Hail to the graybeards: Michigan, Washington built on experience

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HOUSTON — On the eve of fall camp, Ryan Grubb was waffling.

As much as college football coaches want to project an air of optimism, Washington’s offensive coordinator wasn’t sure how he wanted to frame a message to the players. Would he preach further steady improvement for a team coming off an 11-2 year and top-10 finish, or would he set the bar higher?

As Grubb pondered what direction to take, he looked down at his desk at Husky Stadium. There, in front of his computer, was a pin a donor had given him that read, “Hungrier Than Ever.” The pin was from the 1991 season, when Washington last won a national championship. 

Looking at the pin, he said to himself, “screw it.” He found an image of the well-known golden cylinder handed out to the national champions and typed in “161 Days to Houston.” With that, he laid a remarkably prescient road to Monday night’s national title game against Michigan at NRG Stadium.

“Far too often, I think you get scared as a coach, or even as a person, to think about what’s possible. People talk more about what’s probable. I think it was very probable for us to compete or even win a Pac-12 championship. But what was possible, the vision, was national championship,” said Grubb on Saturday. “It was just getting the guys fixated on what’s truly possible instead of being a bit conservative.”

Grubb and the Washington staff room knew that they had players who could handle lofty goals, players with talent, yes, but with so much more. These Huskies had the maturity to embrace it and all the pressure that came with setting their eyes on the ultimate prize. Washington’s roster features, depending on formations, as many as 19 upperclassmen in the starting 22, and a group of additional veterans throughout the two-deep who have provided plenty of critical snaps in fueling the nation’s longest winning streak.

Three time zones away in Ann Arbor, Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan squad has not been shy in echoing the same goal of winning a national title. It’s unique in that the message has come from the veteran players themselves, players who have been through two years of Playoff heartbreak.

“I think when you have leaders — you lose back-to-back CFPs two times in a row in the semis — and they all came back with the same mindset. I’ve never seen a team just talk about the national championship all the time,” Wolverines running backs coach and former player Mike Hart said. “I’ve always been one of those guys, win one game before the next game. And these guys at the end of practice would say, We’re winning a national championship. We’re winning a national championship. From Blake [Corum] to J.J. [McCarthy] to Kris Jenkins to Junior Colson. We have a lot of really good leaders on this team. That’s what makes them special, because you win with the guys.”

Michigan vs. Washington: CFP picks and predictions

Michigan vs. Washington: CFP picks and predictions

The Wolverines are a modern-day rarity in the age of the transfer portal. They are a collection of college football graybeards, featuring a remarkable 75 upperclassmen listed on their roster — tied for the most in the country this season. Fifth- and sixth-year players blanket the starting lineup like polka dots, many of whom committed to a program whose narrative was often defined by coming up short in big games against marquee opponents and continued questions whether Harbaugh still had the magic touch to turn his alma mater from a solid Big Ten team into a champion.

Not only has Michigan overcome such hurdles, especially the lingering taste of last year’s semifinal loss to TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, but they have grown and evolved largely as a result of that pain.

“I really think it’s our mentality upstairs. From 2019 and 2020, it was we can beat Ohio State. It changed to we will beat Ohio State. Not we have to lift, we get to lift. Just little things like that make us mentally strong and prepare us for these moments,” offensive lineman Trevor Keegan said. “I remember during COVID, we didn’t know who our head coach was going to be until like January. Before then, our team was so mentally weak.”

The pandemic-impacted 2020 season was difficult for most around college football, but turned into a remarkable inflection point for the Wolverines as a result of the internal changes it brought. Amid a difficult run that included going 2-4 in Big Ten play and a controversial COVID cancelation of the Ohio State game, there was increased speculation that Harbaugh was very much on the verge of being shown the door.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and the head coach returned with a fresh contract extension that cut his base salary nearly in half with an incentive-laden deal. While others in such a position could have taken the unique contractual language as an insult, Harbaugh instead used it as the spark to light a fire under pretty much everybody in Ann Arbor as he re-tooled his coaching staff and altered his approach with players.

“Guys who have been here since 2020 saw how horrible it was. Like when we were losing, coming into Schembechler Hall was a drag. Like oh man, we’ve got to practice and little things like that. It was awful. Everybody can attest to that it was a bad time. It was a dark aura,” added Keegan, who has 36 starts under his belt at left guard. “After that season, just the way we went to work (changed). We implemented the ‘beat Ohio’ drill. That wasn’t just football, it was gladiator-like. 

“It changed the script of our program, and we took it and ran with it. This blueprint that we have is special and we don’t get five-star guys. I see that all the time, ‘oh Michigan can’t get a five-star guy.’ But man, we’ve got guys who have heart. We have guys who love football. We’ve got guys who love Michigan. That’s special.”

The results have certainly followed, thanks largely to the group that stuck around through such turbulent times and has formed the basis of this run of success.

“The type of bond, the type of love that we have, that’s not something that you come by very often I think,” said defensive back Mike Sainristil. “This team genuinely loves each other. We have a head coach who genuinely loves every single one of us like a son of his own. I couldn’t imagine being on any other team, this is what I came back for.”

A year after the arrow began pointing upward for the Wolverines, Washington’s path reached a low point. After a rocky transition from Petersen to Jimmy Lake that was complicated further by the pandemic, the Huskies seemed to have fully shifted gears into reverse amid a chaotic 2021 where everything that could have gone wrong, did. 

Despite opening the season with a top-20 ranking and designs on being a dark horse contender in the Pac-12, the team lost their opener to FCS side Montana and particularly looked anemic offensively. Lake wound up being suspended a few games later after being caught by cameras shoving a player on the sidelines, and he was eventually fired in mid-November to cap off a very turbulent tenure. 

Can Michigan’s defense stop Washington’s passing game?

Can Michigan’s defense stop Washington’s passing game?

Though there was very real worry about a backslide for a program that had painstakingly made progress over much of the past decade, the hire of Kalen DeBoer as head coach quickly turned into a masterstroke by then-athletic director Jennifer Cohen. Most fans were unfamiliar with the serial small school winner from the NAIA who had just two seasons under his belt as a head coach at Fresno State, but the approach he and his staff instilled from the jump proved to be a perfect match for a program that had loads of talent and just needed to push the right buttons.

“DeBoer has done a good job of letting the players dictate the culture. If you speak to him, he’ll talk a lot about it being a player-led program,” said edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui. “I remember my first conversation with him, and I was telling him, ‘I’m evaluating you right now.’ But that transparency has been there ever since he stepped into the program and allowed us to be here now.”

Coaching changes inevitably lead to roster churn, but though the Huskies were not immune to departures, most of the players who did remain to play for a fourth head coach in four seasons have wound up as program cornerstones. The Huskies brought roughly 40 upperclassmen to Houston but also won’t have anybody in the starting lineup who has played fewer than three years of college football.

“One thing we did was we told them: We choose you. We’re going to embrace you and want you in this program,” said Washington co-defensive coordinator William Inge, who first linked up with DeBoer on staff at Indiana. “I think when they saw we were all bought into them, we got a 16-fold improvement in buying in from them.”

Re-recruiting the roster certainly paid off. Tupuola-Fetui has turned into a force off the edge after battling his way back from injury, and his presence has allowed classmate Bralen Trice to flourish to the point where he leads FBS in quarterback pressures. Wide receiver Rome Odunze broke the school’s single-season receiving yardage record and blossomed into a Biletnikoff Award runner-up.

Few on the team have come further than Edefuan Ulofoshio, though, a former walk-on who has taken advantage of an extra year of eligibility from the COVID season, he is a team captain and a force in the middle of the Huskies’ overlooked defense — Pro Football Focus’ highest graded linebacker in the Pac-12. 

National championship preview: No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 2 Washington

National championship preview: No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 2 Washington

“I always wanted to play at the highest level possible whether I was walking on or not. I was always trying to be better,” Ulofoshio remarked, noting he always sits in the same spot in the team meeting room where he was first told he was being put on scholarship. “It means the world, being here for six years, a long ride. From 4-8, to lots of head coaches, lots of brothers during this ride and now to be able to finish strong — this is as strong as we can finish.”

The mainstays in Seattle also contributed to a welcoming culture which has seen a number of transfers arrive to help the team reach even further heights. Heisman runner-up Michael Penix Jr. is the most notable of them, having played for DeBoer back at Indiana, but there are other notables, including tailback Dillon Johnson (from Mississippi State) and veteran cornerback Jabbar Muhammad (via Oklahoma State).

Regardless of the route they’ve taken to Houston, however, this is a Washington side that has played a lot of football and seen a lot of different situations. That experience has been key as the Huskies have been able to win two straight high-pressure games as underdogs and become the first team in FBS history (since 1973) to win 10 straight games decided by 10 points or fewer.

“After that 2021 year, during that month at home, I had a lot of conversations with my parents. There was a lot of talks about maybe getting out of here and going somewhere else and playing somewhere else. But for some reason, I had a gut feeling that just stick it out,” said redshirt senior offensive lineman Troy Fautanu, who is six years older than his locker mate Austin Mack. “We were able to stick through all the adversity. That is what helps us win games on Saturday and hopefully helps us win that game on Monday.”

Is Jim Harbaugh better off staying at Michigan?

Is Jim Harbaugh better off staying at Michigan?

Michigan is no stranger to adversity either, particularly amid the constant churn of headlines around sign-stealing, recruiting violations and more. There have been multiple Harbaugh suspensions (including one on the eve of playing on the road against a top-10 opponent), not to mention the continuing speculation over their head coach’s future potentially being in the NFL as early as next week.

Yet they’ve barely batted an eyebrow at it all. It’s thanks in part to having enough veterans that Saturday’s media day may as well have been sponsored by Just for Men and not the barbershop logo that adorned podiums throughout the city’s convention center.

Monday’s game brings together a pair of remarkable programs that are defined not just by their talent but by a level of experience rarely seen in the sport.  

“Experience in whatever field you do is always going to make you better, especially this competitive field that we’re in,” said Wolverines offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore. “Those guys being older, they’ve played the game, they know the game, they can adjust to different things, and it’s really helped me a lot.”

“When you’ve got guys who are football savvy and understand football, you can push the envelope a little bit from their learning and understanding,” added opposite number Inge. “One thing we’ve told them is that as long as you grind, refine and compete, you’ll be just fine. That’s exactly what they’ve done.”

All the way to Houston, it seems the old guys still have it.

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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