TCU was only a few inches away from perfection. After falling short against Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, the Horned Frogs and first-year coach Sonny Dykes will settle for the most unexpected College Football Playoff berth in the format’s history.
And now comes the difficult part: third-seeded TCU enters the Fiesta Bowl as underdogs against Big Ten champion and second-seeded Michigan in a clash of offensive styles.
The Wolverines are making their second playoff appearance in a row after finishing the regular season with victories over Ohio State and Purdue.
Another victory over the rival Buckeyes and another Big Ten title marks an official change of guard, as Michigan replaces Ohio State as the conference’s dominant programme and one of the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
After a disastrous 2020 season that cost coach Jim Harbaugh his job, last year’s team was not expected to compete for the playoffs. However, this year’s squad was expected to be in the thick of the championship race and has delivered with plenty of time to spare, leaving the Wolverines as Georgia’s most serious contender for the national title.
Despite losing star running back Blake Corum to a season-ending injury in late November, the offence has thrived on the ground thanks to Donovan Edwards, who set a career high for rushing yards (216) against the Buckeyes and then was named Big Ten championship game MVP.
His ability to carry the load has aided quarterback J.J. McCarthy in rebounding from a dreadful performance in a narrow win the game ahead of Ohio State’s game against Illinois. In the last two games, the sophomore has six touchdowns and an average of 10.3 yards per attempt.
Despite McCarthy’s recent strong play, Michigan’s clearest path to victory is to avoid a quarterback battle and focus on what the team does best: run the ball and prevent others from doing the same.
That’s because TCU has one of the nation’s best players in Heisman Trophy finalist and quarterback Max Duggan, who started the season as a backup but took over as the starter in September and had one of the best seasons in programme history.
He earned a spot in the Heisman Trophy ceremony with an epic performance in the Big 12 title game loss to Kansas State. Duggan battled the Wildcats defence for 251 passing yards, 110 rushing yards, and two touchdowns. He led the Horned Frogs on an 80-yard drive late in the game to tie the game at 28-28 and force overtime.
TCU follows Duggan’s lead. Because even Michigan’s defence may struggle to contain the senior, the Wolverines’ focus could instead be on slowing down TCU’s complementary skill talent, led by all-conference running back Kendre Miller.
TCU has yet to face a defence of the calibre of Michigan’s. The Michigan Wolverines are third in the country in yards allowed per game (277.1), third in yards allowed per play (4.5), and fifth in scoring defence (13.4 points per game).
Only Ohio State and Purdue surpassed 400 yards of offence. Those two opponents, like TCU, attacked Michigan with pass-heavy offensive game plans centred on strong quarterback play.
The contrast is obvious. The Wolverines plan to pound the TCU defence and pull away in the second half, as they have all season. The Horned Frogs want to up the tempo and force Michigan to play faster. The team that forces the other out of its comfort zone will win.
When Michigan passes: J.J. McCarthy has avoided turnovers all season and has played his best football in the last two games. However, TCU’s pass defence may be the most underappreciated aspect of this game. The Horned Frogs have faced 451 pass attempts and are ranked ninth in the country in terms of opposing completion percentage (53.9). TCU has the edge.
Good luck when TCU runs. Michigan allows 2.9 yards per carry and has given up 1,108 yards and seven rushing touchdowns this season. TCU will make an attempt, however. Michigan has an advantage.
When TCU passes: This is where TCU’s game will be won or lost. Can Max Duggan get going and help Michigan’s pass defence? Will Michigan face third-down pressure? Duggan may gain 300 yards or more, but he must avoid turnovers. TCU has the edge.
TCU dominates the return game, as one of six Power Five teams with two punt-return touchdowns during the regular season. Kicker Jake Moody is one of the nation’s best specialists for the Wolverines. Griffin Kell of TCU is no slouch either. Michigan has an advantage.
Coaching: Sonny Dykes has done one of the best first-year coaching jobs in FBS history. Jim Harbaugh, on the other hand, has been here before and knows how to prepare this month. Michigan has an advantage.