It’s hard for me to consider a Power Five football team a Cinderella, but that’s where we are in 2023.
TCU shook up the college football world Saturday evening with its 51-45 upset of Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl. With the win, the Horned Frogs earned a berth in the College Football Playoff championship, where they will face a Georgia team that needed to rally in the final moments to beat Ohio State 42-41 in the Peach Bowl Saturday night.
The two CFP semifinal games were highly entertaining affairs, each coming down to the final seconds. Oddsmakers, though, aren’t expecting an encore next Monday night when the Horned Frogs and Bulldogs play in Inglewood, Calif.
Georgia opened as a nearly two-touchdown favorite – 13 or 13.5 points at most sportsbooks – over TCU. The Horned Frogs were 7.5-point dogs to the Wolverines heading into Saturday.
That’s nothing new for TCU, a team that before this season last earned a bowl bid in 2018. As teams began preparing for the season this past summer, oddsmakers at BetMGM had made them a 200-1 longshot. According to Sports Odds History, you could have gotten those odds on the team picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 as late as early October.
Should TCU pull it off, it would be the most improbable national title since at least 1984, when BYU ended the season as the top-ranked team in the polls.
After Saturday’s game, TCU players told reporters they felt disrespected after hearing Michigan players reportedly talking down about them. Some said they used that as motivation.
Even first-year coach Sonny Dykes said they know such talk will continue as they prepare to face the defending national champion.
It’s not going to stop now, you know what I’m saying?” said Dykes. “We’re going to play again in ten days, and we’re going to hear the same crap for ten days that we heard leading up to this ballgame.
“We got to do what we did this game. We’ve got to answer that criticism and show up and do what we’re supposed to do.”
Few people gave TCU any chance of beating Michigan. At WynnBET, 69% of the point spread handle was on Michigan covering – the spread went from 7.5 to 9 points. The moneyline was even more lopsided at 83.5% of the bets and 83.9% of the handle.
Caesars reported similar numbers, with 64% of the spread handle on the Wolverines and 80% of the moneyline. The latter was helped by one bet for more than $314,000 on Michigan straight up.
Defying the Odds
How big of an upset would it be for TCU to win the national title? Well, its longest odds this season, according to Sports Odds History, were four times higher than the biggest underdog to win, dating back to 2001.
The 2010 Auburn team led by Cam Newton had preseason odds of 50-1. The 2003 LSU squad had preseason odds of 40-1, and Ohio State was a 40-1 shot in the preseason as well.
As recently as two weeks before Thanksgiving, you could have gotten TCU at 50-1. Now, the longest odds on the Horned Frogs for next week are 4-1. That still equates to implied odds of just 20% to win.
That’s not a great chance in a one-on-one match, but if the Horned Frogs have proven anything this season, it’s that they can defy the odds.
TCU is Upsetting the Norm
Unlike the NFL, which strives for parity – or at least the appearance of it, college football has a well-defined food chain.
We start at the bottom with the smaller conferences, known as the Group of Five. Those conferences are: the American Athletic, Conference USA, the Mid-American, the Mountain West, and the Sun Belt. Throw in any independent school not named Notre Dame as well.
Winning a national title at this level is next to impossible. Only one time – Cincinnati in 2021 – has a Group of Five team made the CFP playoff, and in the previous Bowl Championship Series era, no team from a smaller conference was ever picked to play for the title.
If the Group of Five is the have-nots, the Power Five is the have. Revenues for the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC far outstrip those from the smaller conferences.
But even within the Power Five, you have a smaller sect known as the blue bloods. They’re schools that, for the most part, have had either lasting success or have a very large fanbase. Almost any time one of those blue bloods has a strong start, they’re anointed as a national title contender.
TCU, while a Big 12 member, is not a blue blood. While they have a history, their glory days were back in the 1930s when they won two national titles. They also went more than 50 years between appearances in a major bowl, and while the Horned Frogs have made major bowl appearances within the last 15 years, they’ve also had some recent struggles. Those struggles led to Gary Patterson’s resignation as coach last year and the hiring of Dykes, a coach who had just one 10-win season and one conference championship in his previous 12 years as a head coach.
More Cinderellas to Come?
Unlike college basketball, where the smaller teams get their shot against the bigger ones and sometimes pull off a monumental upset or two, college football is very much a clique sport.
Rankings can be skewed based on how a team is perceived. If Texas or Southern Cal start off 6-0, they’re given instant respect. Schools in smaller conferences don’t get that, and usually, the very good teams at that level don’t get a chance to play a bigger school, so they always stay a notch below.
There’s the potential for more Cinderellas in the future as the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams in 2024. The smaller schools still won’t have much of a shot. But they’ll get one – and that’s more than they’ve had in the past.
Until then, TCU represents our best chance to see a truly unheralded team have a shot for the championship.
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