The TCU Horned Frogs may go down as the most unlikely qualifier for the College Football Playoff in its short history.
To recap, TCU went 5-7 last season. The Horned Frogs parted ways with legendary head coach Gary Patterson in the middle of that lackluster campaign and hired Sonny Dykes away from crosstown rival SMU after its conclusion. Leading rusher Zach Evans also skipped town, transferring to Ole Miss.
Dykes inherited some solid pieces to build around in Fort Worth, but little about this team in the summer suggested it had a legitimate chance to capture a spot in college football's final four. When all was said and done, even a loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game over the weekend couldn't keep the Horned Frogs out of the mix.
Will TCU keep it rolling through January? Here are five reasons why the Horned Frogs will knock off the Michigan Wolverines in the Fiesta Bowl and then win the national championship.
5 Reasons Why TCU Will Win The College Football Playoff
1. Max Duggan
Duggan didn't even start TCU's first game of the season at quarterback. He never relinquished the job once given the opportunity, though, responding with a season that earned him a trip to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Duggan's 2022 regular season ended on Saturday in heartbreak as the Horned Frogs fell in overtime to KSU, 31-28. It was the field general's best passing performance of the year, completing 18 of his 36 attempts for 251 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. Duggan helped keep the Horned Frogs in the game, however, with his legs. He finished the game with 15 rushing attempts for 110 yards and a touchdown.
Most importantly, TCU's veteran QB positioned the team for a victory late, which was a common theme all season. The Horned Frogs failed to capitalize on his heady play versus the Wildcats. Look for them to get back on track when they take on Michigan.
2. Quentin Johnston
There are better wide receivers than Johnston in college football this year. In fact, the Wolverines have already faced one of them: Marvin Harrison Jr. of Ohio State.
But if you've watched Johnston this year, you know the big-bodied wideout may be the best clutch receiver in the country. He has used his size time and again in key situations this season to block out defenders and make catches that put TCU in the end zone or convert an important first down.
Michigan's coverage players should prepare for the Horned Frogs to target Johnston on some of the game's most important plays.
3. A new attitude on defense
One of the more innovative defensive minds in the history of college football ran the TCU program for roughly two decades. Nevertheless, it became hard to argue last year that Patterson had lost his touch. From 2018 to '21, the Horned Frogs saw their defensive scoring average increase in three of four seasons. The bottom fell out last year when they gave up 34.9 points per game.
In Joe Gillespie, TCU now has one of college football's up-and-coming tacticians running its defense. The Horned Frogs allowed 10 fewer points per game this year thanks in large part to an attacking style that produced an average of 5.5 tackles for loss in each contest.
The Michigan coaching staff will need to put in extra time in the coming weeks preparing for Gillespie's funky 3-3-5 scheme.
4. A cutting-edge offense
While programs around college football continue to make strides in keeping up with the latest schemes and tactics, it's safe to say they play a different brand of ball in the Big 12, which is considered the cradle of the spread offense.
In some ways, that's good for teams built to win in rugged leagues like the Big Ten and the SEC. In this case, Dykes and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley have created a balanced attack that will punish defenses unable to play personnel who can provide support against the run and the pass. With a veteran like Duggan orchestrating the offense, TCU can incorporate new wrinkles during the break that will put opposing defensive coordinators to the test.
In the first College Football Playoff in 2014, 11-1 TCU dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final edition of the weekly rankings despite winning its last game of the regular season by 52 points. The Horned Frogs went on to blow out Ole Miss in their bowl game that year, 42-3, building an argument that they had the best team in the country that year.
The team that nudged out TCU from the final four that year? Ohio State.
The Buckeyes are back in this year's CFP field, matched up with No. 1 Georgia in the semifinals. If you're the type who believes the universe tends to balance itself over time, TCU over Ohio State in the championship game must seem like a fitting end to a chaotic season.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is the founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.