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As the final seconds ticked down on the scoreboard Monday night in Houston, the end of an era arrived. 

The four-team College Football Playoff, first established in 2015, crowned its final champion as the Michigan Wolverines won their first title since 1997. 

College football will have a different look in 2024 with a 12-team playoff before it inevitably grows. 

The Pac-12 conference will no longer really exist after 10 of its 12 schools bolted for greener pastures and more money. 

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Name, image and likeness (NIL) and the transfer portal will continue to take over the sport until regulations are put in place, making college football similar to professional sports with players bouncing from team to team. 

Fans and those who cover the sport will have more than seven months to discuss the coming changes and the future of the sport. But for one finas night, college football focused on the field, crowning Michigan its champion. 

Let’s take a look at what we learned in the final college football game of the 2023 season. 

Michigan’s defense was that good

Entering the CFP national championship, the Michigan defense was elite, allowing the fewest points (9.5) and the second-fewest yards (239.7) per game in the country. 

And while Michigan held Alabama to just 288 yards and sacked quarterback Jalen Milroe six times in a CFP semifinal, the Washington offense posed an entirely new set of challenges. 

The Huskies slung it around the field the entire year, leading the country in passing yards per game (350) heading into the title game. 

Michael Penix Jr. attempts a pass

Washington had a trio of receivers capable of stretching the Michigan defense, with Rome Odunze and Ja’Lynn Polk both going over 1,000 receiving yards in 2023. 

The Washington offense was the biggest test for a Michigan defense that faced a backloaded schedule in a Big Ten Conference not known for pushing the ball down the field. 

It turned out the Michigan defense was up for the test. 

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The Wolverines held Washington to 24 points below its season average Monday and 173 yards below its average yards per game. 

Michael Penix Jr. and Washington’s passing game was limited all night, gaining at least 20 yards on a pass play just once after leading the country in pass plays over 20 yards (78). 

“We knew they’d get some yards. The goal was to not let them get behind us,” said Michigan co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, per MLive. “We busted a couple coverages — about two or three — and they didn’t capitalize because of our (defensive) line. Our D-line helped us out. And when we needed to play tight, we did.”

Michael Penix Jr. is comforted

Penix looked uncomfortable in the pocket and missed on multiple throws that he had connected on for most of the season. 

“They did some good things,” Penix said. “I feel like, on the offensive side of the ball, we just missed a lot of opportunities, opportunities where we needed to execute the most to help our team, put our team in a better position to come out with this win.”

The Michigan defense was the best in the country in 2023, and it proved it on the biggest stage Monday night. 

Jim Harbaugh has nearly done it all as a head coach

To say that the 2023 college football season was tumultuous for Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh would be the understatement of the century. 

The Wolverines began their undefeated season without Harbaugh after he served out a school-imposed three-game suspension over NCAA recruiting violations. Then, when Michigan was entering its most challenging phase of the season, Harbaugh was again sidelined an additional three games amid an investigation into a sign-stealing operation that involved former low-level staffer Connor Stalions. 

Through it all, Harbaugh’s team went 15-0 and snapped the program’s 26-year national title drought. 

Michigan celebrates a national championship

Harbaugh took over a Michigan program that had lost its way in 2014. In the seven years prior to Harbaugh taking the job in Ann Arbor in 2015, Michigan went a combined 46-42 under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. 

Harbaugh came in and brought a hard-nosed, physical brand of football to Michigan, leading the Wolverines to a 10-3 record in his first season. Over the past three seasons, Harbaugh’s teams have gone a combined 40-3, winning three straight Big Ten championships and going to the CFP each year. 

On Monday night, Harbaugh brought a championship to his alma mater, nine years after he took the job in Ann Arbor. 

“That man, he’s the reason we’re here today,” Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy said of his coach.

Now, the questions around Harbaugh returning to the NFL take over the conversation. 

Jim Harbaugh with the trophy

Harbaugh led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013 before losing to the Baltimore Ravens, coached by his brother, John Harbaugh. 

Harbaugh’s name has been connected to multiple job openings in the NFL. Will he look for another challenge at the next level?

If he does, Harbaugh didn’t give any hints Monday night. 

“I just want to enjoy this,” Harbaugh said. “I hope you give me that. Can I have that? Does it always have to be what’s next, what’s the future?”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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