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TCU's Fairy Tale Football Season Continues After Legendary Fiesta Bowl Win

Adam KramerJanuary 1, 2023

TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston
TCU wide receiver Quentin JohnstonAP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

First, take a moment.

Breathe.

One more time.

Breathe.

Gather the thoughts and emotions that poured out during the marathon that was the Fiesta Bowl. While we live in a world of constant hyperbole, TCU and Michigan delivered one of the greatest, weirdest games the sport has ever seen.

In short, TCU won 51-45. The Horned Frogs seized an early lead, and they ultimately hung on despite the Wolverines' constant responses.

TCU will play in the national championship on Monday, January 9, in Los Angeles. The magnitude of that sentence and the accomplishment is not lost and will be appreciated momentarily.

But the game itself requires proper context first and foremost. This wasn't just another routine College Football Playoff semifinal. A final score will not do its brilliance the appropriate justice.

This was a chaotic, imperfect mess, and that is by no means a negative. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

The two teams totaled 96 points and 1,016 yards of offense. The third quarter alone featured 44 combined points, which is hard to comprehend.

For a while, they seemed to trade touchdowns every few minutes. The pace of the second half was extraordinary from the beginning.

TCU's Emari Demercado celebrates with teammates after rushing for a touchdown.
TCU's Emari Demercado celebrates with teammates after rushing for a touchdown.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

And yes, there were miscues. In a way, they only added to the drama. Both teams combined to commit more than 100 yards in penalties (mainly on TCU). They also turned the ball over three times apiece. Two of those turnovers resulted in TCU defensive touchdowns.

There were controversial calls made by the officials, including an early review that took Michigan points off the board. This play, which was ruled a touchdown reception by Roman Wilson on the field, was then ruled down at the 1-yard line. The Wolverines ultimately fumbled while trying to punch it in.

Players (and officials) struggled to keep their footing on the State Farm Stadium surface, which created a slew of broken plays and missed tackles throughout the game. This wasn't a positive by any means. But it did inject a fascinating variable into a game chock full of them.

And yes, there were spectacular individual efforts along the way. TCU quarterback Max Duggan, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, delivered four touchdowns—two passing and two running. One of those scores went to his favorite target, wideout Quentin Johnston, who finished with 163 receiving yards. On defense, linebacker Dee Winters was everywhere for the Horned Frogs.

In a losing effort, Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy had moments of excellence. Running back Donovan Edwards and wideouts Ronnie Bell and Roman Wilson had their moments. When Michigan fell behind 18 points early on, no one flinched.

Michigan's J.J. McCarthy pressured by TCU's Jamoi Hodge.
Michigan's J.J. McCarthy pressured by TCU's Jamoi Hodge.Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Since the CFP was assembled, one theme has remained consistent: The semifinals have largely been clunkers.

There have been, of course, a few exceptions. The 2015 Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Ohio State was a thriller. The 2018 Rose Bowl between Oklahoma and Georgia went to two overtimes and delivered 102 overall points. The 2020 Fiesta Bowl between the Buckeyes and Clemson was plenty good.

This game, however, warrants its own wing in the CFP museum, for all that it was and all that it wasn't.

This wasn't a Picasso; it was a completely unique football game that seemed to offer constant twists and turns. It was a game that TCU fans will relive for generations. It was an afternoon (and evening) that the Michigan faithful will struggle to forget for quite some time.

The outcome undoubtedly plays into this chaotic theme. After a season of close calls and a slew of doubt along the way, TCU will have an opportunity to win the national championship.

In a sport that has offered little postseason unpredictably in recent years, this is an enormous outlier. College football has become increasingly top heavy. The defies a movement that has largely plagued the postseason.

Heck, the playoff format was expanded as a direct result.

Johnston and head coach Sonny Dykes
Johnston and head coach Sonny DykesAP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

The Horned Frogs have willingly accepted the role of Cinderella. They began the season unranked, and it took many weeks for the masses to take them seriously. They are now 60 minutes away from being the last team standing.

This is no longer a story about a "fun" football team. After Saturday, that narrative is long dead.

TCU didn't just beat Michigan. It competed up front across both lines, which was an area that many assumed would be a struggle. The Horned Frogs didn't look overwhelmed physically. They made the nation's No. 3 scoring defense appear almost helpless at times.

Yes, there were plenty of scares along the way to reach this point. TCU's weekly ritual of falling behind and coming back in games had many assuming the losses would eventually mount.

One finally came in the Big 12 Championship Game against Kansas State, although it wasn't enough to keep the Horned Frogs out of the postseason.

Nearly a month later, that loss is a distant, insignificant memory. In fact, the entire fairy tale that got them to this moment, on the cusp of history, seems almost inconsequential.

TCU is here, whether you're ready to embrace it or not. It's only fitting that it found its way into the national championship by winning a game symbolic of its entire season. There were touchdowns and points and drama. Always drama.

It was imperfect. It was magnificent. It was historic. The fairy tale lives on for at least another week, and it might carry forward much longer than that.