SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — There is a longing at the Fiesta Bowl. In this corner is Cinderella TCU, whose only national championship came in 1938. In the other corner is heavyweight Michigan, which has waited a quarter century since the Charles Woodson-led title run in 1997 to return to pick up another national championship.
Let’s just say it’s been a while. Unfortunately for both, given the Fiesta Bowl is only a 2022-23 College Football Playoff semifinal, either the No. 2 Wolverines or No. 3 Horned Frogs will be bounced from contention quickly with their longing for an ongoing crown.
TCU just won its second Big 12 championship and 10th conference title overall since 1994. Michigan hadn’t won the Big Ten since 2004 but now has back-to-back crowns.
There is also something to prove for both coaches. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh didn’t win so much as a division title as a college coach until 2021. TCU’s Sonny Dykes rode 14 transfers and backup quarterback Max Duggan to Dykes’ best season in his 13th year in the top job.
Let’s take a look at what’s to come Saturday afternoon in Glendale, Arizona, as Michigan and TCU battle to remain in contention for the College Football Playoff.
Keys to the Fiesta Bowl semifinals
1. Michigan is better than last year
Last season was seen as the apex of Harbaugh’s stay at Michigan. First Big Ten title in 18 years. Twelve wins for the first time since 1997. Heisman Trophy runner-up in defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. Beat The Team Down South. The loss of 13 draft picks since 2020. The Wolverines had to retool a bit, right?
Well… not exactly. Harbaugh deftly handled the quarterback transition from Cade McNamara to sophomore JJ McCarthy. Two new coordinators had to be worked into the fold. A top 20 defense got significantly better (currently fourth nationally) despite the loss of all that talent. Along the way, Michigan got tougher, a Harbaugh trademark. It showed as much in a thrashing of Ohio State (mostly) without its leading rusher (Blake Corum). Michigan beat OSU in consecutive years for the first time since 2000. That made it 13 wins for the first time ever.
The Wolverines are better and more physical than they were 12 months ago. And that means they are better prepared to win it all.
2. Max Duggan’s spirit
From backup to Heisman finalist. Not a bad year for TCU’s QB, who seems to want the Horned Frogs to victory. He lost the camp battle to Chandler Morris, who then got Wally Pipped as Duggan entered as a substitute when Morris got hurt in the opening game. Duggan likely would have won the Heisman had some questionable play calling and ball spotting kept TCU from beating Kansas State late in the Big 12 Championship Game.
He is supported by(No. 1 WR in the NFL Draft, per Pro Football Focus) and running back Kendre Miller (1,300 yards rushing). But the Frogs run on Duggan’s energy. He left us with the inspiring image of playing to exhaustion down the stretch against K-State. A rested Duggan gives TCU its best shot. The Wolverines will have to defeat him to defeat the Frogs.
3. Donovan Edwards’ hand
When Corum left early against Ohio State, Michigan’s hopes seemed sunk. Corum had injured his knee the week before against Illinois and would ultimately require season-ending surgery. Edwards was a capable backup, but now he must step in and become a star. Harbaugh leaned on the sophomore, who rushed for 216 yards against the Buckeyes despite a broken right hand. More than 38% of his season total has come in the last two games (401 yards out of 1046). That’s another way of saying Edwards has taken over the workhorse role.
“I thrive in the big games. I come alive in the big games. That’s what I’m here for,” Edwards said this week.
4. Comeback kids
The label applies to both teams. If TCU is going to win this game, it will probably have to come from behind because, well, that’s what it does. The Frogs came from behind in seven of their 12 wins. In one stretch, they did so across five straight games after being down in those respective games by seven, 17, 18, seven and four points. If TCU is going to win this semifinal, the script is already written. It will take an initial shot from Michigan, figure things out, then rally in the second half.
One catch, though. Michigan is really good in second halves, too. So good the Wolverines have outscored teams by a cumulative 206 points in the final 30 minutes of games this season. That’s an average of almost 16 points. On its way to the Big Ten title, Michigan outscored Ohio State and Purdue by a combined 54-13 in the second half. Whatever TCU does in the first half, it better buckle up.
5. The Five Horsemen
In a game devoid of a monster star power, Michigan has the best unit. His offensive line was named the best in the country (Joe Moore Award) for the second straight year. Michigan was No. 5 in rushing and allowed only 13 sacks, fourth-fewest among teams to play at least 13 games. Three of those offensive linemen were all-Big Ten. Center Olu Oluwatimi won the Outland (best interior lineman) and Rimington (best center) trophies. The line is the living embodiment of Harbaugh’s love and admiration of Bo Schembechler. If Michigan wins, it will road grade TCU doing so.