No. 3 TCU enters the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday against No. 1 Georgia as a 12.5-point underdog, but first-year coach Sonny Dykes said Tuesday that the Horned Frogs believe they shed the label of a Cinderella team weeks ago.
TCU was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 conference and is now in position to win the program’s first national title since 1938. Dykes conceded that most within the program would admit this past summer they didn’t think they’d be playing for the national title.
It wasn’t that they didn’t think they were capable of it, Dykes said, “we just hadn’t done it together.”
That mentality began to change, he said, following a three-game stretch that included wins against West Virginia, Texas and Baylor.
“I think that point, our guys started to believe, ‘OK, we’re a real football team and we’re a battle-hardened team and we’ve had to overcome some adversity,'” Dykes said. “And you know what? We have a chance to make a run.”
TCU, which went 12-0 during the regular season before losing in overtime to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, has proven skeptics wrong all season, and will have one last chance to defy the odds on the sport’s biggest stage. TCU could become the first team since Georgia in 1990 to win the national title after being unranked in the preseason Associated Press poll, which began in 1950.
“When you hear about how you’re about to lose to a team, or however many points you’re going to lose by, it just fuels us as a team,” LB Dee Winters said.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Tuesday that TCU’s ability to come back in the fourth quarter “shows what your mental makeup is.” TCU won five games this season when trailing after halftime and won seven straight games by 10 points or fewer.
“Their kids believe,” Smart said. “They have, I feel like just reading and listening about them, a lot of similarities to our kids in terms of the culture created there, the way they play, the way they believe.
“Their conference has been in a lot of tight ballgames, and they’ve won those tight ballgames, and done an incredible job with what they do. And they create really tough situations defensively, do an incredible job on special teams. Have one of the best returners I’ve ever faced in the return game and score a lot of points on offense with the Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterback. So it’s a recipe to be playing for the national championship.”
Dykes said his team has matured throughout the season, but the message when he was hired was “we’re good enough.”
“We’re good enough to compete,” he said. “We have all the pieces here. We just have to put them all together and we’ve got to do things the right way. We have to be willing to pay the prices. And those guys believe that. They really have. They believed it from day one.”
Still, they realize not everyone is convinced — even after Saturday’s 51-45 win against No. 2 Michigan.
“We use it as motivation, because why not?” said star receiver Quentin Johnston. “It’s one of the main things I feel like has driven us to the success we’ve come to this year. So honestly, there’s going to be a lot of outside noise, people projecting us to lose by however many points, but we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and prove them wrong from week to week.”
TCU’s chances at an upset will increase if running back Kendre Miller is healthy, but Dykes said his leading rusher is “probably questionable” after injuring his knee in the first half of the Fiesta Bowl.
“I think he’s feeling pretty good,” Dykes said, noting the coaching staff got “a pretty good evaluation on him” when the team returned home from Phoenix. “He was pretty sore. Woke up yesterday, felt a little better. I just saw him a little bit ago. He’s feeling better today. … We’ll see how he progresses through the week, see how he feels, and we’ll try to make a determination as we get closer to game time whether we think he’s going to be ready to play or not.”