The press conferences before big college football games are boring. If a player starts to say something mildly spicy, he might catch himself mid-sentence and get back on book. But every once in a while, etiquette breaks down and someone says something that raises eyebrows. Behold Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who a few days before Michigan played TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, better known as the semifinals of the College Football Playoff: “It’s gonna be a lot of smashing, because it just opens up a lot of holes. A lot of running lanes and just being able to move people is going to be huge for us. Just bringing the Big Ten to the Big 12 and showing them what we’re all about.”
McCarthy was answering a question about TCU’s 3-3-5 defensive formation, with three linemen, three linebackers, and five secondary players. The nickel defense is now the standard across all of college football, but the Horned Frogs are fanatical about it, staying in that package for virtually every play in a Big 12 Conference with a pass-happy reputation. Michigan’s Big Ten is not known for that style. Two years in a row, the Wolverines have gotten to the Playoff by pounding the absolute hell out of Ohio State. Supposedly, the small ball–playing Texas Christian would not be able to do business against big, bad Michigan.
Ninety-six points and a New Year’s Eve victory later, TCU turned that narrative and the entire sport on its head. In the grand sweep of college football history, their victory over Michigan represents a lot more than one perceived style triumphing over another. The Frogs are now one win away from what would easily be the most shocking college football event of this century and, in all likelihood, a timespan that goes back much further than that.
On Saturday in Arizona, the Frogs stayed true to their 3-3-5 selves on defense and made Michigan the team with trench trouble. The Wolverines got zero points on two early drives inside TCU’s 3-yard line. McCarthy threw two interceptions that TCU defenders ran back for touchdowns. Michigan couldn’t get back all of a 21-6 halftime deficit, as a last-minute defensive stand by the Frogs preserved a 51-45 win. TCU plays Georgia, which won an equally thrilling game against Ohio State, for the national title on Jan. 9 in Los Angeles.
TCU’s run to within a whisker of the mountaintop is a stunning turn the sport has never exactly seen before. Underdog teams get on impressive streaks all the time, but TCU’s blitzing of the country’s top echelon of teams has been the kind of magic carpet ride that seemed impossible until this very moment.
TCU went 5-7 in 2021. It was a bad enough season to push out legendary coach Gary Patterson, who had guided the Frogs from non-power conference status to a place of prominence in the big leagues. To replace Patterson, TCU hired Sonny Dykes away from rival SMU. Dykes is a respected Texan coach and one of many successful branches of the Mike Leach air raid coaching tree, but nothing suggested he would do more than get TCU into a mid-tier bowl this year. His signing class of high school players ranked 45th in the country. His collection of transfers was significant, ranking 13th and including several players who would become big contributors. But TCU’s nucleus looked a lot like it did the year before. The concept of TCU competing in the Big 12 was far-fetched; that the Frogs would do so nationally was preposterous.
Teams in TCU’s weight class don’t contend for national titles, whether they’re coming off five-win or 10-win seasons. Championships are reserved for teams that sign up at least half a roster’s worth of four- and five-star recruits over several years. That’s about a dozen teams, and TCU will probably never be one of them. The Frogs are longtime overachievers and had gotten themselves to the precipice of the playoff before, in 2014, when the selection committee cold-shouldered them. But then they reverted to middling status, as can happen especially quickly for teams that lack blue-blood prestige and recruiting.
The Frogs are not the first team to have a bad season, flip a switch, and make a title charge. Auburn went 3-9 in 2012 and got to the BCS Championship the next year before losing a heartbreaker to Florida State. USC went 4-5-1 in 1961 before winning the whole thing in ’62. But Auburn was just two full seasons removed from winning a national title when it got back to the final and USC had been a Western power for decades. That is not the deal for TCU, which got a one-way ticket to the wilderness back in the 1990s when half of its Southwest Conference merged with the Big Eight to form the Big 12. The Frogs were left to wander from the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West before finally ascending to the Big 12 in 2012. That pathway is much more relevant to their current place in the sport than the fact that Davey O’Brien led them to the 1938 national title.
The shape of so many TCU games this season has added to the legend. The Frogs rank sixth in SP+, Bill Connelly’s opponent-adjusted efficiency metric. But they have survived calamity after calamity to get here. In October, they were in severe danger against Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State. They survived all of them thanks to a mix of perseverance, explosive plays, and injuries to opposing quarterbacks. In November, on the road against Baylor, they missed a game-tying two-point conversion with two minutes left. Their defense quickly got the ball back to quarterback Max Duggan, who marched them 45 yards in a minute and a half. The Frogs ran out of timeouts and rushed their field goal unit onto the field as the clock wound toward zeroes. Except it wasn’t chaos at all, as Dykes would explain: TCU had practiced this exact scenario, and kicker Griffin Kell coolly won them the game.
TCU finally lost a close one in the Big 12 Championship against Kansas State, but the Frogs’ string of close escapes had given them enough of a buffer to make it into the four-team field anyway. On Saturday, they conjured more good fortune. The Wolverines fumbled away an almost-certain touchdown at the TCU goal line—a play that only came to pass because officials curiously decided, after a replay review, to spot a Michigan receiver down at the 1-yard line on what looked like a touchdown. On the play before, a Michigan interception, the officiating crew screwed up the spot, costing the Wolverines several yards of field position. And on the game’s very last play, a fourth down, TCU’s Kee’yon Stewart committed an obvious 15-yard “targeting” foul by launching headfirst at Michigan’s Colston Loveland, who was falling to the ground well short of the first-down marker. Officials reviewed the play but didn’t make the controversial call. They chickened out, I think, and sealed TCU’s spot in the title game.
This is not TCU’s problem. Yes, they’ve gotten great luck to get this far. But given where they’ve come from over the last three decades and the last three months, it would be ludicrous to argue that they’re somehow undeserving of the spot they’ve earned. Duggan was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Dykes and his offensive coordinator, Garrett Riley, have designed a brilliant offense around their star quarterback, running backs Kendre Miller and Emari Demercado, and impending first-round NFL receiver Quentin Johnston. The touchdown that turned out to be the winner was a 76-yarder from Duggan to Johnston, which showcased so much of what TCU does well. For one thing, Johnston ran really fast. For another, the play design was clever. TCU had a fellow receiver throw a heavy block in front of Johnston while the pass was still in the air, something that would normally draw a pass interference penalty. But Johnston’s route took him behind the line of scrimmage, transforming the “pass interference” into a legal screen.
The Fiesta Bowl captured the entire TCU experience. The Frogs were leaky on defense, especially as the game went on and they allowed Michigan to hang around. But their 3-3-5 did mostly what it was supposed to do, letting up 54 rushing yards on Michigan’s first play but just 131 for the rest of the game and allowing TCU to devote more resources to the pass. When the defense faltered late, one of the sport’s best offenses carried the load. And when things got especially hairy in the close seconds, some higher power (in this case, a replay crew) delivered a helpful boost.
College football has Cinderella seasons and Cinderella programs. It has never had a team like the 2022—and now 2023—TCU Horned Frogs, who are 60 minutes from topping the whole damn sport a year after posting a losing record and a decade after being in a conference that made championship contention impossible. The Frogs are a 13.5-point underdog to Georgia in next week’s title game. Given what TCU has already conquered, that’s peanuts.