February 23, 2024

As the Washington Huskies surveyed the scene at the College Football Playoff media day inside Houston’s downtown convention center, you couldn’t have blamed them for feeling a bit as if they were straddling two worlds.

The Big Ten Network was broadcasting the event live from the biggest set (naturally), adorned with the famed Michigan block ‘M’ on each side. The Wolverines, who had just left the building to rabid applause from their fans, will be a conference opponent for Washington next October in Seattle. Saturday morning seemed like something of a sneak preview of the Huskies’ future life.

Yet, it was hard to forget the recent past. As of late July, Washington’s players did not know what league they would be calling home in the fall of 2024. Yet , despite all of that, they showed no confusion about whom they are representing in Monday night’s national championship game.

“It’s super weird,” Washington linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio said. “It doesn’t even feel real because we’re not disbanding as a university; we’re just going to the Big Ten. It’s kind of sad. The Pac-12 had a lot of great traditions. It’s a place that means the world to me. I love the Pac-12. I would have my kids play in the Pac-12.”

Ulofoshio’s theoretical children won’t have that chance, along with any other kids who grow up on the West Coast with ambitions to play big-time college football.

Washington will play the last Pac-12 football game in history, and, given the rapid changes afoot in college athletics, how certain can any of us be that there will be a Big Ten Conference in 20 years?

But for seven more months, there is officially a Pac-12, and that’s where the bragging rights for this game would live for eternity, if the Huskies pull off a mild upset of Michigan.

“We might have Pac-12 logos on our jerseys still, I don’t know, for me I would say we’re the Pac,” Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze said. “I grew up watching Pac-12 football, and I’m a West Coast kid. I’m fond of the Pac-12 Conference and all the teams in it. Even though some of us have rivalries, I back the Pac. It’s surreal it’s going to come to an end. It’s going to be so different.”

On the other sideline Monday is a school that, at this moment, would caution Washington that the grass isn’t always greener.

Michigan as an institution remains fiery mad at the Big Ten — from the partnering universities, their athletic administrators and coaches to the league office, led by first-year commissioner Tony Petitti — for the handling of the NCAA’s investigation into the Wolverines’ sign-stealing methods.

The consternation over Petitti’s three-game suspension of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, announced late on a Friday afternoon before the Wolverines were set to play at Penn State the next day, is still reverberating — and probably will for some time.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh speaks during a news conference in Houston.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh speaks during a news conference in Houston on Saturday ahead of the College Football Playoff championship on Monday night.

(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

That the Big Ten gets to puff out its chest after one of its teams beat a Southeastern Conference power like Alabama in the semifinals, and that the schools that had wanted the Wolverines neutered now stand to financially benefit from their success in the CFP, are ironies that are not lost in Ann Arbor.

“I would say it’s bittersweet, because obviously we wanted support from our conference and the teams we have played,” Michigan defensive end Braiden McGregor said. “Shout-out to the couple of coaches where after we played them, they were like, ‘They were that good.’ But then you have the other coaches, who go behind our backs, say stuff that may or may not be true. At the end of the day, we are all a part of the Big Ten. We support any Big Ten team that’s playing in the bowl games, especially if they’re playing SEC teams. We just want support from everybody else.”

Said Michigan safety Rod Moore, “I like it. It’s just the way of life. Everyone was against you to a point, we make it to the national championship, so the narrative flips, and it just makes us feel great, especially when they took Coach Harbaugh from us against Penn State and we didn’t even know they were going to do it.”

The Wolverines see now that the experience of having to play their three toughest regular-season games without Harbaugh and with offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore leading them only made them stronger.

So, in that case, they say thank you to the Big Ten.

“It feels satisfying,” Michigan defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said, “and that’s been our whole mission ever since coach was suspended. We wanted to show everyone regardless of what happens to this team, we’re going to still be 10 toes down together. Honestly, it was kind of fun. It really felt like that ‘Michigan vs. Everybody’ was taking place, and we really felt like we were standing by it.”

The climate of the Big Ten that Washington, along with USC, UCLA and Oregon, are joining is a more contentious version than the one that existed in August when the Huskies and Ducks made their Midwestern migration. There is healing that needs to occur between the league and one of its two preeminent powers, but that process has not begun.

The Big Ten-Michigan situation won’t dampen Washington’s enthusiasm to start fresh in what is now a “Power Two” conference. After USC and UCLA bolted from the Pac-12 first, Washington’s future was floundering in the wind, and it was up to head coach Kalen DeBoer to keep the ship steady.

Washington coach Kalen DeBoer speaks to reporters during a news conference on Saturday.

Washington coach Kalen DeBoer speaks to reporters during a news conference on Saturday.

(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

“There were some things that were still up in the air as far as what could happen with the Pac-12 and the media piece that was out there still getting worked out,” DeBoer said. “I told the staff [in recruiting], focus on UW, focus on the tradition, focus on how great our academics are, focus on our market that we have in Seattle, focus on all those things that make us different than most of the other programs in the country. That kind of led us to this feeling like no matter where we’re at, we’re going to be OK.”

Washington eventually decided the Pac-12’s streaming-heavy media deal with Apple was not the right move, and the Big Ten came forward with the life raft.

Washington now has the opportunity to send the Pac-12 off as a champion. Win or lose Monday, it is clear the conference is leaving at the height of its powers.

“Let’s not miss the moment,” Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth said. “That’s what I would always echo to fans. Hey, you may not be thrilled about a 100-year-old conference falling apart, but let’s not miss a moment in the most competitive and most talented Pac-12 in my 20 years covering and being a part of this league.”

Michigan players arrive for a news conference in Houston on Saturday ahead of the College Football Playoff on Monday.

Michigan players arrive for a news conference in Houston on Saturday ahead of the College Football Playoff on Monday.

(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Few have worked harder to boost the Pac-12 during its declining decade than Roth, a former USC assistant under Pete Carroll. Roth went through his mourning process in the fall and is now trying to find work for his devoted colleagues at the network.

Roth’s goal was to make this farewell season about the games, and there is no bigger one than Monday‘s. There won’t be a Pac-12 to reap the benefits of a Huskies win, but he says he believes it would still resonate for the region.

“They know what they’re representing, the West Coast,” Roth said. “They’re representing a league that deals with a bias from the rest of the country. They want to show out for that. They’ve put this side of the country on their shoulders. I think that’s a good thing regardless of conference realignment.”

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