Casey Cain, trying to pop an explosive play and send the game to overtime. That late push from Texas, which scored 17 of its 20 points in the second half, was required in part because of the offense’s inability to get things going early due to two key opt-outs, Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson.
The Longhorns relied on that pair to pace the offense during the regular season, but with both players protecting their bodies for the NFL draft, as well as star linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, Texas had to try and figure out how to run an offense without its top two options. They didn’t and it amounted to just three points in the first half.
When running back Jonathon Brooks cracked the scoreboard, who was himself limited due to a hernia injury that required offseason surgery, the Longhorns seemed to have figured out the offense and how to move the ball against Washington.
This year, Texas is without those key opt outs but will be without the services of Brooks, who missed the last three games with a torn ACL. Unlike last year, however, they go into the matchup with Washington knowing what they have at running back, with CJ Baxter, Jaydon Blue, Keilan Robinson, and Savion Red all logging key snaps following Brooks’s injury. The ability to run the ball consistently may be a not-so-secret weapon for Texas in this game, with Washington showing vulnerability in the ground game. That will likely pay extra dividends for the Longhorns with the added bonus of likely keeping the Huskies offense on the sideline.
Outside of Brooks, Texas will likely be healthy heading into the matchup, taking full advantage of the month between the Big 12 Championship Game and the CFP Semifinal to get their key pieces back to health. Through the season, players like Baxter, wide receiver Xavier Worthy, right tackle Christian Jones, tight end JT Sanders, and cornerback Ryan Watts all battled injuries, but should be full participants heading into the game.
The same can’t be said for most, but not all, Texas players who have already decided to enter the NCAA transfer portal.
Due to the accelerated and messy college football calendar, the unique opportunity to play for a national championship comes into direct conflict with players’ ability to explore their options in the portal. In a typically culture-first decision, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian is allowing players to make their decision to enter the portal and continue to be a part of the team — with the caveat that they must continue to live up to the cultural standards of the program.
Safety Larry Turner-Gooden and offensive lineman Sawyer Goram-Welch made that choice along with Cain, who flashed his big play ability in the last matchup against Washington, but multiple players left the team instead of playing in the playoffs.
Perhaps the biggest name that was unable to take advantage of the offer was former QB2 Maalik Murphy, who decided to transfer to Duke ahead of the CFP, illustrating the struggles with the December calendar and the CFP.
His move to Duke to be a part of spring football — a wise decision for a quarterback who wants to be the starter next year — is emblematic of the larger problem with December and January in college football. While there are additional allowances for players in the CFP, the window is often flooded in that tight 30-day window, with the added pressure of classes starting in Durham just two days after the CFP final.
That move means that Texas is one injury away from a five-star freshman taking over in a championship situation — Arch Manning, the New Orleans native and No. 1 prospect in 2023.
Putting aside the 2009 flashbacks, the Longhorns seem to be in a much better position, in both health and participation, than they were a year ago. Will that show up on the scoreboard? Tune in on Monday night.
Texas is a four-point favorite over Washington, according to DraftKings.
Odds/lines are subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.