Dave Reardon: Underdog TCU finally gets into playoff party

Jan. 8—The Horned Frogs got on a roll early that put them on the path to a 13-1 record and No. 3 ranking. Before that, few expected the Horned Frogs to be playing this January, even themselves.

Depending on how you look at it, TCU is a couple of seasons early or 12 years late to be appearing in college football's national championship game. The Cinderella stories weren't supposed to start until two seasons from now, when the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams from four.

The Horned Frogs got on a roll early that put them on the path to a 13-1 record and No. 3 ranking. Before that, few expected the Horned Frogs to be playing this January, even themselves.

"I think that if you had asked us before the season started, would we play for a national championship, most of us probably didn't think that we would, " first-year Horned Frogs head coach Sonny Dykes said last week.

TCU came off a 5-7 record in 2021 and was projected to finish seventh in the Big 12 preseason media poll ; plus, the Big 12 hadn't even gotten a team into the playoff the previous two years. So, even as members of a Power Five conference, the odds were very much against them making the four-team CFP.

They are again Monday in the final at SoFi Stadium, or at least that's what the bookmakers say. They have Georgia as a 12 1 /2-point favorite to successfully defend its national championship.

Being on the wrong end of point spreads doesn't bother TCU. It was a 7 1 /2-point underdog in the semifinal against Michigan at the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Eve, and the Frogs won 51-45.

The win over the Wolverines came after TCU's only loss of the season, 31-28 in overtime to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game.

With the same set of circumstances two years from now, when the CFP expands, the Frogs would have a longer path to the championship game than they did in this four-team playoff. The new format will give the four highest-ranked conference champions first-round byes, meaning the eight other teams would have to win three games to make it to the national championship game.

The 12-team field will be the six conference champions ranked highest by the selection committee, plus the sixth highest-ranked teams not included among those.

This guarantees at least one Group of Five champion makes the playoff. This year, going by the CFP rankings, it would have been No. 16 Tulane, the American Athletic Conference champ.

Just for fun, here's what the rest of the field of 12 would have been : Georgia, Michigan, Clemson and Utah are the four conference champs to get byes. Kansas State, TCU, Ohio State, Alabama, Tennessee, USC and Penn State join Tulane as the first-round contestants.

The bubble team ? No. 12 Washington would have been bumped for Tulane.

But who knows if the committee would have viewed things the same if picking 12 instead of four teams ?

And we can only wonder what AAC champ Central Florida, quarterbacked by Mililani grad McKenzie Milton, might have done if there'd been a 12-team tournament in 2017. That's the year the Golden Knights finished as the only undefeated FBS team but didn't get into the four-team playoff that debuted in 2014.

They did get a few No. 1 votes in the AP poll after beating Auburn 34-27 in the Peach Bowl, but finished ranked No. 6, and seventh in the coaches poll.

The 2010 TCU team that went 13-0 (including its second undefeated regular season in a row ) would have liked a tournament. Auburn also finished unbeaten that year, and was crowned the national champions after topping previously undefeated Oregon 22-19 in the BCS championship game.

TCU, which then played in the Mountain West, had to settle for No. 2 after edging No. 4 Wisconsin 21-19 in the Rose Bowl.

Maybe these current day Horned Frogs should not be considered a Cinderella team. They play more ranked teams now in the Big 12 than back when they and Boise State were the super midmajors. And TCU shed any incorrect label as a finesse squad last week against the physical Wolverines.

But, taking on Georgia still makes for a fun David and Goliath story line—one we'll be seeing a lot when the CFP field triples starting in two years.

Head says Dawgs, heart says Frogs.