Full disclosure time. I’m a Wolverine fan. Not by choice but by birth. As a first-generation Texan in a family full of Michiganders and U of M alums, I’ve worn Maize and Blue since before I could walk and was bred to hate all things Ohio State — it’s kind of in my DNA. So on New Year’s Eve when my beloved wife (who has degrees from three colleges, including TCU and Iowa State) asked me if I felt like I’d win no matter what during the TCU/Michigan halftime show, I replied succinctly and soberly: “No, I don’t feel that way.”
The Frog is out of the bag, and I sit writing a game recap and preview I sincerely never thought would be necessary: TCU is playing for a national championship. They are the first Big 12 school to do so in the playoff era, the first Texas school to even appear in the playoff, and the first TCU squad with a legitimate shot at victory since FDR’s second presidential term.
Retrospectively, the Big 12 championship game was instrumental toward this moment. Head Coach Sonny Dykes and Offensive Coordinator Garrett Riley clearly learned lessons from TCU’s failures in overtime against Kansas State. I counted not one but two successful Max Duggan sneaks for short-yardage conversions, and they were both things of beauty. The overwhelming narrative, which even I fell victim to, was that the Horned Frogs would struggle in the trenches against the lumbering NFL-style offensive line of the Wolverines. That didn’t happen. Michigan’s first snap from scrimmage spelled impending disaster for fans from Fort Worth (who showed up to Glendale in droves). Donovan Edwards took the first handoff straight through the A-gap for a 54-yard sprint and an exclamation mark on the expectation TCU would just get pushed around for the entire game. Ironically, U of M’s game plan expired on the same play. Edwards gained only 65 additional yards the rest of the game and needed 22 attempts to do so. Michigan’s sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy added 52 rushing yards of his own during timely scampers in the second half while the Wolverines were clawing back from TCU’s dominant 21-6 first half.
Instead, it was the Frogs who won the rushing battle that the northerners were expected to smash everyone to bits with, as McCarthy said before the game. Kendre Miller’s nation-leading touchdown-in-a-game streak expired because the bruiser left the game with a lower leg injury midway through the second quarter. Miller was looking in typically elite form and was easily finding the edge against Michigan’s defense, who turned out to be the worst unit on the field (more on that later). Miller still accumulated 57 yards on only eight attempts before being sidelined, and Duggan complemented him with another 57 of his own on the ground.
The man of the hour was senior Emari Demercado, who had to assume sole RB duty in the second half, resulting in a 69-yard rush that led to a Duggan touchdown from the 1-yard-line. Demercado finished with 150 on the ground as TCU bested their opponent by nearly 80 yards as a team. Dykes said leading into the contest that their primary objective would be to shut down the rushing attack, which Joe Gillespie’s troops did successfully. The impetus — by Frog design — fell on Michigan’s sophomore QB to win the game, and his youth was the difference. McCarthy threw two interceptions that were housed for scores by Bud Clark and Dee Winters, respectively. McCarthy was also partially responsible for a bad exchange between him and his fullback which led to a fumble recovery and touchback for TCU’s defense. This was after that pass reception spotted on the half-yard-line which Wolverine fans will proclaim was a touchdown on their deathbeds.
As far as phases, the TCU offense was the best unit on the field and netted a collective 39 points thanks to big games from Quentin Johnston, who nabbed six passes for 163 yards and a score, Demercado, and to an efficient performance from Duggan, who played well in clutch spots as fans have become accustomed to. Michigan’s offense was second-best on the day, scoring 45 but also surrendering 12 for a net of 33 points courtesy of second-half adjustments and second-half breakdowns in Frog coverage. The third best — but biggest surprise — was the purple defense, who scored 12 points off two interceptions, recovered a fumble that saved a sure touchdown, and stymied two fourth-down attempts for a collective five possession swaps (two of them in the shadow of their own goalposts). That leaves U of M’s defense festering in the basement, surrendering 12 more points specifically to TCU’s offense than they had to anyone in a single game all season.
The collective feeling of the Wolverines — and concurrently national media — is that Michigan lost the game rather than TCU winning it, but they’re wrong, and it’s understandable not to think straight when you’re that cold and overpaid all the time. TCU’s offensive miscues prevented a Frog runaway. Both quarterbacks slung two interceptions each, but while McCarthy’s were bad decisions and throws to go with them, Duggan’s were what we’ll call “Dak Prescott interceptions,” where they bonked his receiver straight in the hands and popped straight to a defender.
Michiganders will blame the referees — inevitably a loser’s MO — but these bounces from the football gods have gone largely unmentioned and were instrumental to keeping the game manageable for the Wolverines toward the end.
Frankly, the better team won, no upsets about it. Vegas doesn’t really know who is faster and stronger — it was TCU, by the way. The oddsmakers simply set betting lines to balance the money and their own books based on expectations of gamblers. Dykes’ boys forced Michigan to play one-dimensionally, and it wasn’t their prettiest side, though they were still plenty serviceable in the passing game despite their individual receiving talents being deficient to the Frogs. It also became obvious near the end that this game, despite the stakes, was not even close to breaking the top four of challenging or close games the Frogs have played this year. Other than Texas and Iowa State, TCU played their most complete contest of the season, and while Michigan scrambled to understand a team who played fast and physical, the moment seemed business as usual for a group whose majority of starters never even played in the Riscky’s BBQ Bowl, let alone a playoff semifinal.
TCU advances to the national championship game to play against Georgia at SoFi Stadium near Los Angeles on Monday, Jan. 9, and will be the largest underdog in a title game in the modern era — what else is new? Vegas and bettors have whiffed on the Frogs all season as they’re one of the best teams against the spread in the country. The Bulldogs are a more seasoned commodity than the Wolverines and not just because they’re the defending national champions. Michigan showed TCU no pre-game respect, but I bet they know what conference they’re in now. Kirby Smart — at least when talking to the press — won’t dare drop his zipper and expose his hubris like Jim Harbaugh’s boys did, but Dykes will keep his team humble and ready while pointing out the narrative that developed from analysis of the best day of college football semifinals since the inception of the playoffs. Georgia survived a pissed-off Ohio State squad who was curb-stomped by the Wolverines in their final regular season game. I chose my words carefully, because every pundit is slackjawed by the impressive comeback win from the defending champs. Those same talking heads are also screaming over the upset by TCU and pointing to potential game-changing decisions by Harbaugh and the officials. The underlying truth is the Bulldogs didn’t control the end of their game. The Buckeyes drove quickly into scoring range and could have won with a successful 50-yard field goal but Ray Finkled the kick in one of the worst misses I’ve seen at this level. Georgia didn’t do anything specifically to affect that play. The moment just became too big for State. Needing your opponent to miss a long — but makeable — field goal is still a win, but as the top seed in what is supposed to be the best conference since Eve ate the apple, it’s survival in my book.
The Bulldogs are a more balanced offense than Michigan and Stetson Bennett a much better and more veteran — I’m pretty sure he’s 40 years old — quarterback. Coverage breakdowns in the TCU secondary will need to be minimized, and Frog receivers who aren’t named Johnston, Taye Barber, or Jordan Hudson need fresh gloves and 1,000 reps on the Jugs machine at full speed each. As far as health, Johnston looked in full form, but at the time of this writing, there aren’t any updates on the lower leg (probably knee) injury suffered by Miller, though he did return to the field to start the third quarter before removing his pads after that series. Despite Demercado’s performance, Miller is still the better back in all facets, including pass blocking, and the removal of their dual status is a notable loss should he be unavailable or less than full strength in the title game. Third-stringer Emani Bailey has seen limited action in a relief role both in rushing and receiving capacities but didn’t carry the ball in the Fiesta Bowl and will need to be worked into the game plan if Miller can’t suit up.
Dykes and TCU have single-handedly saved the national perception of the Big 12 conference with their advancement to the national title game. In fact, the only conference teams to win their bowls — out of eight who played — are both first-year coaches in Dykes and Tech’s Joey McGuire, who beat Ole Miss. Dykes has a chance to become only the fourth college coach to ever win a national championship during his first year and would be the first in 22 years to do that. The national championship game as we know it has existed only since 1998. Before then, all championships were awarded based on polls and not necessarily a head-to-head matchup. No pre-season unranked team has ever appeared in either the playoff or a BCS title game since they were established until the Frogs this year.
Last week I asserted that TCU had already won the season, and everything in the actual games is just a bonus. On Saturday, the nation got a taste of the entertainment value this team has provided fans all year, and everything henceforth is just a celery stalk in an overly vodka’d Bloody Mary. Right now, New Year’s Eve seems a bit like a dream where we got to French kiss Ryan Reynolds when the clock struck midnight, but this morning, Fort Worth faithful are rubbing their eyes as he brings an espresso with a beautifully poached egg to our bedside, because TCU is playing for the national championship. Really.