No. 3 TCU began its season unranked and projected to finish seventh in the Big 12. It will end its season Monday night with the chance to be national champions. They are one victory from becoming perhaps college football’s greatest underdog tale.
The Horned Frogs (13-1) upset No. 3 Michigan, 51-45, in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Eve to become the first Big 12 team to make the College Football Playoff Championship game. They already were the first team from Texas to make the playoff. Their remarkable run concludes against No. 1 Georgia on Monday in Inglewood, California (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
“It will be a big challenge for us,” first-year TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “But our players have been able to overcome challenges all year. And we’re excited about an opportunity to try to do it again.”
TCU will need a near perfect game and some help to topple the reigning champions. Here’s how it could happen:
1. Why not us?
For those who believe in a “team of destiny,” TCU checks every box. They’ve had a magnificent run to reach this point. They were unranked in the preseason. Dykes, only five years ago fired at California, has surpassed every expectation. Quarterback Max Duggan went from opening the season as a backup to finishing it as the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Nothing about TCU’s campaign has made sense relative to what one thinks one knows about college football. They’ve won six one-score games, including the insane victory over Michigan. It rarely looks overwhelming — since Oct. 8, TCU has one victory by more than 10 points — but it’s effective. TCU clearly is a mentally strong team. They’re more physical than credited, too.
“I truly believe maturity, preparation, hard work. … Just a general belief in each other and a belief that we’re good enough,” Dykes said. “I think that’s been the message really since I got the job here was we’re good enough. We’re good enough to compete. We’re good enough to win Game 1, and we’re good enough to win Game 2. And let’s take it one game at a time.”
One would be brave to pick TCU on Monday. Georgia has more talent, more experience and has looked far more dominant throughout the season. But TCU’s campaign is all about bravery. It’s more about heart than brain. That doesn’t sound like a solid case for their victory in California, but their season-long knack for making the improbable their reality suggests there’s a chance — somehow.
The Frogs opened as 13-point underdogs against Georgia.
“We used (the doubts) all season,” linebacker Dee Winters said. “I think our coaching staff does a great job just motivating us. But when you hear how you’re about to lose to a team or however many points you are going to lose by, it just fuels us as a team.”
2. Duggan and chunk plays
If TCU wins, Duggan was extraordinary. There’s no other conceivable way the Frogs pull this off. They need their Heisman Trophy candidate to be the best player on the field — and judging strictly off that award’s voting, he should be. Just as C.J. Stroud was for Ohio State in its near upset.
Duggan was 14-of-29 passing for 225 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions against Michigan. He added 57 yards and two scores on 15 rushing attempts. He’ll need to be better against Georgia. The margin for error is smaller, and the opponent is better (one could argue even drastically better, talent-wise). The Bulldogs won’t be as surprised by TCU’s speed as Michigan was, either.
Duggan’s ability to improvise is key. Stroud, not known for going off-script, created plays by doing so. That was considered Stroud’s weakness entering the Peach Bowl; it’s Duggan’s best strength and enables TCU to be creative on offense. Duggan will need to process quickly and buy time for chunk plays.
“That’s a huge part of how our offense (has) been moving this season,” receiver Quentin Johnston said of Duggan’s play style.
Like the Buckeyes, the Frogs need explosive plays on offense. They won’t beat Georgia trying for lengthy drives. Offensive coordinator Garrett Riley and company need to get imaginative, using a variety of concepts – as Ohio State did – to attack downfield. The Bulldogs are sure to shore up some of their defensive lapses, but they’ve allowed 71 points over their past two games.
Just as Marvin Harrison scorched Georgia before his injury, Johnston must fare similarly. He might be the first receiver drafted in April. Johnston has excellent size, speed and contested-catch ability. Georgia’s secondary has been exploited in consecutive games, allowing 502 passing yards against LSU and 398 against Ohio State. Johnston will need a huge performance, just as he delivered in the Fiesta Bowl (six catches for 163 yards and a touchdown, named offensive MVP).
“I’m sure (Georgia is) correcting some of those plays in the passing game,” Dykes said. “And those are the kind of plays that we’re going to have to make. We’ll have to make some 50/50-ball plays, and we’ll have to have our best players step up and play big games, kind of like they did last week (versus Michigan). And when you get to this point of the season on this kind of stage, those great players, they have to perform at a high level.”
When one thinks Big 12, rushing offenses don’t come to mind. But only 12 teams have rushed for more yards than the Frogs. After gashing Michigan for 263 rushing yards, TCU averages 206.5 ground yards per game (No. 20 in country). Their biggest disadvantage Monday will be trench play, but TCU can’t let Georgia make it totally one-dimensional.
3. A messy game and an opportunistic defense
TCU defeated Michigan in a backyard-style game, where sometimes madness took precedent over logic. The Frogs need to muddy the game against Georgia, because man-to-man, they can’t match the talent. The game also is indoors, so weather won’t factor.
The Frogs thrive when the game is erratic. Georgia plays in structure, though it responded brilliantly when under duress in the Peach Bowl. It would behoove TCU to turn this game into bedlam, trying to induce similar miscues from Georgia as it did against Michigan.
The Wolverines twice failed to score inside the 2-yard line. TCU also produced two pick-sixes that made all the difference in a six-point win. Michigan had a talent advantage, and TCU did exactly what was required for an upset.
While TCU’s defense isn’t an elite group, it creates timely plays. The Frogs had 30 sacks in 14 games, tied for most in the Big 12 (and context aside, the same amount as Georgia). TCU’s two pick-sixes in the Fiesta Bowl brought its total to four, tied for most in the country. The team has 16 interceptions in 14 games (Georgia has 10 in 14 games, just for imperfect comparison’s sake).
TCU prevented Michigan from scoring a touchdown over its first nine possessions in the Fiesta Bowl, so it can be sturdy for stretches. It can’t afford the second-half lapses that led to Michigan’s outburst. The Buckeyes did a good job containing tight end Brock Bowers, and TCU will need to do similarly. TCU can’t let Georgia get many of the deep plays that saved it against Ohio State. The Bulldogs’ receiver depth shined in the Peach Bowl.
Georgia probably won’t make as many mistakes as Michigan. But TCU will likely need a turnover or two to keep pace: a sack-fumble, a tipped interception, a blocked punt, maybe a fourth-down stuff in the red zone. They need some breaks, and they’re capable of creating them.
“(Defensive coordinator Joe) Gillespie preaches that we’re going to make mistakes, it’s inevitable. But he wants us to go out there and have fun,” Winters said. “He constantly reminds us at the end of the day, it’s football and just play fast.”