Five losing teams that can surprise like TCU with 2023 national championship appearance


TCU’s run to the College Football Playoff National Championship wasn’t supposed to happen. Whether unintentional or by design, when it comes to determining a national champion, college football has always been a sport great at separating the wheat from the chaff. It’s a sport where Cinderella isn’t even supposed to make it to 9 p.m., let alone midnight.

Despite exceeding expectations by reaching the game, TCU’s 65-7 loss to Georgia was an excellent reminder of the divide that remains in the sport between the elite and the upstarts. While TCU’s run is unlikely to ever happen again before playoff expansion, if we look past what the Horned Frogs have been historically, and instead focus on how they pulled off the impossible, we see there’s a path.

While it’s impossible to boil everything that TCU did down to one paragraph, let’s try! First of all, the Frogs brought in a new coach, Sonny Dykes, who helped establish a new culture within the program. Next, the Frogs had a quarterback in Max Duggan — who wasn’t the Week 1 starter, mind you — perform to the utmost of his ability in an offense designed to take advantage of what he, and his teammates, had to offer. Finally, there was some luck involved. There always is, even for elite teams. Going 6-1 in one-score games with an overall point margin of +29 (4.14 per game) means a few coin-flip situations went TCU’s way far more often than not.. To be clear, that is nothing to be ashamed about. When you combine being good with being lucky, great things happen.

So can it happen again? While it’s not the recommended path to success, we’ve seen that it’s possible. With that in mind, I went through all the Power Five teams to miss out on a bowl game in 2022 to see if I could find any that might be capable of going from home for the holidays to playing on New Year’s Eve. While there aren’t many TCU types (use it as bulletin board material, Vanderbilt), there are five Power Five programs that can pull it off. These are the prime candidates (though none are coached by Prime).

OK, let’s check off some boxes here. It’s a team coming off a 5-7 season with a first-year head coach. Sure, it’s Auburn, and it has won a national title this century, so it’s not a true “TCU” program, but it meets enough criteria to make the list. Auburn has proven time and again that if everybody involved with the program pulls in the same direction, it’s capable of doing great things.

The problem is they rarely pull in the same direction on The Plains. More often than not, Auburn figures out a way to pull one rope in four different directions. It’s an incredible feat of engineering, but it doesn’t correlate strongly with winning football games. Anyway, it’s a talented team with a coach (Hugh Freeze) who has had success in the league before. Toss in some luck, and it’s not too crazy.

I already regret writing this story. Oh well, we’re too deep now, and I have nobody to blame but myself. I was one of the many who bought in a little too heavily on Miami ahead of the 2022 season. I did not consider how much of a roster rebuild coach Mario Cristobal had in mind. That said, while thinking Miami could have won the ACC was a bridge too far, that should’ve been a more likely outcome than 5-7.

There’s no excuse for the Hurricanes going 5-7 with losses to teams like Middle Tennessee, Duke and Pitt (all by at least two scores, mind you). Still, there’s reason to believe that if enough things go right, and with another offseason of work and more players who fit what Miami wants to be, it’s possible the Hurricanes can take a tremendous leap forward in Year 2 under Cristobal. While I have high hopes for Florida State, and I don’t think Clemson’s ready to fall off the face of the Earth, there’s still plenty of wiggle room in an ACC that lacks a clearly elite team entering 2023.

In a sense, Michigan State was the original TCU. The Spartans went 2-5 in Mel Tucker’s first season in East Lansing, which was a step back from 7-6 in 2019, but one that wasn’t all that unexpected. Tucker was a late offseason hire after the unexpected retirement of Mark Dantonio, and just after Tucker moved into his new office, a once-in-a-century global pandemic hit. All of that was slightly less anticipated than Michigan State exploding for an 11-2 mark and Peach Bowl appearance in 2021.

In that season, Tucker and the Spartans hit a bunch of home runs in the transfer portal, with none bigger than Heisman finalist Kenneth Walker. This year, the Spartans didn’t get as lucky, suffered some regression and dropped to 5-7. However, the talent level on this roster is better than that record. Yes, it’s a lot more difficult for the Spartans to break through in a Big Ten East with Michigan coming off two conference titles, Ohio State being Ohio State and Penn State getting its act back together, but we’ve seen Sparty do it before.

Like Auburn, Nebraska has a first-year coach taking over with Matt Rhule returning to the college game. Unlike Auburn and TCU, Nebraska didn’t go 5-7 this season; it went 4-8, so there’s even more ground to make up in the standings. Like Miami, the path for Nebraska may not be as tricky as it is for others. While the Big 12 was one of the best conferences in college football this season, there’s no question that neither Texas nor Oklahoma living up to their potential helped TCU.

While the Big Ten has Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, they all play in the East. Look at the rest of the Big Ten West and tell me who the clearcut favorite is. Wisconsin has a new coach and a new offense. Iowa is Iowa — which is good for Iowa, but not anything terrifying. Purdue won the division, its coach left for Louisville, and now it has a first-year coach of its own. Illinois was a surprise in 2021, finishing 8-5, but lost four of its last five games. Northwestern is not in the best condition at the moment. Again, I’m not saying any of these teams making the leap is likely, but Nebraska can at least get an audition for the role.

What have I done? First Miami, then Nebraska, and now Texas A&M. If only Texas had gone 5-7, I could include it and complete the Hypebeast Superfecta. Listen, it’s hard to trust the Aggies. I don’t, but you cannot deny that this is a talented roster that underperformed in 2022. I was never in the “Texas A&M is a playoff contender” crowd, but 5-7? That should’ve been impossible with the talent on hand.

Most of that talent remains, and coach Jimbo Fisher may have finally conceded he needs a little help by bringing in Bobby Petrino as his offensive coordinator. Yes, there’s a risk of this blowing up spectacularly, but there’s also the chance that everything clicks and the Aggies finally break through.

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