No.3 TCU is set to face No.1 Georgia for the college football national championship on January 9 at Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, California, a title game matchup no one could have predicted before the season.
Georgia was supposed to be here. The Bulldogs are the reigning national champions, were the preseason No.3 team, and have an uber-talented roster that includes 15 former five-star and 53 former four-star recruits.
While Georgia is becoming college football’s next dynasty, the Horned Frogs were not supposed to be in the title game. TCU finished 5-7 last season, was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12, unranked in the preseason, and their roster only carries one former five-star and 16 former four-star recruits.
It is a true David vs. Goliath battle, with Georgia opening as a 13.5-point betting favorite.
But TCU is used to being doubted. They opened as 9.5-point underdogs in the semifinal matchup against Michigan.
The Horned Frogs used the doubt against them as motivation, outgaining Michigan in the ground game and slowing down the Wolverine’s rush attack. That was despite a perceived advantage by Michigan along the line of scrimmage.
As a result, TCU delivered the biggest upset in the College Football Playoff (CFP) era, beating No.2 Michigan, 51-45, to reach the program’s first national championship game and become the first team from Texas to reach the title game since the Longhorns in 2009.
The Horned Frogs have survived and advanced all season, reaching this point by winning seven straight games by 10 points or fewer during a 12-0 regular season.
They did it behind a first-year coach in Sonny Dykes, who went 19-30 and got fired at Cal in his only previous Power 5 job.
They did it with their unrelenting quarterback, Max Duggan, a preseason backup who had never played in a bowl game in his TCU career, who became Heisman Trophy runner-up and the Davey O’Brien Award winner.
TCU, the tiny private school from Fort Worth that was left out of the Big 12 when the Southwest Conference disbanded in 1996, has had to fight, scratch, and claw back to relevance, finally earning an invite to the Big 12 in 2012.
They were overlooked in 2014 when they posted an 11-1 record but were not given a top-four spot in the CFP rankings.
Georgia presents another monumental challenge for TCU. A win by the Horned Frogs would instantly move their win over Michigan to the second-biggest upset in the CFP era.
TCU is again embracing the underdog mentality.
“You always have to fight for credibility,” Dykes said after the Michigan win. “It’s part of the deal. Part of what makes TCU great, though, is that they roll their sleeves up, they go to work, they figure out a way to do it … I think we all have a chip on our shoulder. It’s part of the Horned Frog way.”
But while the challenge is daunting for TCU, No.4 Ohio State showed that Georgia could be beaten in an up-and-down 42-41 shootout in the other semifinal.
The Buckeyes ran for 119 yards on 32 carries with four gains of 12 or more yards against the Bulldogs. Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns on 10.2 yards per attempt, marking a second sour game in a row for Georgia’s defense after it suffocated opposing offenses all season.
LSU racked up 502 yards of offense against the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship game.
The Horned Frogs have the offensive firepower to score with the best teams in the nation, ranking third in scoring (41.1 points per game), 11th in yards per play (6.9), eighth in quarterback efficiency (160.5), and seventh in rushing touchdowns (36).
That suggests TCU should be able to find a way to move the ball against the vaunted Georgia defense.
And TCU is used to facing top defenses, as Georgia will be the fourth Horned Frog opponent this season ranked inside the top 20 nationally in yards allowed per play, joining Texas, Iowa State, and Michigan.
Georgia will not be overconfident headed into the title game.
“Now we’ve got to take care of business,” said Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett. “We’ve got to prepare. We’ve got nine days or whatever to play a really good TCU team. So we’ve got to prepare our butts off.”