No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 2 Washington for CFP title caps season of realignment, transfers and Harbaugh

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HOUSTON (AP) — Michigan vs. Washington is just about the perfect way to end the 2023 college football season, a matchup of unbeatens that hits all the major themes and storylines of the past five months from conference realignment to the transfer portal — with Jim Harbaugh as the main character.

Harbaugh’s top-ranked Wolverines (14-0) face Michael Penix Jr. and the second-ranked Huskies (14-0) on Monday night at NRG Stadium in the last national title game before the College Football Playoff expands from four teams to 12.

“We’re going to have to play really good. And I think our team is ready,” Harbaugh said Sunday during a news conference with Washington coach Kalen DeBoer in which he compared his team to a pack of wolves and — yet again — ducked questions about his future. “Still the hay is not in the barn. It never is for us. Still polishing. Still working. But super excited, super excited to watch our players go out there and compete tomorrow night.”

Michigan’s regular season started and ended with Harbaugh serving three-game suspensions related to NCAA infractions cases. The latter was handed down by the Big Ten in November as punishment for an in-person scouting and sign-stealing scheme the conference determined broke its sportsmanship policy.

The scandal dominated headlines just as Michigan was entering the meat of its Big Ten schedule. The accusations against Harbaugh’s program led many to question the legitimacy of the Wolverines’ renaissance over the past three seasons. This is Michigan’s third straight playoff appearance, but first time advancing after beating Alabama in overtime in the Rose Bowl.

Being doubted only galvanized a team loaded with experience that came into the season unafraid to point to winning Michigan’s first national championship since 1997 as the goal.

“A lot of guys came back just for this moment,” said linebacker Michael Barrett, one of nine Michigan starters in their fifth or sixth years.

Washington is built similarly and led by the type of star who typifies college football’s new era of player empowerment.

Penix is a Florida native who started his career at Indiana — he already has a win against Michigan on his resume — but transferred to Washington to play for DeBoer in 2022.

Finally healthy after four injury-ravaged seasons in the Big Ten, Penix has become a star in the Pacific Northwest. The runner-up for the Heisman Trophy had some voters questioning their decision last week when he threw for 430 yards in a Sugar Bowl victory against Texas.

“Man, it’s a dream come true. To be honest, I’m still wrapping my head around it,” Penix said.

Penix decided to run it back for 2023 in December 2022 and a bunch of talented teammates followed, such as All-America receiver Rome Odunze, and defensive end Bralen Trice and offensive tackle Troy Fautanu, both third-team All-Americans.

“He kind of led the charge. And a lot of guys chose to go down the same road,” DeBoer said Sunday. “I think they just really firmly believe that there was more left out there for this football team.”

It helps these days that college players can make some extra money off their fame and be compensated for name, image and likeness. NIL collectives for both schools concentrated efforts on retaining their established players.

The combination of NIL money and loosening transfer rules seemed to tip the balance of power in college football this season. After years of the same small group of teams locking down the majority of playoff spots, and Southeastern Conference teams or Clemson winning eight straight titles, the top tier of contenders grew — but too soon for the CFP to accommodate all the deserving teams.

The four-team playoff will go out like it came in, with a Big Ten vs. Pac-12 championship as Washington plays the final Pac-12 football game for the conference as it is currently structured.

During the three weeks leading into the 2023 season, the Pac-12 was plundered by its Power Five competitors. Ironically, the conference then went on to have its most entertaining and competitive season in years, with the Huskies snapping a six-year Pac-12 playoff drought.

The Huskies will try to win the Pac-12’s first national title in football since Southern California in 2004, a parting gift of sorts for the league it helped found in 1915. Washington’s last national championship came in 1991.

The Huskies will join the new coast-to-coast Big Ten this summer, and in nine months will welcome Michigan to Seattle for a conference game.

Whether Harbaugh will still be the Michigan coach by then remains to be seen. The presumption and speculation has been that for the third straight year, he will draw interest from NFL teams. Harbaugh spent four years with the San Francisco 49ers, leading them to a Super Bowl against his brother John’s Baltimore Ravens, before returning to his alma mater in 2015.

It took a while, but the 60-year-old Harbaugh has delivered on the high expectations he brought to Ann Arbor. And despite the tumult off the field, Michigan would like to keep him around.

The uncertainty about Harbaugh, especially with even more NCAA-related penalties possibly looming for him and Michigan, has given this Wolverines’ season a last-dance vibe.

“Everything is right here in front of us, coming down the straightaway, like a thoroughbred,” Harbaugh said. “You can see the finish line. Got the blinders on. Each guy, I’m just going to the whip.”

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com.

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football

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