How to Beat the Blue-Chip Rule: The Story of TCU Football's Incredible 2022-23 Run
On January 9th, Georgia and TCU will face-off in the National Championship Game under the lights at SoFi Stadium. Georgia, the undefeated heavyweight defending champions, are currently being given huge odds to win as the line is set at UGA -12.5. But, that certainly won't stop TCU from trying to make history. Starting the season unranked with slim to no odds of even making the College Football Playoffs, the Horned Frogs were simply looking to use the talent they had to scrap together a solid 8-4 or 9-3 season. Heck, I'll admit I didn't have them in the playoffs in my article from a few months back. But now, they stand just one win away from being the kings of college football. However, they'd also be the first champions to ever break the notorious blue-chip rule.
Ever since the modern high school recruiting era started over 20 years ago, the blue-chip rule has been a definitive way to rule which teams were national title contenders. This rule states that only teams with over 50% of their players being four and five stars can win a national title. While it might seem flawed or exclusive, it makes sense that only teams with the best players can win a national title. Even this year, the rule worked mostly well as the other three teams who made the playoffs, Georgia, Michigan and Ohio State, all follow the blue chip rule at 77%, 59% and 80% respectively. But, how did a team with a sub 30% blue-chip rate not only fit in with the bunch, but do well enough to make the National Championship Game? Furthermore, what does this success mean for the future of college football team building?
Starting with how they got there, TCU opened the season with three relatively easy games against Colorado, Tarleton and SMU. The only one score contest out of the bunch was TCU, and that was more so due to the game being a classic Big 12 shootout than anything else. Truth be told, the only thing of note in these games was the change of quarterback from Chandler Morris to eventual Heisman finalist Max Duggan after the Colorado game. However, the month of October was slated to be a tough stretch for TCU. Out of their five games in the month, four were against ranked opponents. For perspective, by the time of TCU's first game of the stretch against Oklahoma, they had a singular AP Poll vote. Their four ranked opponents had a combined 1,901 votes.
But instead of folding under the pressure, the Horned Frogs came out strong and thumped #18 Oklahoma by 31 points before handing #19 Kansas their first loss of the season when they traveled to Lawrence. Then, in the biggest game of the season so far TCU defeated undefeated #8 Oklahoma State in a double-OT thriller. To finish off the month, the Horned Frogs beat #17 Kansas State by 10 and then took care of West Virginia with ease.
Heading into November, TCU stood at 8-0 and had climbed all the way up the rankings to the number seven spot. With the hard part of the schedule over and only one more ranked matchup left in conference play, the Horned Frogs were cruising in the driver's seat of the Big 12. As expected, they won their final four games of conference play, although challenges were certainly faced at #18 Texas and Baylor. Although the Big 12 was said to be weak in 2022, TCU looked like the clear best team and star players such as Duggan and wide receiver Quentin Johnson were being recognized nationally as some of the best at their position.
After finishing conference play at 12-0, the Horned Frogs had now climbed all the way up to third in the nation, making the College Football Playoffs in sight. However, with the lack of respect for the Big 12, their upcoming conference championship game against a Kansas State squad that climbed up to 13th in the nation could be a must-win to stay in contention for the playoff. In what could've been the game that done them in, TCU failed. They fought hard for four quarters, but unfortunately Kansas State pushed it to overtime where TCU failed to score before allowing Kansas State to kick a game-winning field goal.
Knowing all they could do was wait and hope the selection committee picked in their favor, TCU's hopes of a playoff berth were dwindling. Luckily for them, Pac-12 favorite USC inexplicably lost in their conference championship game as well, and Big-10 juggernaut Ohio State didn't even play in theirs due to Michigan winning the Big 10 East. So, when the final playoff seeding was released, the Horned Frogs did in fact see their name as the number three seed slated to play a matchup against number two Michigan at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona.
Finally, New Year's Eve came and TCU's biggest challenge yet arrived. Michigan entered the game as a 7.5 point favorite and virtually everyone expected the Wolverines to win. However, TCU started off hot when they got a pick-six and followed it up with a Duggan rushing touchdown in the first quarter. In between a couple Michigan field goals, TCU found the end zone again in the second quarter on a pass to receiver Taye Barber. Up 21-7 at the half, the Horned Frogs had shocked the world and looked poised to make it to the final. However, Michigan was not done yet. The Wolverines scored 10 straight points to open up the third quarter, although a series of back-and-forth touchdowns meant that TCU still lead by 11 going into the final quarter. In the end, Michigan's comeback was not enough to overcome the Horned Frogs, and one of the greatest underdogs in CFP history was going to live to play another day.
Now that we've caught up to speed, let's switch gears into how this will impact college football and the process of roster building and rebuilding.
Will being a blue-chip heavy team still be very helpful for a roster? Yes, of course. However, what this TCU team has shown is that great coaching development and a knack for the transfer portal plenty of teams have the potential to become contenders.
On the coaching development end, Sonny Dykes has been exactly the guy TCU needed. Despite losing impact guys to the transfer portal like running back Zach Evans, the offense was still loaded with firepower. Duggan, who was the backup entering the season, was able to develop into the system swimmingly and emerge into a Heisman finalist and now a possible NFL draft prospect. Johnson got almost 500 more yards this year and now is a possible first round pick. Running back Kendre Miller was able to do a great job at filling the hole of Evans and doubled his rushing yards & touchdowns. Even the defense, which isn't something Dykes is renowned for, improved in a big way. They moved into the upper half of the Big 12 in points per game allowed and yards per game allowed.
Part of this development and overall improvement came from their use of the transfer portal to build their squad. The Horned Frogs were third in the conference last year in the transfer portal rankings, finishing only behind recruiting juggernauts Oklahoma and Texas. Top tight end Jared Wiley was acquired from Texas, starting safety Mark Perry came over from Colorado, lead cornerback Josh Perry came from UL-Monroe, and starting linebacker Johnny Hodges came from Navy. All of these players found their right home at TCU, and allowed the team to thrive in ways they couldn't before.
This magnitude of unconventional team improvement highlights that even in a game that is feared by most to be taken over by monetary powerhouses, it is still possible for smaller Power 5 programs to make playoff runs and beat the blue-chip rule. While it isn't likely that each year one can expect a non-blue-chip squad to make a national title run, the Horned Frogs have sent out the warning call to perennial winners that the new wave of college football team building is coming, and it is going to shake up the landscape of the game hard. So, whether the Horned Frogs complete one of the most unlikely seasons of all time with a CFP title on Monday or if they fall to Georgia, fans should get excited for a the beginning of a whole new ballgame.