Over the nine-season existence of the College Football Playoff, a clear trend has developed: blue-chip programs stomp their way through the playoff’s opening round like kaiju wrecking a coastal city, and one poor just-happy-to-be-here squad ends up flattened.
Three teams — Alabama (7 appearances), Clemson (6) and Ohio State (5) — have played in at least half of all the playoffs, with Oklahoma (4 appearances) and Georgia (3) not far behind. Every playoff has featured at least two of those teams, with most featuring three or more.
This season, Michigan graduated from the ranks of one-appearance cameos. It’s now TCU that’s in the role of special guest appearance, hoping to avoid the fate of the four teams — Cincinnati, Washington, Michigan State and Florida State — that have made a single-game appearance in the playoff. Those one-and-dones have lost their lone playoff game by an average of almost 29 points, none by less than a three-possession margin. (Notre Dame has appeared in two playoff games and lost both by an average of 22 points; LSU has made only one appearance in the playoff, but rode a historic offense to the national championship.)
Upsets happen in the opening round of the College Football Playoff, but only in the most generous sense of the term “upset.” In the 16 opening-round games of the playoff, there have been six upsets by seeding, and none of them really qualifies as shocking considering the teams involved: No. 4 Ohio State over No. 1 Alabama (2014 season); No. 3 Georgia over No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 4 Alabama over No. 1 Clemson (2017 season); No. 3 Clemson over No. 2 Ohio State (2019 season); No. 3 Ohio State over No. 2 Clemson (2020 season); and No. 3 Georgia over No. 2 Michigan (last year). These aren’t exactly wide-eyed Cinderellas crashing the Big Dance here; half those winning teams went on to capture the national championship.
TCU’s challenge, then, is this: how to avoid the fate of the one-and-dones, all of which backslid following their playoff berth, and how to follow in the footsteps of teams like Georgia, which missed the first three playoffs but has played in half of them since, or at least Michigan, which has played in the last two.
Michigan stands in TCU’s way right now, a 7.5-point favorite, and so Saturday’s game offers the Horned Frogs both a chance to advance to the national championship and, along the way, win more national respect by knocking off a program well on its way to returning to blue-blood status.
“We look at them as another team,” TCU linebacker Dee Winters said. “We don't worry about the brand or who they are. They are just like us. We play football, and they play football. It's just a challenge for us. That's all.”
“If we go out there and we play our game and we do our job, at the end of the day, if we fall short, you can hang your hat on that at least and say, 'We did all we did,'” offensive lineman Wes Harris said. “Honestly, [if] we go out there and play our game, we can really show everybody what we're capable of and what we can do.”
TCU has an opportunity that, say, the 2014 Florida State and Oregon teams didn't: the impending expansion of the playoff from four to 12 teams. That will open the door for another eight teams to have a direct pathway to the national championship, but TCU hopes to use this season, and this unexpected playoff berth, to get a jump on the recruiting pitch that every top school will soon be able to make.
“It’s a game-changer, quite frankly,” TCU head coach Sonny Dykes said. “There's already a high level of interest from some really good players across Texas and across the country, and I think this is going to do nothing but enhance our ability to go and recruit some of the best football players in the country … When you can also sell the fact that, look, we are going to have an opportunity to play for a national championship, that's really all you can ask for.”
When — not if — the college football playoff expands to 16 teams and the top four have some skin in the game from the start, there will come a time when a 16 upsets a 1. It may take years, it may take decades, but it will happen. TCU’s overarching goal this weekend is to start blazing the trail for that team, whoever it may be, to follow so many years from now.
The way to do that is simple: defy the critics, the sports books and history, and upset the higher seed. TCU is trying to remain focused – Dykes’ message, repeated over and over all week, as it has been since the spring, is “Do your job” – knowing full well that plenty of other teams got this far, and no further, on their own climbs up the mountaintop.
“Main thing is just knowing what we come here to do,” cornerback Josh Newton said earlier this week. “We come here to win and then everything is a plus. But this is a playoff game. We're not looking at it as a bowl game.”
“Going into a big game, you have a couple more walkthroughs, look at your notes a little bit more, look at films a little bit more, and make sure you get the first hit as early as you can in the game,” linebacker Johnny Hodges said. “Once you get that first hit, it's game on, you're competing.”