Let’s not pretend that what TCU is doing is normal.
Yes, we’ll get to the title game and what it all means for this tremendous sport. We’ll talk about the football fireworks that ensued in the semifinals, and we’ll celebrate one of the greatest days college football has ever seen.
But we need to start with TCU and only TCU. Because right now, this program is doing something that defies recent history.
On Saturday, the Horned Frogs beat Michigan outright as an eight-point underdog in the Fiesta Bowl. The concerns about being small across the offensive and defensive lines? No concern at all. TCU jumped out to an early lead, benefited from a few key mistakes and hung on to a program-defining win.
Physically, they looked like they belonged. I didn’t believe that would be the case, although it was. The result was a wild game, a somewhat shocking outcome and a new chapter in one of the greatest college football seasons ever.
TCU opened at 500/1 to win the national championship last offseason. The Horned Frogs were not ranked in the AP Poll.
When you consider just how top-heavy this sport has come—and likely how top-heavy it will stay with NIL and the transfer portal—this is an outlier.
Since the playoff’s inception in 2014, few teams have actually been able to access the final four thanks largely to a dominant run from Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. Even fewer have gained access to the championship.
Including TCU, only seven teams in the past nine years have made this game. Alabama has been featured six times, Clemson has made it four times, and this will be Georgia’s third visit.
The Horned Frogs are not supposed to make this game. Plain and simple. The playoff format is constructed to keep “good stories” out. It’s largely why CFB is expanding its postseason.
Well, that and money.
Over the course of this season, TCU has normalized the impossible. The highwire navigation through the regular season was a sight to behold. Sonny Dykes’ team is now 10-3-1 against the spread, although that doesn’t do much without context.
There were comebacks and walk-off, game-winning field goals. There was even a loss, which is hard for any team to stomach. The fact that it will result in a trip to Los Angeles is nothing short of one of the greatest accomplishments CFB has ever seen.
Yes, I feel comfortable saying that before the championship is even played. This is a rare moment, and one we should not soon forget.
The Appetizer (Part 1): College Football Playoff Tidbits and Observations
There is much to discuss. I hope you like beefy appetizers.
1. I cannot tell you how happy I am that we finally got a competitive day of semifinal games. These games have largely been dreadful. Forget about getting two good games in the same year; getting one has been a challenge. Of the 16 playoff games played before Saturday’s delightful showing, only three were really exciting. We have waited almost a decade for a day like this, and we finally got it.
2. Marvin Harrison Jr.’s injury changed Ohio State’s fortune against Georgia. Of course, it did. He might be the best player on the field, even at wide receiver. When he went out after a brutal hit in the back of the end zone that could have been targeting, the Ohio State offense, which still has a ton of weapons, simply didn’t look the same. You look for little things in games of this magnitude, and this was a big “little” thing. He’s an incredible player. His absence hurt a great deal.
3. Kirby Smart will never call a better timeout. With Ohio State up 11, Ryan Day lined up to punt on fourth and short deep in the second half. Moments before the ball was snapped, Smart frantically called a timeout. The play call was a fake, which unfolded as the whistles blew. The unique alignment was enough to prompt the last-minute decision from the head coach, and what a decision it was. The Buckeyes ultimately punted, and Georgia scored a few moments later. What a massive play.
4. I’ve been a Jim Harbaugh defender, but I thought Michigan coached a brutal game. The play calling on offense was largely bad. The mistakes were massive, and the team looked almost frozen in the moment. Michigan’s defense, which was so good this year, was unable to get pressure without blitzing, and the secondary was torched as a result. This was a lost opportunity for Harbaugh, and there’s simply no other way to shape it.
5. The SEC has now won 10 consecutive College Football Playoff semifinal games, and it is 10-1 overall. I hate the whole puffy-chested conference bragging rights component of this time of year, but this is significant. Georgia and Alabama, of course, are doing much of the heavy lifting here, although the stat is still remarkable. Here’s the reality: recruiting great players year after year is going to work out over the long haul.
6. The playing surface at State Farm Stadium is maybe the worst in sports. Seriously, it stinks. Not only did players struggle to keep their footing in the Michigan-TCU game, but we saw officials slipping throughout as well. This is the same surface that Kyler Murray tore up his knee on earlier this year. It’s also the same surface that will host a Super Bowl in February. Something needs to change.
The Appetizer (Part 2): Football Tidbits and Observations
1. I am not a draft expert, but Bryce Young looks like the No. 1 overall pick. The Alabama QB looked like the best player in the sport against Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl. The Crimson Tide easily covered the 7.5-point spread, and Young finished with five touchdowns and six incompletions. He’ll be knocked for his lack of height endlessly over the next few months, so prepare for that. At this point, however, I would be shocked if he isn’t the first name called.
2. Clemson, in my eyes, is on the verge of fading as a relevant national power. The loss to Tennessee as a 4-point favorite in the Orange Bowl was revealing for a few different reasons. While the Tigers still have some really good players, a lack of team speed along with a general lack of a game plan was evident. Running back Will Shipley is tremendous. Freshman QB Cade Klubnik will be good. But if Dabo Swinney will stubbornly avoid maximizing opportunities through NIL and the transfer portal, the best days at this program will be behind it. The losses at QB and across the staff are starting to catch up.
3. I’m sorry to do this, but we need to talk about Iowa one more time. The Hawkeyes shutout Kentucky in the Music City Bowl 21-0. In doing so, they covered the three-point spread. The stats to emerge from this season regarding the defense, including this one and this one, are pretty remarkable. This was a historically great defense, a historically bad offense and a really weird year.
4. My most painful loss of the bowl season, and there were a few, was not covering the Pinstripe Bowl. I had Minnesota (-10) against Syracuse, and it felt pretty good throughout the entire game. It felt even better when the Gophers recovered a fumble late in the game, although it was overturned because there were too many men on the field. Syracuse then scored a late touchdown to get within eight points, and I complained the entire ride home to my Uber driver.
5. Lane Kiffin did not have a great end of the season. I like Kiffin a lot, and I think he’s a refreshing voice for college football as a whole. But Ole Miss just gave its head coach a raise that will pay him a reported $9 million a year, and Kiffin responded by losing five out of the last six games. Also, the Rebels were 4-8-1 ATS this year.
As a programming heads-up, we’ll be going deep on the national championship game later in the week as we process the matchup. We’re easing into the week with a quick assessment of the matchup at first glance.
The point spread is predictably large, and it will likely generate strong responses on both sides.
TCU certainly seemed to hold up physically against Michigan, although that question will (and should) be asked once again in this game. As we saw last year against Michigan, Georgia has another level of speed and physicality that few teams possess. TCU isn’t one of them. Michigan wasn't, either.
Injuries will also be a factor here. TCU lost star running back Kendre Miller in its game. Miller attempted to return, although he was clearly hurting and quickly exited. His absence would be a very big deal on Monday, especially in pass protection.
On the Georgia front, tight end Darnell Washington suffered an ankle injury and had to leave the game. While Georgia is obviously loaded at the position, Washington is a potential matchup nightmare against TCU. If he is unable to play, it’ll be a sizable blow to the Georgia offense.
The quarterbacks, of course, will be the proper focus, Both Max Duggan and Stetson Bennett were brilliant at times during the semifinals. They also both produced a slew of uncharacteristic mistakes. It will be fascinating to see how both bounce back.
We have a lot to unpack, including a Georgia secondary that looked utterly ordinary against the Buckeyes going up against one of the best wideouts in football. And for TCU, which benefited from a handful of crucial Michigan mistakes, it will have to manufacture more stops.
The number is huge, but the game is loaded with intrigue. I’ll be headed to Los Angeles in the coming days, and we’ll provide a much deeper analysis then.
Happy New Year.