Michigan, USC, TCU show there is no one blueprint to success

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Following a festive Thanksgiving weekend full of football, football and fútbol — plus an extra helping of rivalry games, wild endings and even more unpredictable results — we have finally wrapped up the regular season in college football and moved on to Championship weekend.

It’s time for titles to be won and trophies to be handed out. It should be one of the most interesting times on the calendar, bursting with excitement over ticking a key marker off on the list of accomplishments every team has on their yearly quest.

Unfortunately, events like South Carolina knocking off No. 10 Clemson and No. 11 LSU inexplicably faltering in College Station have largely rendered most of the title games moot when viewed through the lens of the College Football Playoff race. Georgia, Michigan and TCU have essentially locked up bids with a hefty body of work on their résumés, and each can make it into the final four even with a loss on Saturday.

RJ Young’s Top 25: Michigan moves up to No. 2

RJ Young's Top 25: Michigan moves up to No. 2

Michigan rides a win over Ohio State into the No. 2 spot in RJ Young’s rankings.

The only game with any real postseason stakes attached to it is the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night in Las Vegas. If USC wins, the Trojans are in and the CFP is simple and clean-cut. If they lose, the list of options the Selection Committee will be taking a second look at (Ohio State, Alabama) won’t be playing this weekend anyway.

But despite the lack of real meat on the championship bone, there are a few big lessons that every fan, booster, athletic director and school president can take away from those teams that did make it to this weekend.

You can start with the Trojans, the poster boys for turnarounds during the transfer portal and NIL era. Lincoln Riley is one of the best coaches in football (period) but the blueprint he laid out in flipping a 4-8 roster into a likely CFP semifinalist is bound to be a talking point in every job interview going forward.

Every coach sells hope. Now they have cold, hard proof of how to do it. It’s a copycat sport, and everybody will soon be cheating off the cardinal and gold to varying degrees.

Now, few future head coaches will be able to bring in the forthcoming Heisman Trophy winner, as Lincoln did in taking Caleb Williams west, but the way the staff quickly identified what it needed at the skill positions and especially on defense and portaled their way to upgrades. A good QB and some explosive playmakers will make any team better overnight, even if reaching the highs USC has will be tough to match.

No. 6 USC takes down No. 15 Notre Dame

No. 6 USC takes down No. 15 Notre Dame

Is Caleb Williams now the leader in the Heisman Trophy race?

Just ask Brian Kelly, another big splash hire who still must be commended for getting the Tigers to Atlanta despite the face plant against Texas A&M. LSU’s roster is not where he nor the program want it to be, but he used the portal to add depth in key spots and help juice a quarterback battle that former Arizona State Sun Devil Jayden Daniels eventually won. Toss in a quickly assembled freshman class full of impact players like Harold Perkins Jr., some actual improvement on the whiteboard when it comes to the scheme, and an SEC West banner was delivered ahead of schedule.

Kelly’s opposite number on Saturday, Kirby Smart, underscores how incremental improvement can go a long way in the end. The Georgia head coach still occasionally tries an ill-timed special teams trick play, but he’s mostly eliminated those in-game mistakes that used to trip the team up. The Bulldogs always recruited well, but now they’re doing so on an elite level that stacks talent on top of talent.

The end result: the reigning champs are favored to repeat.

Then there’s Jim Harbaugh, who now lords over the Big Ten and can make it two conference banners in a row on Saturday night, plus back-to-back CFP trips. This is always the place everybody thought he would take Michigan when hired, but the path to it was bumpy.

He was on the verge of being shown the door, and perhaps could have forced his administration’s hand a few years ago if he had drawn a line in the sand and not accepted a salary cut ahead of a make-or-break 2021 campaign. Harbaugh doubled down on being physical, embracing the culture of toughness he used to turn around Stanford and the 49ers. Instead of making mass changes, he refocused on building a culture.

Jim Harbaugh talks about the legacy of Michigan

Jim Harbaugh talks about the legacy of Michigan

Charles Woodson talks to Jim Harbaugh about the legacy of Michigan football and what fuels him every day.

It’s paid off, not just with a winning streak over rival Ohio State for the first time in two decades, but in multiple areas. Outsiders thought trying to change quarterbacks from one that led you to the playoff was risky. Yet, Harbaugh knew the ceiling was that much higher with J.J. McCarthy under center and that the Wolverines could handle the rotation he put the sophomore and incumbent Cade McNamara through during the season’s first few games.

“He’s just got that it-factor. First-year starter, in the history of Michigan, that went 12-0, and he beat Ohio State,” Harbaugh said Saturday of McCarthy. “He was just on fire in every way; running the ball or throwing it.”

Toughness is another hallmark of what Jon Sumrall has installed at Troy, which hosts the Sun Belt championship game off the back of doubling their win total from 2021. The Trojans were always capable of putting up points over the years dating back to Larry Blakeney, but there was some ingredient missing at the tail end of the Chip Lindsey era that caused them to stop just on the precipice of breaking through.

Sumrall, whose departure from Kentucky has shown up in the Wildcats’ decline this season, not only has notched double-digit wins in his first head coaching gig but really got Troy to buy into being resilient in every aspect of the program. The Trojans have not only won six one-score games, but they’ve done it by making plays on both sides of the ball when called upon, and not relied on luck.

Willie Fritz, a head coach for 26 years, also has proven that good coaching is good coaching no matter the level. In the bowels of Nippert Stadium after beating Cincinnati on Friday, he noted that Tulane was building toward moments like the one they’ll experience on Saturday in hosting the AAC championship.

Last year’s 2-10 mark was the byproduct of injuries, he said, which paid off in an older and more mature team come 2022. Fritz had to turn to graduate assistants running scout team plays in practice at one point last season, but kept everybody on the sidelines engaged in everything that was going on. That can matter in key moments, when simple checks at the line can result in big plays that end up winning the game — like it did against the Bearcats.

“We really found our way the last couple of years. We were so close the last couple of years, coming close to winning eight, nine, 10 games. But we didn’t, the ball didn’t bounce our way,” Fritz told FOX Sports. “Our guys expect to win now. That’s very, very important. But more importantly, our guys work hard.

“I’ve been blessed to coach a lot of great teams and these guys have those characteristics.”

Sometimes, coaching searches are all about opposites. You go from the hard-nosed defensive guy to the player-centric offensive mind or vice versa. It is common thinking in the NFL and is a trend you often find a level below, too.

TCU is this year’s greatest example. While Gary Patterson literally has a statue outside the stadium, things clearly were not trending in the right direction after coming within shouting distance of the playoff just after joining the Big 12. A rather public and protracted dalliance landed Sonny Dykes from across town at SMU and the results have been nothing short of astonishing in Fort Worth.

Highlights: TCU takes care of business vs. Iowa State

Highlights: TCU takes care of business vs. Iowa State

TCU handles Iowa State with ease on Saturday, paving a path to the Big 12 Championship game and a likely CFP berth.

Dykes fit the bill initially for the Horned Frogs because he knew the place, spending time on staff as an analyst. And he knew the area, both coaching the Mustangs and growing up with Texas football in his blood. You could not check off any more boxes for a college football hire in 2022.

Yet what has made Dykes truly tailor-made to guide TCU’s undefeated run through the Big 12 has been his even-keeled manner and ability to alter his style to highlight his players’ strengths, instead of jamming a few square pegs in a round hole just to establish something new for a team that was coming off a 5-7 mark.

There may not be a ton on the line for those ranked in the upper echelon this coming weekend, but from top to bottom across all 10 conferences, there are lessons to be learned. As the coaching carousel spins faster than ever across the landscape with the close of the regular season, those eying their own quick turnarounds would be wise to dig deep into how some of the coaches on the sidelines Friday and Saturday navigated the landscape, and how best to steal a little bit of that same magic for their own program.

Make it make sense

Saturday Superlatives

Best Player: Caleb Williams (USC)

Team of the Week: Michigan

Coach of the Week: Shane Beamer

Goat of the Week: Dabo Swinney

Heisman Five: 1. Caleb Williams (USC), 2. Max Duggan (TCU), 3. Blake Corum (Michigan), 4. Michael Penix Jr. (Washington), 5. Bryce Young (Alabama)

Tweet of the Week

Super 16

Here’s how I voted in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 Poll this week:

  1. Michigan
  2. Georgia
  3. TCU
  4. USC
  5. Alabama
  6. Ohio State
  7. Penn State
  8. Kansas State
  9. Washington
  10. Tennessee
  11. Utah
  12. Clemson
  13. Florida State
  14. Tulane
  15. LSU
  16. Oregon State

Just missed the cut: UCLA

Best of the rest: South Carolina, Texas, Oregon, Troy, Illinois, Notre Dame, North Carolina, UCF

Presnap reads

Pac-12 Championship Game: Utah vs. USC (Friday, 8 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)

The Utes have not looked like the same team since they upset the Trojans back at Rice Eccles a few months ago and simply haven’t clicked on both sides of the ball against any opponent with a pulse. Kyle Whittingham is still one of the best around and will have his team ready to play for this one though, trading scores for three quarters before a turnover gives Caleb Williams an extra possession to extract revenge and advance to the CFP. 

Mountain West Championship Game: Fresno State at Boise State (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)

Let’s be honest, it wasn’t the greatest of seasons for the MWC. That allowed Boise State to run the table in conference play, and the Bulldogs to run off seven straight wins after Jake Haener returned to the lineup. This feels like a good ol fashioned shootout on the blue turf that the home side is lucky enough to have the ball last to help net the win.

Big Ten Championship Game: Purdue vs. Michigan (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)

Jeff Brohm is bound to have a few plays that can help the Boilermakers put up at least a few points, but Purdue is still overmatched in every area of the field. This could be close for a half before the Wolverines start laying it on down the stretch.

Big 12 Championship Game: Kansas State vs. TCU (Saturday, noon ET)

It’s felt like the past three weeks were shaping up for the Horned Frogs to run the table, only to be upset in the Big 12 title game. Sticking with that thinking, Deuce Vaughn goes off to get the win for the Wildcats, though TCU still sneaks into the playoff field.

SEC Championship Game: Georgia vs. LSU (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET)

The Tigers will have something up their sleeve to make things nervy for about 25 minutes, and then Georgia will show why it’ll be back in the building for the semifinal at the end of the month.

ACC Championship Game: Clemson vs. North Carolina (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)

Kudos to any neutrals actively seeking out this game to watch. It will lead to a berth in the Orange Bowl, but otherwise might be a lot more about whether Drake Maye starts off 2023 as a Heisman favorite, or give hints at what Dabo Swinney wants to do at quarterback moving forward. Still, Clemson by double-digits.

AAC Championship Game: UCF at Tulane (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET)

Last week was Tulane’s first win as a ranked team against another ranked team since 1984. They have a chance to do that two weeks running if they can hold serve at home and get some revenge for an earlier game against the Knights. Distractions will play into a slow start, but the Green Wave have a great vibe about them and sneak out with a last-minute victory in the end.

Sun Belt Championship Game: Coastal Carolina at Troy (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET)

Even if Grayson McCall were to play for the Chants, the team simply has not looked like the world beaters who have been the Sun Belt’s best the past two years. The Trojans will keep things low-scoring and end up beating up the opposition to notch a remarkable conference title under a first-year head coach.

MAC Championship Game: Toledo vs. Ohio (Saturday, noon ET)

The Rockets fully backed into this game and haven’t put together a full four-quarter performance since early October. Yet they’re favored by more than a field goal over the Bobcats mostly because of the latter program’s tortured history in the title game, and because they don’t have starting quarterback Kurtis Rourke. Despite that, the underdog always tends to show up in this conference championship and does so again at Ohio wins the league for the first time since 1968.

CUSA Championship Game: North Texas at UTSA (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET)

No lead seems safe against the comeback kings of Conference USA in the Roadrunners, who will have a hostile crowd on their side in this one. UNT may take an early lead and keep doing just enough through the fourth quarter, but it’s UTSA who emerges with the trophy to end their tenure in the league on top as they move into the AAC in 2023.

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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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