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Michigan defeats Washington at transitional moment for college football

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The drought is over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Hail, hail, Michigan. They are the champions of college football 2023.

PFEIFFER: Last night the Michigan Wolverines defeated the Washington Huskies 34-13, making them college national champions. It's a big moment for a school that's measured its drought in two ways. First, Michigan's last national football title in 1997 was shared with Nebraska. And second, if we're talking about standalone titles, the Wolverines were last champs in 1948. It's also a big moment for college football as a whole because next year the playoffs expand from four to 12 teams. That sets up a new era of play. Nicole Auerbach is a senior writer with The Athletic and NBC Sports, and she was in Houston last night as the confetti came showering down. Hi, Nicole.

NICOLE AUERBACH: Hi. Thanks for having me.

PFEIFFER: Did this game live up to its hype?

AUERBACH: Well, I would say the middle of the game was not necessarily the most exciting football I have ever seen in my life, but it absolutely did because you had two programs that had not been in this stage in a really long time. So the fan bases, the energy and the storylines were everywhere. And it was a lot of fun going into the game.

PFEIFFER: By the way, speaking of a very long time, my husband mentioned to me last night that the last time Michigan won, Tom Brady was on its football team. Is he right about that and how long that's been?

AUERBACH: And we know that Tom Brady is basically a cyborg at this point. So, yes, it's been a minute.

(LAUGHTER)

PFEIFFER: What were some key moments that swung the game in Michigan's favor?

AUERBACH: Well, right out of the gate, Donovan Edwards had two long touchdown runs of more than 40 yards right out of the gate. That'll do it and set the tone early. And then it was the end of the game where J.J. McCarthy completes a big pass to tight end Colston Loveland, setting up a Blake Corum touchdown. That creates the cushion that they needed. But essentially, they were able to run the ball. And that's how they won the game with their defense and the run game.

PFEIFFER: We mentioned that the playoff will expand to 12 teams next season. Briefly, how is that going to work?

AUERBACH: So it's similar to how it is now with the selection committee. But there will be a designated amount of spots for conference champions that are highly ranked. And then there will be at large spots. So you will probably see a lot more teams from the Big Ten in the SEC than anywhere else because those are typically where the best teams are. And these conferences are getting bigger next year as well, so they will have a lot of contenders. But you will see home campus games for the first round. There will be byes for the top four seeds, and there will just be additional games. And more teams will be alive in the playoff hunt as we get later into the regular season mid-November. I think we'll be talking about 2030 teams still alive in the race.

PFEIFFER: Nicole, from your viewpoint, what are the pros and cons of this expansion?

AUERBACH: Well, I've always been a proponent of expansion because I think you need everyone to start the season with a path to play for a national championship instead of people being told by a group in a board room that you're just not good enough. So I think that's a really important piece. It'll also keep more regions, more teams engaged in the regular season as it goes on because we won't just eliminate teams the second that they have their first loss or their second loss.

The cons are there's more games, and this is something that comes up a lot when we talk about player welfare and player rights because, you know, they're not unionized. They are not employees, and they're being asked to play more games without salaries. And there's injury risk because, obviously, these are not professional athletes, and they're waiting to get their payday in the NFL. So there's just those concerns and that awkwardness there of asking for more for a multibillion dollar industry in college sports. But there is no revenue sharing. So the money is not going directly to the players, at least at this point.

PFEIFFER: That added physical toll is a really interesting point. Before we let you go, what are some of the biggest headlines you're watching for ahead of next season?

AUERBACH: Well, everything is changing this offseason. And that's why it was really interesting to cover this championship game - because it really did feel like the end of an era. I think you're moving more and more towards the way that professional sports works, with divisions and conferences and really a national sport. And this is a college sport that has always been very regional and rivalries, and it's not been this way. And so I think we're really going to be confronted by what a big business college sports and specifically college football will be, and I think it's going to feel very different.

PFEIFFER: Nicole Auerbach covers college football for The Athletic and NBC. Thank you.

AUERBACH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nicole Auerbach