All season, it was “Michigan vs. Everybody” within the walls of the Wolverines’ program.
The No. 1 Wolverines (14-0) will face the No. 2 Huskies (14-0) in the College Football Playoff National Championship game on Jan. 8 at NRG Stadium in Houston. This year’s title game — the last in a four-team playoff before the field expands to 12 teams in 2024 — will feature two undefeated teams making their first appearance in the championship game in the BCS era.
Galvanized by accusations of an elaborate cheating scandal that became the biggest story of the season, Michigan has found ways to overcome obstacles and win — a consistent trait that propelled them to a 27-20 overtime victory against SEC champion Alabama on Monday night in the CFP Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Prudential.
“It was do or die,” Michigan offensive tackle Trevor Keegan said. “… We’ve been through some things. We’ve had to overcome obstacles and adversity. People can say it’s adversity. People can saw we cheated, but I really don’t give a f—. It was adversity, and this team relied on each other and it showed that last quarter and in overtime.”
After losing in the semifinals in each of the past two seasons, Michigan earned its first CFP win. It’s also the last time Washington will represent the Pac-12, as the league has been decimated by realignment, and the Huskies are joining the Big Ten in 2024. With Alabama’s loss, this will be the first CFP national championship game since Ohio State faced Oregon in the inaugural 2014 season that won’t feature an SEC team.
Instead, it will highlight two teams with a chance to become only the sixth team in major college football history to finish 15-0 or better.
When: Monday, Jan. 8 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
How to watch: ESPN and ESPN App
Opening line from ESPN BET: Michigan -4.5
Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh: Heading into the 2021 season, Harbaugh’s future in Ann Arbor was tenuous, as he entered that fall 0-5 against rival Ohio State and without any CFP appearances. He has since flipped the script, beating the Buckeyes three straight seasons to win the Big Ten and advance to the CFP. This was the first time, though, that Harbaugh won a semifinal game, snapping his six-game losing streak in bowls. With the win against Alabama, Harbaugh has a chance to win a national title for his alma mater, where he played quarterback from 1983 to 1986.
Harbaugh, in the second year of a five-year contract with Michigan, can’t escape the speculation surrounding his future with the program. There are still two separate and ongoing NCAA investigations — one for alleged recruiting violations, and another for an alleged sign stealing scheme — that resulted in Harbaugh being suspended for half of the regular season. There’s also Harbaugh’s past flirtations with the NFL. Michigan’s administration wants to keep Harbaugh and has made that clear — it’s up to him to agree to it. Would winning a national title influence his decision?
Washington’s Kalen DeBoer: In only his second season as the Huskies’ head coach, DeBoer has led the program to 21 straight wins, the longest active win streak in the FBS, and the school’s first appearance in a national championship game. It’s a far climb from DeBoer’s humble beginnings as head coach of his alma mater, the small University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota — but it’s the same goal as it was then, when he won as many NAIA national titles and had as many undefeated seasons (three) as he had losses.
DeBoer was 67-3 overall at Sioux Falls, including a 17-2 record in the playoffs. DeBoer’s ascension from NAIA to FCS to the Group of 5 and ultimately the sport’s biggest stage has spanned over two decades, seven schools and three head coaching jobs, including Washington. The longtime relationships he’s developed with his staff, including offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, and the staff continuity have had a direct correlation to the Huskies’ success. Washington’s entire full-time coaching staff remained in tact from the 2022 season — a rarity in today’s coaching carousel postseason — and DeBoer has been the glue.
How they got here
Michigan: Despite their head coach being suspended for six of the 12 regular-season games, the Wolverines reached the national title game because of their unity, talent and acting head coach Sherrone Moore. With Harbaugh suspended for the final three games of the regular season — the most important and most difficult opponents on the schedule — Moore guided the Wolverines to wins against Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State. The “Michigan vs. Everybody” merch and mentality combined with what could be the program’s best team in decades resulted in a perfect season that now includes a statement win against the sport’s most accomplished program and coach. Michigan’s aggressive defense sacked Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe six times, and the Wolverines overcame a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win in overtime.
The selection committee considered Michigan a top-four team all season, but didn’t bump the Wolverines into the top spot until Selection Day, after then-No. 1 Georgia lost to Alabama in the SEC title game. No team in the CFP race has ever faced such serious allegations of cheating, but the CFP maintained its stance that as long as a team was eligible to participate in a bowl game, it could be ranked by the committee. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel was one of the 13 committee members, but he recused himself from voting when Michigan was in consideration. Michigan has now won 14 games in a season for the first time in school history.
Last national title: 1997 (shared with Nebraska)
Washington: This is a team that has been fueled by its underdog status and perceived lack of respect. The Huskies’ narrow 36-33 win against Oregon on Oct. 14 signaled they should be considered the Pac-12’s leading contender for the CFP this season, but not everyone was convinced they were top-four material. The selection committee was unimpressed with ugly wins against Arizona State and Stanford, and questioned the Huskies’ defense. It wasn’t until November — after Washington reeled off three straight wins against USC, Utah and Oregon State to hit the 11-0 mark — that the Huskies cracked the committee’s top four.
Washington was still a 9.5-point underdog against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, which it won. It was again the betting underdog against Texas — another lower-ranked opponent with a loss. Again, though, Washington’s offense had the upper-hand, propelled by Heisman runner-up Michael Penix Jr. This time he took advantage of a Texas pass defense that has now allowed six of its opponents to throw for over 300 yards this season.
Last national title: 1991 (shared with Miami)
Michigan: RB Blake Corum. When starting right guard Zak Zinter suffered a season-ending leg injury in the Wolverines’ win against Ohio State, the team lost its top run blocker. That was evident in the Big Ten title game against Iowa, when none of Corum’s 16 carries went longer than 6 yards. That wasn’t the case against Alabama, when Corum had 118 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns. His 56 career rushing touchdowns are the most in school history.
Washington: Rome Odunze. It’s hard to separate Odunze from Ja’Lynn Polk, as they are one of four 1,000-yard receiving tandems in the FBS, but Odunze has been particularly clutch. He entered the semifinal against Texas with 82% of his receptions having gone for first downs or touchdowns.
Matchup to watch
Michigan’s defensive line vs. Washington’s offensive line. Michigan has now recorded 16 sacks in its past four games, including four against Iowa and six against Alabama. The Wolverines pushed their way into the Tide’s backfield and limited their running game to 43 yards in the first half and sacked Milroe five times.
Entering Saturday, Penix Jr. had completed just 41% of his passes when outside of the pocket. Washington, though, only gave up 11 sacks all year, and the Longhorns were unable to get to Penix. If Michigan is going to find a way to win, it also has to find its way into the backfield again.
Sept. 11, 2021 Michigan 31, Washington 10. Washington has seen Corum before. In 2021, he ran for a 67-yard touchdown to give Michigan a double-digit lead in the second quarter. Washington finished 4-8 that year under former coach Jimmy Lake, while Harbaugh finished 12-2 with a loss to Georgia in the CFP Semifinal at the Orange Bowl.
Michigan’s special teams. The Wolverines muffed a punt in the first quarter against Alabama, missed an extra point in the second quarter because of a botched snap, and missed a field goal in the fourth quarter.
Washington defensive end Bralen Trice. For the second straight season, Trice was named the team’s MVP on defense. He sacked Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers twice on Monday night, and was equally as disruptive against Oregon this season, when he had four tackles and a pass breakup in the Pac-12 title game.