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The 2024 NCAA football championship, brought to you by ... California?

The Washington Huskies, seen here celebrating with the trophy after beating the Texas Longhorns in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, quickly rebuilt its roster by using transfers and players from out of state — particularly California.
Sean Gardner
/
Getty Images
The Washington Huskies, seen here celebrating with the trophy after beating the Texas Longhorns in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, quickly rebuilt its roster by using transfers and players from out of state — particularly California.

When the Michigan Wolverines and Washington Huskies face off in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night, a third state is being exceptionally well represented: California.

In fact, football fans in California can claim more players in the title game than their counterparts in either Michigan or Washington, according to the teams' listings of their players' hometowns.

Both of the undefeated teams rely on out-of-state talent for more than half of their players, according to their published rosters.

Where do the players come from?

Just 34 Wolverines are listed as being from Michigan on its roster, which runs to 143 players. That means in-state players make up around 24% of the team.

Washington's roster lists 120 players, and just a few more Huskies hail from the Apple State (42) than from California (38).

With Michigan counting 11 players from California and none from Washington state, that brings the California contingent in the national title game to 49 players — the most of any state.

Washington's team does have two players from Michigan, pushing Michigan's total in the big game to 36 athletes. No Wolverines' home towns are listed as being in Washington state.

Is this a new trend?

Top college teams have been scouting and attracting talent around the U.S., and beyond, for years. But a look at these two teams shows how that trend has evolved — especially when we compare their current rosters to their championship teams of the 1990s.

Michigan's roster from 1997, when it last won it all, shows 48 players from in-state, on a roster with 116 names, or about 41% of the total squad. But back then, the out-of-state recruiting effort seemed to focus on Ohio — where it signed 10 players, including Charles Woodson.

The 1997 Wolverines also recruited in other big states known to produce talented athletes, such as Texas (9 players) and Florida (5 players). But it had just four players from California — including Tom Brady, who was then playing behind Brian Griese of Florida.

Washington's 1991 championship roster, or at least the one it printed at the start of the year (a later version wasn't available online), is much more similar — up to a point — to the makeup of today's roster.

The 1991 team included 49 players from California and 60 from Washington, meaning that around 44% of the roster was home-grown. But as we'll see below, Washington has also relied on a new strategy to win: recruiting transfers from other schools.

How big a role do the out-of-state players play?

They have been crucial, for both Michigan and Washington.

Looking at Washington's player stats for the 2023 season, a core of key athletes all hail from other states, from Heisman finalist Michael Penix Jr., who is from the Tampa, Fla., area, to otherworldly wide receiver Rome Odunze, who went to high school in Las Vegas.

Edge rusher Bralen Trice, out of Phoenix, has seven sacks to lead the Huskies. Running back Dillon Johnson, a Mississippi native, scored 16 touchdowns for the Huskies — but his status has been in question for the final, due to an injury in the last minute of the Sugar Bowl win over No. 3 Texas a week ago.

Michigan's player stats for the 2023 season tell a similar story, most emphatically in the rushing column, led by running back Blake Corum — one of five Wolverines from Virginia, and who scored a touchdown against Alabama to help Michigan reach the title game.

None of this is to say homegrown players don't also help their teams. Highly regarded cornerback Will Johnson — whose side of the field often gets tellingly quiet during games — is from Detroit, for instance.

But the Wolverines' leading tackler is linebacker Junior Colson of Brentwood, Tenn.; its leading receiver is Roman Wilson of Maui, Hawaii. Its imposing defense relies on players from Tampa, Fla. (edge rusher Jaylen Harrell), Olney, Md. (defensive tackle Kris Jenkins), and Everett, Mass. (defensive back Mike Sainristil), and elsewhere.

It's not unusual for highly coveted athletes to join programs outside their home state. Since 2010, for instance, just two Heisman winners — Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III — have won the trophy playing in the same state where they went to high school.

What about the transfer portal?

Michigan and Washington arrived at the national title game by playing to different strengths. The Wolverines rely on elite defense and control at the line of scrimmage, while the Huskies deploy an offense led by Penix and a corps of talented receivers.

But while both teams look far and wide to find talented players, one of them — Washington — also performed a quick turnaround thanks to another strategy: the transfer portal.

Washington is playing for it all just two years after going 4-8 in the 2021-2022 season. After that losing record, it hired Kalen DeBoer — a talented head coach who arrived in the same year the NCAA's transfer rules changed to no longer require a player who switches schools for the first time to sit out one year before suiting up.

The list of transfers making an impact at Washington is long. It starts with Penix, who came most recently from Indiana, but it also includes Johnson, who came from Mississippi State; and defensive back Jabbar Muhammad, who led the Huskies in interceptions after coming from Oklahoma State.

Why does any of this matter?

The title teams' rosters show how college football is becoming an ever more-professionalized sport, dominated by state colleges that have become burgeoning national brands. These days, alumni are routinely hit up to send money to line the pockets of potential star players through name, image and likeness deals. And in the transfer era, recruiting no longer stops when a player graduates college.

Also, in a year that has become the swan song of the PAC-12, it's worth noting that while the venerable conference finally has a team in the college football playoff final, the state of California is finally also involved — but only because it produced athletes for out-of-state programs to recruit.

It's particularly poignant because Washington is poised to leave the PAC-12 to join Michigan in the Big Ten — a move that helped put the heralded "conference of champions" into what has been described as a death spiral.

Still, this year's title game is a stark contrast to last year's, when both contenders' rosters were dominated by homegrown players. In that game, Texas Christian University listed some 79 players from Texas. On the other sideline, the Bulldogs listed 77 players from Georgia on their 2022 roster.

Another perennial contender, Alabama, is more similar to Michigan in recruiting far beyond its borders. In the 2021-2022 season, when the Crimson Tide last played in the title game, it did so with a roster of 128 players — 43 of whom were from Alabama, or about 34% of the squad.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.