Experience abounds in CFP title game. 14 starters for Huskies, 9 for Wolverines in 5th or 6th years

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Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter speaks to reporters during a news conference on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023, in Los Angeles. Michigan is scheduled to play against Alabama on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl, a semifinal in the College Football Playoff. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

HOUSTON – That extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season is paying off for the teams playing in the College Football Playoff championship game Monday night.

Among Washington’s 22 offensive and defensive starters, seven are in their sixth seasons and seven are in their fifth. Michigan has one starter in his sixth season and eight in their fifth.

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“It’s one of the factors in both teams getting here,” Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said Saturday. “Guys have been through a lot. Guys have played a lot of football. They’re experienced and you see it show up in key situations where older players tend to understand how to handle the moment better than young players.”

Washington has five sixth-year players and four fifth-year players who start on defense, and co-defensive coordinator William Inge said he's certain that experience played a role in the Huskies' ability to stop Texas when it drove deep into its territory in the final seconds of a 37-31 win at the Sugar Bowl.

“When you have individuals who have sweat equity in your program, playing time and maturity, they understand how to win, how to practice, how to prepare,” Inge said. “That's something we're getting to experience right now.”

Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said neither Michigan nor Washington has an edge in experience, given the numbers, “but it certainly makes for a better game or a more competitive game.”

The country's best-known sixth-year player is Washington quarterback and Heisman Trophy runner-up Michael Penix Jr. He had his 2018 and 2020 seasons at Indiana end early because of major knee injuries. He transferred after the 2021 season and became the first quarterback since Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes in 2015-16 to throw for 4,500 yards in back-to-back seasons.

“He brought Indiana to places maybe they’ve never been, but they weren’t expected to win the championship,” DiNardo said. “Now he's at Washington, expectations have been exceeded again. It's not just Penix. We could go through everybody on the rosters and see how a previous experience helps in this experience they’re going to have Monday.”

Washington coach Kalen DeBoer was Penix's offensive coordinator at Indiana in 2019, and their familiarity with each other over Penix's long college career has shown up on the field.

“I’ve seen so many different looks with all the plays that we have,” Penix said. “It’s like I kind of have a feel for the game to where most of the time I know where I’m throwing before I even snap the ball.”

Older players on both teams said they made pacts with fellow graybeards to use their COVID exemption and pursue a national championship.

“Just knowing the guys we had in this room and the brotherhood, we saw all the things we could do together,” Michigan sixth-year linebacker Michael Barrett said. “We talked about what's good for the hive is good for the bee, and what's good for the bee is good for the hive.”

Washington sixth-year linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio said DeBoer, who is in his second season with the Huskies, played a key role in keeping the older players together.

“He recruited the heck out of us and we have a lot of gratitude for that, and we have a lot of belief we could get something like this done, and that made us not want to go to the (NFL) or enter the transfer portal,” Ulofoshio said. “We believed in this program, we believed in this team and we wanted this moment to happen for this team and university.”

Michigan fifth-year nickelback Mike Sainristil said he and his teammates know how to respond under pressure, and that's what happened when the Wolverines stopped Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe short of the goal line on the final play of the 27-20 overtime Rose Bowl win. Seven starting defenders have at least four years of experience. Sainristil said so much veteran leadership bodes well for the Wolverines’ future.

“It allows younger guys to understand this is how the leaders go about their business so I need to understand I can’t distract them from what they’re doing. I have to live up to what they do,” he said. “That expectation is set from day one. Now you have a team full of leaders, a team full of mature men, and I think that’s what this team is.”


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

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