FORT WORTH — A day after a crushing emotional hit, TCU discovered new life in its football season and championship dreams.
The Horned Frogs became the first school from Texas and the first Big 12 member not named Oklahoma to make the College Football Playoff.
TCU (12-1) was third in the final CFP ranking released Sunday morning and will face No. 2 Michigan (13-0), the Big Ten champion, in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., on Dec. 31. Defending national champion Georgia (13-0) is the No. 1 seed and will meet No. 4 Ohio State (11-1) in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on Dec. 31.
This season’s CFP championship game matching the two winners will take place Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
The news of the selection ended about 20 hours of white-knuckle anxiety and insomnia for TCU in the wake of Saturday’s crushing overtime loss to Kansas State, 31-28, in the Big 12 title game. Alabama coach Nick Saban commandeered the airwaves Saturday night on ESPN and Fox, lobbying for the Crimson Tide to gain a spot in the playoff, based on projected Las Vegas odds to make the case.
“After [Saturday], I think we had a sleepless night, but I appreciate the committee’s confidence in our players and our program,” first-year TCU coach Sonny Dykes said Sunday after TCU’s watch party at Amon Carter Stadium. “I know our guys were disappointed last night and there was some concern, but I appreciate them giving us an opportunity to go and compete for a national championship.”
TCU finally got the good news after ESPN revealed the top two seeds, although the network took its time. The crowded luxury suite immediately erupted when TCU’s name flashed on the big-screen TVs.
“I was actually pretty nervous,” said senior quarterback Max Duggan, who will probably be named a Heisman Trophy finalist Monday. “My heart was kind of beating in waiting for it because they took so long from two to three. It’s a great spot to be in just having the opportunity.
“That’s all you ask for is to have a shot.”
Duggan admitted he was exhausted after pretty much willing TCU into overtime against Kansas State. A nasty cut on his right elbow was still oozing blood on Sunday. Duggan wasn’t alone in dealing with nerves.
Receiver Quentin Johnston said he had sweated through his jacket while waiting.
“Hate that we had to be in a situation where we are on the edge of our seats when it comes to this,” offensive lineman Steve Avila said. “But you know, things happen. We’re going to learn from it.”
TCU opened as a nine-point underdog to Michigan, a physical team with the nation’s third-ranked defense, holding opponents to 277.1 yards per game.
Michigan also averages 243 yards rushing a game, although it lost leading rusher Blake Corum to season-ending knee surgery. Backup Donovan Edwards has run for 401 yards and three touchdowns in the Wolverines’ last two games against Ohio State and Purdue.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh praised TCU during an appearance on ESPN.
“Couldn’t be more impressed with them, watching them throughout the season,” Harbaugh said. “Yesterday’s ballgame, that quarterback was unbelievable in terms of a competitor. And we have a good one, too, so it should be a heck of a matchup.”
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy seemed to have moved past TCU to a possible rematch with Georgia, which defeated the Wolverines in last season’s semifinals.
“It was one of the goals we checked off so it was obviously great,” McCarthy told reporters after the Big Ten championship, “but at the end of the day we still have one more goal to check off and we’re focused on that. Obviously getting another chance, hopefully another opportunity to play Georgia, will be amazing because we’ve been chomping at the bit to get that all year.”
Being overlooked is nothing new for TCU, a private school of fewer than 11,000 students with a stadium capacity of 46,000, less than half the capacity of of Michigan’s “Big House.”
The hiring of Dykes away from SMU drew a lukewarm reaction a year ago, with people wondering if he could resurrect a program that struggled at the end of the Gary Patterson era. The Horned Frogs were picked seventh in the Big 12 before the start of the season.
Duggan wasn’t even the starter to begin the season, taking over after Chandler Morris injured his knee in the opener against Colorado.
“There’s been a lot of lows here in the past four years, but to be able to get the opportunity to get a shot to go to the playoff and two games away from being in the national championship, it’s surreal,” Duggan said.
The CFP selection committee even expressed doubts about TCU earlier in the season. The Horned Frogs had their defense questioned as well as their trademark comebacks.
By the time Sunday arrived, the committee liked TCU enough to keep the Horned Frogs at No. 3 ahead of Big Ten blue blood Ohio State despite the loss.
“The body of work by TCU, the way they had played all season leading into that game,” CFP selection chairman Boo Corrigan said, listing the positives. “The ability to play in the championship game, the way they came back against Kansas State. A heroic effort, if you will, by Max Duggan and the way he played in that championship game.”
For TCU, the selection to the CFP, which began in 2014, has eased the pain from being left out of the first playoff that year when the Horned Frogs fell from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final ranking.
Dykes had expressed faith in the committee throughout the process. The son of Texas Tech coaching legend Spike Dykes, he embraced the idea of a Lone Star first ahead of teams like Texas A&M and Texas.
“It feels good, being a Texas guy; obviously the state of Texas means a lot to me,” Dykes said. “The history of college football in the state of Texas means a lot to me. To be the first team from Texas is quite an honor.”