The date: January 1, 1992
The matchup: No. 2 Washington (11-0) vs. No. 4 Michigan (10-1)
The stakes: Washington is going for its second straight Rose Bowl title, and Michigan is going for its first in the post-Schembechler era. More importantly, though, a truly incredible UW team is fighting for a share of the national title with unbeaten Miami.
The back story: This was the culmination of a late-career renaissance for James and his Huskies. From 50 Best*:
Fans obsess over recruiting each year because of the truly program-changing effect it can have. Not every star recruit lives up to his billing, and not every team that signs a top-five class is guaranteed a top-five product. But classes like Washington’s 1988 signing haul, as uncommon as they may be, happen just frequently enough to make us all hope.
Washington’s 1988 class featured the No. 1 pick in the 1992 draft (tackle Steve Emtman), the No. 9 pick in the 1993 draft (offensive lineman Lincoln Kennedy), and six other eventual draftees: receivers Mario Bailey and Orlando McKay, linebacker Jaime Fields and Dave Hoffman, fullback Darius Turner, and quarterback Mark Brunell.
This was the perfect Washington recruiting class, combining local stars (Bailey), less-recruited local diamonds in the rough (Emtman), and high-caliber imports from California (Brunell, Kennedy). As members of the ’88 class began to see the field, Washington’s prospects improved drastically. From 6-5, the Huskies improved to 8-4 in 1989, then 10-2 in 1990, with their first Rose Bowl bid in nine years. [...]
Washington began the season fourth in the preseason AP poll, but this wasn’t the year for much of a rise: Preseason No. 1 Florida State would lose only to preseason No. 3 Miami, and Miami wouldn’t lose at all. But that didn’t dampen the Huskies’ dominance.
Washington survived road games against two top-10 teams (Nebraska, Cal) and USC and obliterated all iffy competition. The Huskies’ best statement opportunity would come in Pasadena against a Michigan team that had lost only to one-loss Florida State.
This would have been a pretty much perfect year for a four-team College Football Playoff with Miami-Michigan and FSU-Washington. But UW-UM in Pasadena was pretty good, too.
The game: From the Los Angeles Times:
Washington staked a claim to the national championship Wednesday with a resounding 34-14 victory over Michigan before 103,566 in the Rose Bowl.
Its fate in the national polls won't be determined until today—Washington started the new year tied with Miami for the top spot in the USA Today/CNN poll and ranked No. 2 behind the Hurricanes in the Associated Press poll—but Michigan Coach Gary Moeller seemed convinced of the Huskies' merits.
He said that he had never seen anything like the Huskies, who combined a swift, attacking defense with an opportunistic offense to overwhelm a Michigan team that won the Big Ten Conference championship and was ranked third in the USA Today/CNN poll, fourth in the AP poll.
"They're probably one of the best teams we've ever played," Moeller said. "I think we lost to as good a football team as I've ever seen."
"I've not prepared or played against Miami, but I can't envision a football team any better than that." [...]
Washington had accumulated 207 yards by halftime, Michigan 53. The Wolverines had nine yards rushing in 17 attempts.
"We did so much offensively, but we came out with so few points," James said. "You wonder if you'll get any more chances."
Moeller felt fortunate that the score was so close [13-7 at halftime].
It wasn't for long.
The box score:
This was a blowout, but it was possibly even worse than the stats would suggest. Though the final yardage margin was dominant in UW’s favor (404-205), Michigan got 53 of those yards on a garbage-time Tyrone Wheatley TD run.
Billy Joe Hobert and Mark Brunell (the incumbent starting QB who injured his knee in the offseason and lost his job to Hobert) combined to go 25-for-42 for 281 yards, three scores, and two picks. Michigan's Elvis Grbac: 13-for-26 for 130, a TD, and an INT. Neither team ran the ball that well, but this was the major difference.
Washington's Mario Bailey: six catches for 126 yards. Michigan's Heisman winner, Desmond Howard: one catch for 35. At one point, Bailey struck the Heisman pose that Howard had so famously attempted in his previous game.
This Washington team just had everything — two NFL-caliber quarterbacks, Beno Bryant and Jay Berry in the backfield, Bailey out wide, Lincoln Kennedy on the offensive line, Steve Emtman and David Hoffman anchoring the front seven ... the Huskies even had an All-American kicker in Jason Hanson. Miami was awesome that year and may have had its best ever defense (the Canes allowed only 100 points all year). But UW was damn near perfect.
Man oh man, Miami-Washington would have been one hell of a CFP final.