Kalen DeBoer, Jim Harbaugh talk College Football Playoff National Championship

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 5: Michigan Team Arrivals at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on January 5, 2024 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by CFP/Getty Images)

Kalen DeBoer and the No. 2 Washington Huskies versus Jim Harbaugh and the No. 1 Michigan Wolverines.

That will be the matchup in Houston next Monday for the College Football Playoff National Championship. It will pit two unbeaten conference champions against one another, and DeBoer said the excitement has set in.

“We are back in Seattle just honored to be representing our team here in the national championship,” DeBoer said. “Just congratulations and tip of the hat to coach Harbaugh and Michigan and the amazing season they’ve had and just a lot of domination all year long and a well-fought win against Alabama in the Rose Bowl. So we are looking forward to the challenge, looking forward to everything that comes along with the national championship here in the days ahead, and our preparation, especially with the coaching staff and the game planning, is going strong and ready in a couple of days when we’ll be back down in Houston and really looking forward to that time down there.”

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DeBoer and the Huskies earned a 14-0 record after holding off No. 3 Texas’ comeback efforts in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl. Shortly before that game, Harbaugh and the Wolverines emerged victorious in overtime over Nick Saban and No. 4 Alabama.

Harbaugh said the message remains the same to the Wolverines in the days leading up to the CFP National Championship.

“Thinking more about the here and now for sure so take a look at Washington. They’re an outstanding football team,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just a very one-track mind of today getting our team prepared, getting back moving around, but also schematically on to what Washington does and preliminary plans for putting in our game plan.”

Harbaugh and Michigan have gone through a season mired in controversy. He’s spent six games suspended for recruiting violations and the Big Ten’s investiation into in-person scouting.

The NCAA is in an ongoing investigation into the in-person scouting efforts led by former Michigan staff member Connor Stalions. Whether this season or a potential national title is vacated remains to be seen, but that’s not what Harbaugh is thinking about right now.

“Getting ready for this game, one-track mind,” Harbaugh said. “I mean, that’s, I guess you’re going to live in the room, world of rumor-ville or speculation, but we just don’t really have any room to be doing that at this point. That’s time spent elsewhere.”

Harbaugh and the Wolverines will turn their focus to the Heisman Trophy runner-up in Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

Penix beat the Wolverines 38-21 during his third season at Indiana in 2020. He threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns, and Penix and the Hoosiers finished that season No. 11 in the final CFP rankings.

Penix’s left-handed throw is among the best in college football. His skill set stands out to Harbaugh, who has history with Penix.

“He’s a super great player,” Harbaugh said. “My impressions of him when he played in Indiana were the same. I mean big-time arm talent, tremendous pressure, presence, I mean, presence in the pocket, sees the field really well. He is so polished. Watching him and his accuracy, decision-making, timing. He has really just continued to have this tremendous presence of going through progression, feels pressure will drop it off to a check down. Yeah, it’s at an elite level.”

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Injuries have bitten Penix’s career at points. Knee and shoulder surgeries had forced Penix to find opportunity elsewhere from Indiana, and he landed at Washington before the 2022 season.

DeBoer said there “may be” some flashbacks for Penix when he lines up to play Michigan for a second time in his career, only this time it will be for all the marbles in the CFP National Championship.

“I think it’s just a whole different thing that he’s involved with now being here at U-Dub and his teammates and the confidence he has in them and that they have in him as well,” DeBoer said. “I think it’s all about right now, but if you were playing in their stadium maybe there would be some familiarity that would help him feel good about it but we’re playing down in Houston. I mean, maybe the colors across from him would be something to bring back some memories pretty quickly. But I think right now he’s also just in the moment focused on our program and the opportunity at hand.”

Penix has led some successful drives that have paid off huge this season for Washington.

He led the Huskies on a comeback in the first game this year against Oregon Week 7, helping Washington win 36-33, and also conjured up more magic against the Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Those moments will be etched in history and within Penix’s highlight reel for when he decides to turn pro. For now, though, a collection of moments defines this season, including the final minutes of the Week 7 matchup against Oregon, according to DeBoer.

“I know that’s more than one play, but that’s, to me, that span of just a few minutes, just the trajectory we were on and just how that kind of propelled us into kind of taking over the top spot in the conference,” DeBoer said. “So it’s not one play, but it’s just a group of things that have happened in the Pac 12 Championship and the Sugar Bowl. Just the way the guys work through third and fourth quarters, just keep trying and keep fighting, and each piece adds to the experiences we have and the way they trust and believe in each other on another level.”

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Washington is playing for its first national title since 1991, and Michigan is playing for its first since 1997.

Both teams took very different courses this season to get where they are today, and yet, they’re similar in some regards. Both unbeaten, both led by high-powered offenses complemented by strong defenses, and both conference champions.

Something has to give on Monday. The focus for both teams will remain on staying present and prepared, DeBoer said.

“I think this year where we’re at right now in the season that this is all about, really, us representing the Pac-12 and going to win a national championship for our program and finishing off this season for this group of guys that have worked really hard,” DeBoer said. “I think it’s all about this moment and this game and what it means for our program to be participating and have a chance to win a national championship.”