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Fiesta Bowl preview: TCU vs. Michigan brings ‘fight for credibility’ to CFP

By RALPH D. RUSSO AP College Football Writer

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A day before facing off in the College Football Playoff, TCU’s Sonny Dykes and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh talked fondly about the fathers they followed into coaching and a time when they might have shared more than a stage for one final pregame press conference.

Dykes recalled returning home after midnight from a high school football game in West Texas to find his dad, Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes, having a drink with Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum. The Aggies were in town to play the Red Raiders the next day.

“So in that spirit, I was going to invite Coach Harbaugh to come by the hotel room tonight and see if he wanted to open up a bottle of bourbon and reminisce a little bit,” Dykes said Friday.

“That’s past my bedtime,” Harbaugh replied.

No. 2 Michigan (13-0) and No. 3 TCU (12-1) meet for the first time Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl, a matchup of one of college football’s bluest blue-blood programs and the most unlikely team ever to reach the CFP semifinals.

“They’re great and we’re ready to line up and have at it,” Harbaugh said.

The Horned Frogs became just the second team in the nine-year history of the playoff to make the final four after starting the season unranked. The first? Michigan, last year.

Make no mistake, this is not the same thing.

Michigan at that point was coming off by far the worst season of Harbaugh’s eight-year tenure in 2021, but, as Dykes reminded everyone, TCU is facing the winningest program in college football history.

The Horned Frogs were picked seventh in the Big 12 this season, their first under Dykes. Most of their players, including Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback Max Duggan, have never played in a bowl game during their college careers.

“Any time you’re an underdog, it builds motivation, going out there and proving everybody wrong,” TCU linebacker Dee Winters said. “When we’re an underdog, that’s something we enjoy.”

Michigan is a 7½-point favorite, according to Fanduel Sportsbook.

The 53-year-old Dykes moved across town from rival SMU to take over TCU after the school parted ways with Gary Patterson, the most successful coach in program history, late in the 2021 season.

The importance of Patterson’s 22 seasons leading the Frogs cannot be overstated. When the Southwest Conference dissolved in the mid-1990s, TCU was left out of the formation of the Big 12. That sent the Frogs on a nomadic, 16-year journey that covered three conferences (not including a few weeks as an incoming member of the Big East).

“It’s always been a fight for credibility,” Dykes said of TCU’s long and winding path to college football’s biggest stage.

Under Patterson, TCU became a BCS buster. The Frogs played in a Fiesta Bowl and won a Rose Bowl. All that winning built credibility. TCU, finally, landed in the Big 12 in 2012, reuniting with many of its old Southwest Conference rivals.

The Frogs played well in the Big 12 under Patterson, with three 11-victory seasons, but the program grew stale in his final four years.

Dykes, the AP’s 2022 Coach of the Year, didn’t do a massive transfer-portal makeover of the TCU roster. Just a few key additions.

Led by holdovers Duggan, star receiver Quinten Johnston, All-American guard Steve Avila and cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, the Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s best defensive back, TCU ran off an unbeaten regular season before losing the Big 12 title game in overtime.

“We’ve been through so much,” Avila said. “And I just feel like us being here and us having the season that we did, just proved a lot of people wrong.”

A private university based in Fort Worth, Texas, TCU is the smallest school by enrollment (10,489) to reach the four-team playoff.

Then there is Michigan, which plays in a stadium that seats 110,000. There are few more recognizable emblems in American sports than the Wolverines’ winged helmets.

Michigan last won a national championship in 1997, but the last two seasons under Harbaugh have been a return to glory. Michigan is 25-2, winning consecutive Big Ten titles for the first time since 2003-04.

Last year’s playoff appearance ended with a thud in the Orange Bowl for the Wolverines against eventual national champion Georgia.

“It fuels us even more that we need to get past that point,” Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who was the complementary No. 2 QB on last season’s team. “We’re not just happy to be here. We want to get past it.”

SPEED VS. POWER

Asked to consider what previous opponents were similar to Michigan, TCU’s defensive players and coordinator mention Kansas State a lot.

A bigger Kansas State.

“We see that they have a pretty huge O-line,” Horned Frogs linebacker Dee Winters said this week.

As for the Wolverines, they don’t have much experience to draw upon when it comes to facing a defense like TCU’s that uses three down linemen and three safeties.

“This is all new to us,” Michigan offensive tackle Ryan Hayes said.

It’s tempting to boil the Fiesta Bowl matchup down to Big Ten power vs. Big 12 speed, especially when the Wolverines have the ball. Tempting, but not entirely accurate.

“I think maybe it’s an oversimplification,” Michigan co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss said.

For the second straight season, Michigan won the Joe Moore Award given to the best offensive line in the country.

This season’s group might be even better than last year’s, which added center Olusegun Oluwatimi to a veteran group. The Virginia transfer won the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) and Rimington Trophy (top center) this season.

Oluwatimi, tackles Hayes and Karsen Barnhart, and guards Zak Zinter and Trevor Keegan average 308 pounds, but what makes them different from even the best Big 12 lines is they also are long and rangy.

The 6-foot-3 Oluwatimi is the only one of five starters under 6-5.

Offensive line coach Sherrone Moore is also Michigan’s co-offensive coordinator now, handling play-calling duties with Weiss. The two were promoted after Josh Gattis left for Miami following last season’s playoff appearance by the Wolverines that ended in an Orange Bowl semifinal loss to Georgia.

“I think (Moore) does a really good job of knowing what our strengths are,” Hayes said. “It’s great having him in our room. We get extra intricate detail of why are we doing this as a whole offense. He kind of lets us know what the whole offense is doing and that helps us.”

Adding to all that beef up front, Michigan loves its big personnel packages. The Wolverines will regularly use two or three tight ends, even the occasional four-tight end formation.

It is an offense Harbaugh’s mentor, Bo Schembechler, would be proud of.

“It’s going to be quite a bit different from what we’ve gotten to see week in and week out,” TCU defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie said. “But I also feel like there’s some differences that we’ll bring to the table as well.”

The 3-3-5 defense TCU plays was born as a counter-measure to spread offenses that proliferated college football – especially the Big 12 – in the 2000s and 2010s.

Those offenses often abandon the tight end position altogether, instead going with four or five wide receivers.

Ohio State dabbles in the 3-3-5, but for the most part, Michigan didn’t see much of it this season.

“So, it’s really hard to watch the tape and say, ‘OK, this will definitely work, but this won’t,’” Weiss said about game planning for TCU.

The Horned Frogs are not exactly undersized up front on defense. Nose guards Damonic Williams and Tymon Mitchell both weigh in north of 315 pounds. But usually only one of them is on the field at a time. All three of TCU’s starting linebackers are listed at 230 pounds or more.

But if TCU wants to stick with its usual five defensive backs against Michigan, those players are going to be forced to get physical in ways they typically haven’t faced this season.

Advantage, Michigan? Neither side is about to concede that.

“They look like NFL safeties and DBs,” Weiss said of the TCU secondary. “They fly up there, they tackle, they’re physical, they’re really good tacklers and they’re fast. That erases a lot of those problems.”

The Horned Frogs ranked fourth in the Big 12 – but 65th in the country – in yards per carry allowed at 4.10. By far their best defensive game came against Texas and All-American Bijan Robinson, who had 29 yards on 12 carries.

In two games against Kansas State, though, the Frogs allowed 363 yards and 4.9 yards per carry.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s offense ranked fourth in the country in yards per carry at 5.64, ninth in rushing attempts (571) and hardly dropped off when All-America running back Blake Corum went out with a knee injury in Game 11.

Donovan Edwards moved into a starting role for the final two games and ran for 401 yards on 47 carries against Ohio State and Purdue.

“If they establish the run,” TCU linebacker Johnny Hodges said, “it’s going to be a long game for us.”

HONORING LEACH

Dykes said TCU will honor the late Mike Leach with pirate flag helmet stickers.

“He was a big impact on me and, really, football in general,” Dykes said.

Dykes is one of many successful proteges of Leach coaching throughout college football. The Mississippi State coach, and former Texas Tech and Washington State coach, died earlier this month of a heart condition at age 61.

“I’m sure it’ll be a little bit of shoutout to Coach Leach before I take the field,” Dykes said. “Certainly wouldn’t be here without his guidance and mentorship.”

FIESTA BOWL AT A GLANCE

Who: No. 2 Michigan (13-0) vs. No. 3 TCU (12-1)

When: Saturday, 1 p.m. PT

Where: State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

TV/radio: ESPN, 830 AM

FanDuel Sportsbook Line: Michigan by 7½

Series record: First meeting

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Michigan, the Big Ten champion, is making its second straight CFP appearance in search of its first national title since 1997. The Wolverines lost in the semifinals to Georgia last season in the Orange Bowl. TCU is in the playoff for the first time after starting the season unranked under first-year coach Sonny Dykes. The Horned Frogs would be the first Big 12 team to win a CFP game.

KEY MATCHUP

Michigan’s running game against TCU’s 3-3-5 base defense. The Wolverines’ offensive line, anchored by Outland Trophy winner Olu Oluwatimi, is the engine of a powerful and explosive running game. The Wolverines are huge and use multiple tight ends to further add to their bulk. The Horned Frogs’ defense has some size up front but is built for speed. TCU ranks 65th in the country in run defense at 4.10 yards per carry allowed. Michigan averages 5.64 yards per carry, third best in the nation.

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PLAYERS TO WATCH

TCU: Quarterback Max Duggan. The Heisman Trophy runner-up threw 30 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. He also ran for six scores and twice rushed for more than 100 yards in a game. Duggan is the director of an offense that leads the nation with 19 plays of 50 yards or more.

Michigan: Running back Donovan Edwards. The second-year tailback was the team’s No. 2 ball carrier behind All-American Blake Corum for most of the season. Corum went down with a knee injury in Game 11 and Edwards has embraced the chance to become a workhorse. He has run for 401 yards in the last two games against Ohio State and Purdue.

FACTS & FIGURES

TCU is the first school from the state of Texas to reach the CFP. … Michigan’s only previous appearance in the Fiesta Bowl came in 1986, when Coach Jim Harbaugh was the Wolverines’ quarterback. He ran for two scores in a 27-23 victory against Nebraska. … Harbaugh is 1-5 in bowl games as Michigan coach … Michigan has outscored its opponents 244-100 in the first half. … TCU became the first major college football team since 1975 to win seven straight games by 10 points or fewer … Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy has thrown only 288 passes directing the run-heavy offense, but he has 20 touchdown passes. … TCU wide receiver Quinten Johnston led the team with 53 catches for 903 yards, despite being hampered by injuries much of the season … Michigan’s top cornerback is freshman Will Johnson, a former five-star recruit from Detroit.

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