Texas Christian University is going to show up Monday night in Southern California, if only to provide Georgia with a proper coronation as college football’s back-to-back national champions. At least, that’s what the experts are saying.
That’s also why TCU is perfectly positioned to pull off a monumental upset and capture the school’s first title in 84 years.
You know what? Let’s play along. TCU has no chance. Tell your friends and neighbors. Remind ’em how the Horned Frogs are a two-touchdown underdog, one of the largest point spreads ever for a title game. Remind ’em that TCU’s most important player, quarterback Max Duggan, is coming off his worst game of the season and that TCU’s best running back, Kendre Miller, may not play after suffering a knee injury last weekend.
Georgia? Whoa boy. Georgia! Champions of the mighty Southeastern Conference. Defending national champions. Winners of 32 of their last 33 games, including 14 in a row this season. Georgia’s lone defeat during this 32–1 run was a 41–24 loss to Alabama in the 2021 SEC Championship Game, which the Bulldogs avenged five weeks later by routing the Crimson Tide in the championship game.
This season, Georgia’s average margin of victory has been 26 points. Its only close call came against Missouri, a game in which the Dawgs were down 10 points in the fourth quarter before waking up, scoring a pair of touchdowns and winning 26–22. As for Georgia’s traditional SEC rivals, the team beat ’em all, and beat ’em badly: Auburn by 32 points, Florida by 22, Tennessee 14, LSU 20.
No way TCU hangs with these guys, right? Just like TCU wasn’t supposed to hang with Michigan in last weekend’s semifinal. That was true, right up until TCU won 51–45.
T-C-Who? This is the team picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, the team that entered the Michigan game a seven-and-a-half-point underdog. The team that didn’t appear to inspire too much concern in the Big Ten champions. TCU coaches and players watched a video in which Wolverines linebacker Junior Colson seemed unaware of which conference the Frogs played in. “Well, you know now,” TCU safety Bud Clark said after the game.
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy added fuel to fire by telling reporters that if the Frogs stayed with their usual defensive scheme, they were going to get a lesson in Big Ten football. “If they stay in that 3-3-5, then it’s gonna be a lot of smashing,” he said.
TCU did run its 3-3-5. Michigan did not smash it, rushing for 186 yards, far below the team’s 239-yard average this season. On New Year’s Eve, TCU did the smashing, rolling up 488 yards of offense against a Michigan defense that had been allowing 277 a game. “Going into the [Michigan game] people didn’t think we were a physical team, and we got to show that,” TCU defensive lineman Dylan Horton said. “I feel like we surprised some people, but we have to keep that same mindset coming into this upcoming game.”
Around the country, words like “stunning” were used to describe TCU’s upset of Michigan. “All week, we heard about Big Ten football and how they were going to line up and run all over us,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said on the field, moments after the semifinal win. Later, at the postgame press conference, he added: “At some point, you just kind of quit listening to what everybody says. . . . I think we’re a physical, tough-minded football team. It bothered me that we heard all week about how we were going to get lined up and run through.”
What pretty much everybody believed was that TCU was going nowhere in Dykes’s first season after the firing of Gary Patterson. TCU went 16–18 over the previous three years, hadn’t been in the Associated Press Top 25 since 2019, and hadn’t won a bowl game since beating Cal in the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl. Conventional wisdom assigned TCU to also-ran status in preseason Big 12 prognostications. (The Horned Frogs promptly went 12–0 in the regular season.)
That’s part of what confounds college football observers when it comes to TCU. The Horned Frogs kept winning and winning in 2022, but they also constantly flirted with defeat. They trailed Kansas by 7 points in the second half, Oklahoma State by 14, Texas Tech by 4, Baylor by 8. TCU won all those games, although sometimes they barely escaped with the victory, like that day in Waco when the Frogs trailed Baylor with less than three minutes remaining. TCU didn’t win that one until its field-goal team hustled onto the field with sixteen seconds remaining, no timeouts left, and the clock running. Griffin Kell’s game-winning kick split the uprights at 0:00 for a 29–28 victory.
Georgia is loaded with five-star recruits and future first-round NFL draft choices. Defensive tackle Jalen Carter likely will be either the first or second non-quarterback taken in next spring’s NFL Draft. Cornerback Kelee Ringo is another probable 2023 first-rounder, who will probably be tasked with covering TCU’s star wide receiver, Quentin Johnston, Monday night.
So how might the Horned Frogs manage to even remain competitive with these SEC juggernauts in the championship game? When the Athletic asked coaches around the country what most impressed them about the two national finalists, one pointed to Horned Frogs offensive coordinator Garrett Riley. The more this coach watched the TCU offense, he said, the more impressed he became. He saw a team that is masterful at scouting opponents and building a game plan around perceived weaknesses.
“We call them schemers, offensive coaches, and all they do is watch things opponents have done to you and they try to repeat them,” the coach said. “That’s what TCU does.” He said that TCU had taken note of how often Michigan blitzes its cornerbacks. When the rush came last weekend, Duggan spotted it immediately and hit Johnston for a 32-yard gain.
Another coach predicted Riley would be speaking to his brother, USC head coach Lincoln Riley. Lincoln’s Oklahoma team went for 531 yards against Georgia in the 2018 Rose Bowl. Georgia won that game 54–48 in double overtime, but USC’s strategy had worked spectacularly. “Oklahoma’s offense goes fast, mixes up formations, and that had Georgia on its heels a little bit,” this coach told the Athletic. “I’m sure [Garrett Riley will] have the same thought process this time. Be aggressive, use tempo and attack.”
To focus on one aspect of TCU’s game is to overlook the size and power of the Horned Frogs’ offensive and defensive lines. Texas running back Bijan Robinson rushed for at least 100 yards in nine of his final ten games. TCU was the outlier, holding the nation’s best running back to just 29 yards on twelve carries.
Even if Michigan wasn’t sure what conference TCU played in, the Wolverines learned that the Frogs are equally comfortable playing both smash-mouth Big Ten football and the Big 12 speed game. “I think they never played a team as fast as us and I think they didn’t realize that,” said TCU running back Emari Demercado. “They did a little premature talking, not really knowing what we’re capable of.”
Unlike Michigan, Georgia is giving the Horned Frogs no motivational material. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was effusive in his praise of TCU, and he seems determined to prevent his team from making the mistake of looking past the Frogs. “Their kids believe,” Smart said. “They have, I feel like just reading and listening about them, a lot of similarities to our kids in terms of the culture created there, the way they play, the way they believe. Their conference has been in a lot of tight ballgames, and they’ve won those tight ballgames, and done an incredible job with what they do.”
Maybe Smart is playing it safe. Maybe he’s appropriately concerned about the 13–1 team standing between Georgia and back-to-back national titles. TCU is a reminder of college football’s new normal, where Texas and Oklahoma are nothing special and Tulane, Tennessee, Kansas, and Kansas State are capable of beating almost anyone. “The landscape of college football has changed, and I think the perception of the Big 12 has changed,” Dykes said. “I think all of that allowed us to get in the playoff, and then it was up to us to do something with that opportunity.” And, well, maybe seizing that opportunity will be just a little bit easier if big-name opponents keep underestimating TCU.
Georgia’s too good. The Frogs have no chance. Pass it on.