How Michigan, Ohio State, TCU and Georgia reached the College Football Playoff


At Jim Harbaugh’s introductory news conference at Michigan, optimism around his alma mater ran high.

One reporter relayed that the fan base was labeling him the messiah, arriving in Ann Arbor not just as a highly accomplished coach and former star player but as the only man that could return the program back to the top of the Big Ten and into the thick of the national discussion once again.

Typically, at such events, hyperbole is rampant. Proclamations are made. Wins are ensured. Championships are promised.

The former Michigan quarterback — famously known for a guaranteed victory over rival Ohio State — would not take the bait, however. It wasn’t a case of tapering expectations or trying to adjust the bar to clear, but a belief that a trusted process would ultimately lead to the results those in maize and blue were clamoring for.

“I don’t have any guarantee for you if that’s what you’re looking for,” Harbaugh remarked with a sly smile that gave way to his more typical perplexed expression. “Like you know your name, I know Michigan football and believe in Michigan football.”

Such confidence has guided the Wolverines in the ensuing eight years. Through times of disappointment and unexpected setbacks, past a difficult pandemic season and creeping doubts about ever really reaching previous heights. It was there amid difficult contract negotiations and in the heat of battle between the lines every Saturday.

It is a belief that has now guided the program to back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances, plus an expectation that the final day of 2022 will be the requisite next step of playing for the national title and reaching the place UM always believed it was destined for under its head coach.

“Right where we want to be,” Harbaugh said Monday. “The best of the best playing the best. That’s where we want to be. Great to have that.”

The Wolverines’ path to the playoff has been a winding one, something they share with their fellow competitors Georgia, TCU and Ohio State — just as much as their belief that their road ends not on Saturday, but at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles holding up a gleaming gold trophy amid a sea of confetti.

  • Fiesta Bowl: No. 3 TCU-No. 2 Michigan, 4 p.m. ET on Saturday in Glendale, Ariz.
  • Peach Bowl: No. 4 Ohio State-No. 1 Georgia, 8 p.m. ET on Saturday in Atlanta

The Horned Frogs are the newcomers of the bunch, making not just their first appearance in football’s final four but owning the role of most unlikely national title contender since Auburn in 2010 or, stretching further back, perhaps 1990 Georgia Tech. TCU was not simply coming off a 5-7 mark last season, but they were making changing coaches, undergoing a significant program-wide transformation, and were filled with enigmas all over the depth chart. Just two players made a preseason All-Big 12 team, and they were picked to finish seventh in the league. Respect didn’t come when games began either, as TCU didn’t even receive a single vote in the AP Top 25 poll until six weeks into the season.

“You knew you had some good football players and a lot of them,” said TCU defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie, who came over from Tulsa. “So you had an idea of what you were getting. I think the biggest deal at this point is that they just have done a tremendous job of really locking in and embracing the newness of everything. I think that’s why we’re where we’re at today, is because of their hard work ethic and their willingness to hang on to everything that you say.”

Few encapsulated the unforeseen journey more than Gillespie’s antagonist throughout much of spring practice and into fall camp. Quarterback Max Duggan arrived in Fort Worth as a highly regarded recruit who checked all the measurable boxes and was supposed to return the Horned Frogs to the top of the conference standings. He became just the second true freshman to start under center for program figurehead Gary Patterson but endured three up-and-down seasons in the job.

Eventually, subpar play and a host of injuries led to his benching, plus an eventual unceremonious exit for Patterson — something Duggan took hard. Though the veteran opted not to transfer with the hire of the offensive-minded Sonny Dykes, he failed to beat out former backup Chandler Morris for the season-opener.

Morris, however, suffered a knee injury just three quarters into the season, which made way for Duggan to take hold of the job and never relinquish it. In addition to forming an impressive connection with top receiver Quentin Johnston, the senior played a pivotal role in leading second-half comebacks nearly every weekend.

On top of thumping then-No. 18 Oklahoma 55-24, TCU stormed back to beat three top-20 teams in a row (needing double overtime against Oklahoma State and some miraculous plays to survive Kansas State). They won a rock fight with Texas and pulled off a gut punch against bitter rival Baylor, with Duggan maneuvering the team into field-goal range before Griffin Kell quite literally ran onto the field with seconds remaining to knock through a 40-yard game-winner.

The drama continued in the Big 12 title game, with the Horned Frogs rallying from down 11 in the fourth quarter to force overtime in the rematch with the Wildcats. Both Duggan and tailback Kendre Miller were stopped on the doorstep in the extra frame, however, leading to a turnover on downs inches away from capping an undefeated run to the championship. 

Still, they had done enough in the eyes of the selection committee to remain at No. 3 and earn a berth in the College Football Playoff, something that had narrowly eluded them back in the first edition of the CFP in 2014. Duggan’s heroics eventually led to a runner-up finish in the Heisman Trophy, and he became the first player at the school to win the Davey O’Brien Award (named after the legendary former TCU quarterback). Offensive coordinator Garrett Riley took home the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach, and Dykes earned several national coach of the year honors.

“We’re a little bit more of a team that relies on speed. But I think the one thing that has made our team special is we’re a fast team, and we’re also a very physical team. Our goal is to always try to dominate the line of scrimmage and win the line of scrimmage,” Dykes said. “It will be a big challenge for us on Saturday. But we look forward to the challenge. I think it’s going to be really critical for us to be able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football.”

That’s something that Ohio State coach Ryan Day is also hoping to do after his team benefited from Utah’s upset of USC to narrowly edge into the field as the four-seed. The Buckeyes looked like a national title challenger for the bulk of 2022 as they romped through their schedule and benefited from an improved defensive outlook under new coordinator Jim Knowles. Quarterback C.J. Stroud was the Heisman frontrunner dating back to August while leading one of the best offenses in the country. And the entire group was excited to extract a measure of revenge against their rivals to the north going into The Game in Columbus. 

College Football Playoff: Can Ohio State beat Georgia?

College Football Playoff: Can Ohio State beat Georgia?

What was supposed to be a triumphant return to their rightful place atop the Big Ten instead became more of a nightmare over a 30-minute stretch that cleared out the Horseshoe prematurely. Stroud misfired in the second half as OSU failed to convert on third down after third down. The defense gave up bust after bust and allowed four touchdowns of more than 45 yards. It wasn’t just a loss that kept them from winning the division but one that prompted an ensuing crisis of confidence around one of the most steady programs in the country. 

Criticism reigned down upon Day — now 45-5 as a head coach — for his playcalling and lack of killer instinct. Knowles was thrown under the bus and many of the players who had performed well all season were questioned online and off.

Yet redemption is just one semifinal win away.

“When you get into the CFP, there’s just a certain level that we have to make sure we’re preparing for. I think our guys have been doing that, and they’re working hard, and the leadership is going to have to play really well in this game,” Day said this week. “Certainly have a great challenge and a great opponent in Georgia, we know that. They have a lot of great weapons. Certainly, they play a high level of football. They’re defending national champs and undefeated this year. So we know what we’re up against, and we’ll continue to prepare for that.”

In many ways, Ohio State is a team that was built for moments like this. Stroud has proved over the course of his career to be the best statistical quarterback in the playoff and was remarkable on the big stage a year ago in leading a Rose Bowl comeback for the ages. He has weapons like Biletnikoff Award finalist Marvin Harrison Jr. who are capable of making incredible catches all over the field. The offensive line, led by All-American Paris Johnson Jr., is a veteran group full of NFL-caliber starters. Zach Harrison has finally lived up to his five-star billing and leads a defense chock-full of playmakers, from tackling machine Tommy Eichenberg to safety Ronnie Hickman on the back end.

One game has defined this group so far in 2022, but they have the final four hours of the year to change that narrative.

It will be no easy task, not just because it’s the playoff, but because the reigning national champions stand in their way and are looking to make more history of their own. What Kirby Smart has built at his own alma mater in Athens is nothing short of the current gold standard for the sport (sorry, Alabama). After decades of being labeled an underachiever, the Georgia side that returns to the Peach Bowl on Saturday night looks instead to etch its name among the rarified greats to earn back-to-back national titles, something no team in the CFP era has accomplished.

Not bad for a supposed “reloading” season, eh? 

Such is the machine that fuels the Bulldogs right now and allows them to withstand the loss of a record five first-round picks on defense alone — 15 overall — last spring. It’s just one that pulls in top-three recruiting classes on the regular but gets wave after wave ready for the front lines, too.

“It’s just culture. That’s not going to change. What we do is not going to change. It doesn’t matter if one coach leaves or another coach leaves. That doesn’t impact our defense,” Smart said. “We have a system set up to get our twos and threes ready. So the next cast of defensive players is getting ready right now just like they were last year. 

“I think, if you’ve got a good formula for getting guys ready, it prevents large gaps in seasons.”

UGA is statistically not too far off from where it was in 2021 on defense but might be even more dynamic offensively. Quarterback Stetson Bennett was a Heisman finalist and still remains criminally underrated given his ability to hit the big play when the pressure is too much for others. Tailbacks Kenny McIntosh, Kendall Milton and Daijun Edwards each throw different wrinkles at you in the run game.

Then there are the tight ends who are central to it all, causing matchup nightmares galore. Junior Darnell Washington is listed at 6-foot-7, 270 pounds but is even more imposing in pads or between the hash marks. Brock Bowers has started pretty much from the moment he stepped on campus last season and is among the most versatile pass catchers in the game regardless of position. The sophomore won the Mackey Award this season after leading Georgia in receptions, yards and touchdowns. 

Still, as with any team reliant on the play of 18-25-year-olds after a long and taxing campaign, this wasn’t a group that looked completely invincible. Though the Dawgs clamped down on then-No. 1 Tennessee to start November and wrapped up the SEC East about as early as possible, the Bulldogs did look mortal in close calls at Missouri and Kentucky, had a few nervy moments against Kent State at home, and also gave up 30 points in the conference championship game to an LSU side that had turned to its backup quarterback.

Not that it’s some massive negative to make the move to the understudy behind center. Michigan can certainly owe its spot in the final four to doing just that and now returns to the CFP not just happy to be part of the festivities, but serious about getting the job done in L.A.

How Jim Harbaugh rebuilt Michigan

How Jim Harbaugh rebuilt Michigan

Harbaugh turned plenty of heads when he demurred on naming a starting quarterback early in the year. Cade McNamara had, after all, helped get the team over the hump with a Big Ten title and cathartic victory over Ohio State during his first season as a starter. Many assumed he would be the guy … right up until he wasn’t.

Harbaugh was cognizant coming into 2022 that there is a difference between being good and being great. If Michigan wanted to not just get back to a semifinal game again — but win the whole thing — he needed a bit more out of the most important position on the field. Former five-star J.J. McCarthy offered glimpses of that in flashes as a young freshman and so an exceedingly rare quarterback battle spilled over into the season with what amounted to a tryout of sorts. 

McNamara started the opener against Colorado State. McCarthy got the nod against Hawaii — and never let go of the gig after that. His 20 passing touchdowns were pedestrian compared to some peers in college football, but the signal-caller improved as the year went on. Plus, his ability to escape pressure and pick up first downs with his legs are crucial in fine-margin games and an extra dimension that his predecessor lacked.

McCarthy also threw just three interceptions during the regular season. And against Ohio State, he made big throw after big throw to stun the Buckeyes and leave Michigan coaches running off the field in Columbus shouting his name and singing his praises all the way to the Fiesta Bowl.

The quarterback wasn’t the only one to raise his game for this edition of the Wolverines. Tailback Blake Corum went from a breakout star last season to a potential Heisman finalist as the workhorse that made everything go. Despite suffering a knee injury in late November that knocked him out of the lineup, he still finished ninth in the country in rushing yards and tied for the fourth-most rushing touchdowns.

Donovan Edwards, despite nursing injuries of his own, has taken the baton and, well, run with it. He recorded 216 yards and two long, back-breaking touchdowns in the win over OSU, and he added 185 on the ground in the Big Ten title game against Purdue. It’s a testament to his skill and explosiveness that he was able to so ably become the lead back, but also a nod to those up front, too. 

Michigan’s offensive line has consistently been one of the better units in the country the past few seasons, but it’s been even more remarkable this year. The group became the first to win the Joe Moore Award in back-to-back seasons and allowed just one sack per game all year in addition to opening up vast running lanes for Corum and Edwards. Center and Virginia transfer Olusegun Oluwatimi took home the Rimington and Outland Trophies for his work in the middle of it all.

Even the defense, which lost coordinator Mike Macdonald to the NFL, has shown significant improvement over last year’s group and quickly turned the young Jesse Minter as the next assistant likely to be plucked from the staff for a bigger job.

Now they join three other teams at the ready, with confidence for each running high heading into the biggest challenge they’ll face as the grandest stage in college football awaits on New Year’s Eve.

Breaking down Georgia, Michigan, TCU, Ohio State

Breaking down Georgia, Michigan, TCU, Ohio State

Michigan and TCU. Ohio State and Georgia.

They all believed in their own ways that they would be here. From that first news conference to the sweltering preseason camps to all the emotional twists and turns along the way, each took far different paths to arrive at the same place.

Only two will be able to take that final step, though, and set a date with history next month.  

It’s guaranteed to be just how they wanted it.

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Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.


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