I’ve been so focused on forcing Christmas magic down my young children’s throats that I’ve successfully dodged the stress of TCU’s impending playoff matchup in favor of threatening my kids into behaving properly by dramatically crossing items off their Santa wish lists. But. The time is here, and the kings of cardiac arrest have already arrived in Arizona to prepare for their New Year’s Eve spat with the Michigan Wolverines in the College Football Playoff semifinal, hosted by the VRBO Fiesta Bowl.
State Farm Stadium is the perfect venue for the Frogs, who are 7-and-a-half-point underdogs, to upset the cactus cart and send the Blue and Maize back to Ann Arbor with their tails between their legs (assuming Wolverines have tails; I don’t know and I didn’t Google it; who cares). The Frogs have visited the Fiesta Bowl only once before, in 2010, and they were ranked third in the AP poll at the time. The Gary Patterson-led Frogs lost a 17-10 slugfest against the Boise State Broncos back during an affirmative-action version of the game — these two undefeated mid-majors were pitted against each other rather than risk another name-brand casualty on a national stage. The Broncos had already busted up the Sooners in the ’07 Fiesta Bowl during the famed Statue of Liberty two-point conversion, so at least we know crazy shit can happen in the desert without using peyote and vision questing.
I feel dirty saying this, but TCU has already won by qualifying. If that sounds like loser talk, you’re playing the short game, and I forgive your impatience. The college pigskin landscape is shifting faster than a hastily poured concrete foundation in Frisco. Sonny Dykes’ recruiting class is ranked 18th and only one spot behind their next opponent, who is the winningest team in the history of the sport. Dykes’ expedient success was just what Fort Worth needed to propel itself into the next era of NIL money and constant transfers, and no one could have predicted it. Dykes won two national head coach of the year awards, and TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley won national assistant coach of the year. Meanwhile, QB Max Duggan (#15) won both the Johnny Unitas and Davey O’Brien awards in addition to finishing as the runner-up in Heisman voting in one of the closest races in years. Cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson (#1) hauled in the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation’s best defensive back, and Steve Avila (#79) has been recognized as a consensus All-American at his left guard position. None of these accolades will help the Frogs on Saturday afternoon, but it’s important to approach this contest with the perspective that everything henceforth is just a bonus gift retrieved from Dad’s top shelf on top of the cornucopia left at the foot of the Frog fan’s proverbial football tree.
As for the actual matchup, the Frogs will go as their leader Duggan does. Mad Max has declared for the NFL draft and is going to move forward with his degree as a hero in the mold of a Die Hard (which is definitively a Christmas movie): bloody and bruised but never surrendering. His graduation is for the best. His stock will never be more valuable than it is currently, and we’ll likely watch him on a practice roster or as a role-filling backup in the NFL before he starts his inevitable coaching career.
TCU’s big boys are a deficiency against one of the most efficient rush offenses in the country. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh will play a slow, run-heavy style in the first half to test the Frog defense. Despite a season-ending injury to the Wolverines’ former star running back Blake Corum, backup Donovan Edwards (#7) has been breaking defenses since taking the starting roll, and they’ll lean on him while establishing rhythm. The Frog D line, which has been subpar at generating any pass rush this year, have shown themselves capable of shutting down talented rushers. Dykes will need to stymie the ball-control strategy of the Michiganders and force quarterback J.J. McCarthy (#9) to test the Frog secondary, which is objectively the strength of Joe Gillespie’s 3-3-5 scheme.
Offensively, Frog receiver Quentin Johnston (#1) will need his healthiest game while returning from an ankle injury that has limited his reps across the last five games. Against him, Michigan will use their newest defensive weapon, Will Johnson (#2), who is one of the few corners in the country who can adequately match up by his lonesome both in size and athleticism. Expect Dykes and Riley to manipulate formations in novel ways to find space for Johnston to shine.
The Wolverine defensive front will be the most talented the Frogs have faced, so quick-hitting pass routes, run fakes, and screens should be utilized early and often. I have faith the spiceless, boiled-chicken play-calling fans suffered in the Big 12 championship will be abandoned as TCU throws everything but Santa’s sleigh at second-ranked U of M.
Another key for the Frog offense will be simply staying on the field. Duh! Right? But every 3-and-out suffered is probably a third of a possession TCU loses when they might need it at the end of the game. The possibility of forcing Blue-and-Maize punts after three plays is unlikely, so every opportunity will be precious toward trying to equalize time of possession. TCU still has one of the most dynamic big-play units in the country. If these offenses each hold the ball for 30 minutes by the end of the game, it’s much more likely the Frogs could be advancing to a national championship berth.
It’s also strange to consider, but we have no idea how Dykes’ Frogs respond to a loss. To this point, he and his staff have been working from a position of success despite adversity. Witnessing their response to the fall against Kansas State will be demonstrative of what fans can expect moving forward after this honeymoon season concludes, either this week or — God, help us — in California during the title game. No matter how the Fiesta Bowl ends, TCU is the biggest winner of the college football season based on the progress made in a season when no one expected more than maybe a polished lump of coal.