Sports Journalism Blog

By Mitch Friesenborg

Sports Capital Journalism Program

HOUSTON – For the first time in the history of both programs, the Michigan Wolverines and Washington Huskies have 14 victories in perfect seasons that will be defined on Monday night at NRG Stadium in the College Football Playoff National Championship. After cathartic, narrow victories on January 1 – Michigan over Alabama in overtime at the Rose Bowl and Washington hanging on against Texas in the Sugar Bowl — the cumulative physical and emotional punishment raises a valid question: How much do the Wolverines and Huskies have left in the tank?

Washington can its first national title since 1991, when the Huskies split the polls with the University of Miami. Under second-year coach Kalen DeBoer, the Huskies have returned to the playoff for the first time since 2016.

The circumstances may have placed even more pressure on Michigan. This is the third consecutive year the Wolverines have made the playoff under coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines have not claimed a national title since 1997, when it was shared with Nebraska in Tom Osborne’s final season as coach of the Cornhuskers.

Since then, in the 26 seasons of the Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff eras, this is the first time the Wolverines have reached the final night of the season. Michigan’s first outright national title since 1948 is a game away, but so are the potential debates if three seasons of excellence should end in disappointment. The task of the Michigan coaches is to keep their players relaxed and focused.

“Simply go out there and give it your very best,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “That’s all we can ask anybody. All we can ask of ourselves, all we can ask of anybody else, go out there and give it your very best. And that way you’ll feel good about what you accomplish, no matter what that is.”

“Good juice,” is the term DeBoer used during Sunday morning’s press conference to describe his team’s energy.

After all the miles and all the challenges, the remaining supply could help determine the outcome.

Michigan defensive lineman Kris Jenkins remembered the final frantic moments in Pasadena. “Everybody was straining to finish,” he said. “Everybody was competing at the highest level from start to finish, and you could really feel that and see that in that game. That’s an instant classic, for sure.

“But we’re not worried about not having any juice left in the tank,” Jenkins added, “because of the way we’ve been taking our preparation for this week and the way we prepare for every game, the whole season. We’re really just taking it one day at a time, getting the maximum mental focus that we can out of every day.”

Jenkins was asked if there had been less contact during recent Michigan practices.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “No, we’re a physical team. We live by that.”

The potential hazards of the four-team playoff format became clear a year ago at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. The TCU Horned Frogs had scored seven touchdowns in their 51-45 win over Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl, then were overwhelmed in a 65-7 loss to Georgia in the title game.

“I just think every week I just challenge the guys to not have any excuses,” DeBoer said. “So that means great preparation, which will lead to confidence, which will lead to success on game day. And have no regrets. When you pour everything into it…you’re just doing everything to the best of your ability, you live with the results.

“And I think our guys have done a great job of embracing, embracing the moments, the tough moments, the challenges,” he said. “Embracing the fight, embracing each other, of course. But just love being in that moment, and I think it leads to confidence when everyone just kind of has great body language and ready to go out there and just take on the next challenge, whether it be the next play or the next game. Loving the moment, embracing it. And making sure that there’s no excuses and no regrets when it’s all said and done.”

Harbaugh responded similarly. “My message to our guys is going to be play as hard as you can, as fast as you can, as long as you can and don’t worry,” he said. “And just go have at it. It’s been a group of guys that I’ve had to pull them back at times. Have never had to talk them into anything. And I just can’t wait. I can’t wait to watch them compete, watch them have at it. That’s going to be my overwhelming feeling is, let’s just go let it rip. And we’re going to have to play well. This is a tremendous, tremendous team that we’re playing. Just thorough in every way.”

In a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup that could become increasingly rare when the playoff expands to 12 teams next season, Michigan and Washington will hope to summon whatever emotion is left at the end of a long season and push each other to an unforgettable finish.

“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.”