CFB National championship diaries

By George Somerville

Both Washington and Michigan have been fully focussed on the National Championship game almost from the final whistle of the two semi-final wins.

Officially the build up started on Monday from their respective campuses with the teams arriving in H-Town on Friday with a big weekend of media obiligations ahead of Monday.

With coach and player availability throughout the week, The Touchdown chronicles the views and moods of each team prior to the biggest game in the college football calendar – the 2024 National Championship!

The Build-up

Both teams arrived in Houston on Friday but the build up started long before then, with the first press conferences held on Monday – a full week ahead of the National Championship game being played.

The teams met with the media a little over 24 hrs after they had won their semi-finals meaning emotions were still high after nail biting finishes to both games. 

Michigan’s overtime win over Alabama and Washington’s narrow victory over Texas sets the scene for a fantastic match up in Houston.

But what have the coaches and players had to say about this?

Michigan Head Coach - Jim Harbaugh

Image credit: Kiyoshi Mio, USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Com

Ok, here’s the thing. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is box office. Successful, unpredictable, eccentric – its almost the definition of box office. 

overcoming adversity

Of course controversy tends to follow Harbaugh, a head coach who has had two spells this season on the sidelines as a result of suspensions. So the question of adversity and how his team has overcome it this season raised its head early in the week, 

“It’s been great. I mean, it’s been a blast just to be around the team every single day”, said Harbaugh on Monday.


“these are like one-year cycles, 365 days. You’re looking at a true calendar. As soon as the season ends, last year, I think about J.J. McCarthy watching the celebration at the semifinal game. It really began there.


And we had spring practice that started about five weeks after that game last year. The winter cycle, the summer cycle, the spring cycle, into training camp. So it’s a full year.


And to watch our guys just with how they’ve gone about their business, really inspiring, as I said earlier. Really proud of our guys, but bottom line it’s just been a lot of fun. It’s been a blast”.

With the Rose Bowl game barely in the rear view mirror, it was no surprise that Michigan were still in high spirits. Harbaugh was asked about the moment they were in and if he had the chance to celebrate.

“Happy flight” said Harbaugh.


“I just go “happy flight.” Get around all the guys. You kind of walk up and down the aisles a little bit, talk about the game, ask guys questions. It’s just really fully celebrating that feeling. And then after a couple of hours drinking a Diet Coke on ice and reflecting on it, taking it all in. About 6 hours, to answer your question. It’s usually about 6 hours for me then start thinking about the next game”.

the future

Of course the strong rumour is that the National Championship game will be his last as a Michigan head coach, with the prospect of the NFL looming. If it is, Harbaugh wasn’t letting on.

“I have no idea about that. I couldn’t be more happy to be here. This is a tremendous city. They do everything big in Texas, and this is cool. This is right where we want to be. This is where we worked, to get there”.

Pressed further on his own timeline to making a decision – Harbaugh has not signed his contract extension with Michigan – the Wolverines head coach said,

“I’ll gladly talk about the future next week. And I hope to have one, how about that? A future, I hope to have one, yes. Thank you”.

control what you can control 

While Harbaugh is still on a quest to win a National Championship, he has been close before. So what have he and his coaching staff learned from near misses in the past? It’s all about the uncontrollables for Harbaugh,

“there’s some of the U’s, some of the uncontrollables, some of the unfortunates, uncontrollables like officiating. I  thought some of the ways our guys kept their composure were – that’s a way to control the uncontrollable situations”.


While Harbaugh specifically mentions officiating, there is also a hint of the adversity  that the team has come through as a result of the allegations and suspensions. The Michigan head coach went on to talk about the team camaraderie and spirit which has got them to where they are today.

“Another U, unanimous support from everybody on the team. When you know that each player, each coach has your back and is going to be doing their job, doing it to the best of their God-given ability, that’s a great way to control some of the uncontrollables, which is pressure, which is some of those unforeseeable moments.

Yeah, there’s ways to do it, and our team is built for them. They’re really built for those U’s, the uncontrollables, the unfortunates, things like that”.

Elephant in the room

Image credit: University of Michigan Athletics

Michigan have a couple of elephants/skeletons in the room – the ongoing NCAA investigation and Harbaugh’s will he, won’t he move to the NFL.

“(we’re) getting ready for this game, one-track mind. I don’t know if you want to live in rumorville or speculation, but we just don’t really have any room to be doing that at this point. That’s done elsewhere”, 

the players weigh in

Both quarterback JJ McCarthy and Mason Graham also weighed in on the same question.

“obviously from an outside perspective, it would be very unfortunate just to not get recognised for all the hard work we’ve put in and everything we’ve accomplished over this last year”, said McCarthy who continued,


“but at the end of the day, it’s not going to change the amount of accomplishment and the amount of pride for being on this football team and just everything that we accomplished because we know what we put in, we know the work that we’ve put in, and we know that we did things the right way as players”.


“Whatever happens with just all the outside controversy is just out of our control, and whatever the NCAA wants to do is out of our control. We’re going to appreciate the things we did control and the things we did accomplish”.

Defensive Tackle Mason Graham talked about the adversity that the team has had to overcome this season on their road to the National Championship game,

 We’ve overcome a lot of adversity this season. I’ve felt like it’s brought us closer together, and I think everyone is starting to see this in the outside world, but everybody knew in Schembechler Hall that we wanted to be right where we are right now. That’s all we’re worried about”.

sign stealing

McCarthy went on to specifically address the issue of stealing call signs which is at the centre of this scandal. He went further, suggesting Michigan has been the victim of this in previous seasons,

“it’s so unfortunate because there’s probably – I don’t want to say a crazy number, but I’d say a good number, 80 percent of the teams in college football steal signs. It’s just a thing about football. It’s been around for years.

We actually had to adapt because in 2020 or 2019 when Ohio State was stealing our signs, which is legal and they were doing it, we had to get up to the level that they were at, and we had to make it an even playing field”.


Which is a point recognised except that Michigan is accused of taking that one step further and recording signs outside of games. However it is clear that McCarthy feels strongly that this has given the Wolverines no discernible advantage.


“I just feel like it sucks, just because like Mason said, we do work our butts off”, said McCarthy


“We do watch so much film and look for those little tendencies and spend like 10, 15 minutes on one clip alone just looking at all the little details of the posture, of the linebackers or the D-ends, the safeties off levels, the corner to the field is press but the corner to the boundary is off, little stuff like that where it’s like, you could say it’s all sign stealing, but there’s a lot more that goes into play, and a lot of stuff that gets masked, a lot of work that gets masked just because of the outside perception of what sign stealing is all about”.

While this topic will rumble on much longer than the National Championship game it will need to be put to one side so as not to sour what is expected to be a quite fantastic match up between what have consistently been the two best teams in college football all season.

Washington Head Coach - Kalen DeBoer

Image credit: Ted S Warren, Associated Press

As much as there is a huge game to be played on Monday, the early press conferences allowed the media to get to know the teams, head coaches and players a little better.

bond between coach and qb

What became obvious early in the Huskies’ interactions was the strong bond between head coach DeBoer and quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

It is clear that Penix Jnr’s time in the North West at the University of Washington has been nothing short of a smash hit. However, it was the lasting relationship that Penix and DeBoer have from a previous life – at Indiana and how Penix followed DeBoer to the North West and Seattle which caught the attention early in the week.

“My familiarity with Michael made it really easy because I knew who he was as a person”. said DeBoer when asked about his recruiting of Penix.


“I knew he was a guy that was very competitive, knew he was someone who just really cared about his teammates.


I knew he had been through a lot of challenges, unlike most other people, and he still was fighting. Just saw a lot of those things above and beyond the arm talent, the athletic ability, all those things that I got a chance to work with him for one year on”.

Michael Penix expanded a little more on the thought process behind moving to the Huskies.

“I already knew what I wanted my last couple years to look like”,

Penix said Monday.

“I’m still grateful for the opportunity, but when I went on my visit I just asked to see the film of the guys. I wanted to see what I had around me. Once I saw what I would have around me here, I knew that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity, and I knew that we’d be able to do something”.

Which is precisely what has happened this year with the Huskies.

fitness of Dillon Johnson

Immediately after the Sugar Bowl win against Texas, the concern was all about star running back, Dillon Johnson. Johnson had crumpled under a tackle late in the game and was unable to put pressure on his right foot as he left the field. 

Missing Johnson would likely be catastrophic for the Huskies in what is their most important game in decades. In 13 games thus far Johnson has rushed for 1,162 yards. During the regular season game against USC, he rushed for 256 yards and 4 touchdowns.

However, as the week rolled on Johnson’s chances of making the game improved and by Saturday the situation appeared far more rosy with DeBoer confirming that he expects Johnson to take the field against Michigan. DeBoer said,

“So we’re expecting him to play. He’s been through this over the last couple of months, and he hasn’t missed any time there. He’s had a good week getting back healthy”.

Which will come as a welcome relief to Huskies fans ahead of Monday’s game.

 end of an era

This is obviously Washington’s last game representing the PAC12. But this is also the last game that any PAC12 team will play in. DeBoer was asked whether this added any more relevance, importance or even pressure to this game

“I think maybe I felt that kind of leading up to the Pac-12 championship that this was the one that we were going to have as far as a championship game”. DeBoer said Friday.

The Huskies head coach expanded,

“And then just us representing the Pac-12, especially going to the final four here.


I will say, I think now this week, honestly, it’s probably us just focused on us and just trying to do everything we can to be ready to go win a national championship and us representing UW.


But I know we’re proud of where we come from and the conference we represent and everything that has led to us having our success this year. We got put through the wringer with our conference schedule playing a lot of good teams. I think it helped us prepare for a semifinal game. And it will have helped us prepare for this championship game on Monday”.

The opposition

Image credit: Image credit : Alejandro Zúñiga, 247Sports

Friday, being CFB National Championship Media day, is an excellent opportunity to hear what the teams think of the opposition. 

So what say the Wolverines about the Huskies and vice versa?

On Michael Penix…

“Obviously Penix is a great player. I feel like they have a great offensive scheme, just a great group of guys on the offensive side of the ball that can really make plays happen, and he’s one of the ones – he is the one that makes their offense go. It all starts with him” – Mason Graham


“He’s a super great player. My impressions of him when he played at Indiana were the same. Big-time arm talent, tremendous presence in the pocket, sees the field really well. He is so polished. Watching him and his accuracy, his 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”. – Jim Harbaugh

On Coach DeBoer….

“Coach has done a tremendous job. Did a tremendous job at Fresno State, taking that program right away — gotta be impressed with how fast this has happened. It takes a lot of people years to turn a program or flip a program, and he’s done it in such a short time. I just think he’s a rising star in the profession, without question. He is a star — not a rising star. He’s a shining star”. Jim Harbaugh 

On Michigan defense….

“That’s a good team over there. They’re coached up very well. But we’re going to be ready for the challenge. They mix up the picture quite a bit. They try to get the quarterback off his mark. But we’ll be ready for it. We know that”. Michael Penix

The keys to victory

Image credit: University of Washington Athletics

So what is it going to take for either team to become National Champions?

It is probably too simplistic to say this is the Washington offense vs the Michigan defense. Especially when, the Wolverines have Blake Corum who has run for over 1,000 yards, in a season where he is recovering from a bad injury.

Yet the focus is on whether Michigan’s stout defense can snuff out the threat of Penix and Co. And whether the perceived weaker Huskies defense can neutralise McCarthy and his offense. All of which makes for a fantastic final game on Monday night.

But what do the players think are the keys to winning the game?

MASON GRAHAM: “I’d probably just say focus on execution. The higher rate we execute, the higher rate of winning. Just kind of just keep on the same track we’ve been all year trying to execute a good game plan we have in place. Kind of just all the same things that we’ve been pushing throughout the season, just kind of bring it all full circle”.

J.J. McCARTHY: “Yeah, I agree with Mason, it comes down to execution, not really thinking about too much National Championship. Obviously we all know that, but just all coming down to how we execute each and every play and making sure that we are locked in on all the little details on each and every play and making sure that we give it our all and realize we’ve only got 60 more minutes together, and this has just been such a special group. So many great relationships, great friendships that will last a lifetime, just realizing that it’s going to be our last time going to war together.

Taking everything in, really appreciating the moment and embracing the moment and finishing out on top because nobody remembers the second-place winner or the runner-up”.

MICHAEL PENIX JR: We’re playing for something huge, the biggest in college football right now, so just making sure the guys just understand, don’t make the game bigger than what it is and go out there and have fun. That’s what it’s going to be about, going out there and having fun.

Obviously we’ve got to execute at a high level because we’re playing a good team, and we’ve got to make sure that we come ready to play. 

I feel like the biggest thing is just executing. It’s just all about execution, just trusting in our preparation and our offense that we have. And at the end of the day, as long as we execute, we’ll be able to get it done”.

Mock Draft

george somerville

College football writer