SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — A day before facing off in the College Football Playoff, TCU's Sonny Dykes and Michigan's Jim Harbaugh talked fondly about the fathers they followed into coaching and a time when they might have shared more than a stage for one final pregame press conference.
Dykes recalled returning home after midnight from a high school football game in West Texas to find his dad, Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes, having a drink with Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum. The Aggies were in town to play the Red Raiders the next day.
“So in that spirit, I was going to invite Coach Harbaugh to come by the hotel room tonight and see if he wanted to open up a bottle of bourbon and reminisce a little bit,” Dykes said Friday.
“That's past my bedtime,” Harbaugh replied.
No. 2 Michigan (13-0) and No. 3 TCU (12-1) meet for the first time Saturday at the Fiesta Bowl, a matchup of one of college football's bluest blue bloods and the most unlikely team ever to reach the CFP semifinals.
“They’re great and we’re ready to line up and have at it,” Harbaugh said.
The Horned Frogs became just the second team in the nine-year history of the playoff to make the final four after starting the season unranked. The first? Michigan, last year.
Make no mistake, this is not the same thing.
Michigan at that point was coming off by far the worst season of Harbaugh's eight-year tenure in 2021, but, as Dykes reminded everyone, TCU is facing the winningest program in college football history.
The Horned Frogs were picked seventh in the Big 12 this season, their first under Dykes. Most of their players, including Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback Max Duggan, have never played in a bowl game during their college careers.
“Any time you’re an underdog, it builds motivation, going out there and proving everybody wrong,” TCU linebacker Dee Winters said. “When we’re an underdog, that’s something we enjoy.”
Michigan is a 7 1/2-point favorite, according to Fanduel Sportsbook.
The 53-year-old Dykes moved across town from rival SMU to take over TCU after the school parted ways with Gary Patterson, the most successful coach in program history, late in the 2021 season.
The importance of Patterson's 22 seasons leading the Frogs cannot be overstated. When the Southwest Conference dissolved in the mid-1990s, TCU was left out of the formation of the Big 12. That sent the Frogs on a nomadic, 16-year journey that covered three conferences (not including a few weeks as an incoming member of the Big East).
“It’s always been a fight for credibility,” Dykes said of TCU’s long and winding path to college football’s biggest stage.
Under Patterson, TCU became a BCS buster. The Frogs played in a Fiesta Bowl and won a Rose Bowl. All that winning built credibility. TCU, finally, landed in the Big 12 in 2012, reuniting with many of its old Southwest Conference rivals.
The Frogs played well in the Big 12 under Patterson, with three 11-victory seasons, but the program grew stale in his final four years.
Dykes, the AP's coach of the year, didn't do a massive transfer-portal makeover of the TCU roster. Just a few key additions.
Led by holdovers Duggan, star receiver Quentin Johnston, All-American guard Steve Avila and cornerback Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, the Thorpe Award winner as the nation's best defensive back, TCU ran off an unbeaten regular season before losing the Big 12 title game in overtime.
“We’ve been through so much,” Avila said. “And I just feel like us being here and us having the season that we did, just proved a lot of people wrong.”
A private university based in Fort Worth, Texas, TCU is the smallest school by enrollment (10,489) to reach the four-team playoff.
Then there is Michigan, which plays in a stadium that seats 110,000. There are few more recognizable emblems in American sports than the Wolverines' winged helmets.
Michigan last won a national championship in 1997, but the last two seasons under Harbaugh have been a return to glory. Michigan is 25-2, winning consecutive Big Ten titles for the first time since 2003-04.
Last year's playoff appearance ended with a thud in the Orange Bowl for the Wolverines against eventual national champion Georgia.
"It fuels us even more that we need to get past that point," Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who was the complementary No. 2 QB on last season's team. “We’re not just happy to be here. We want to get past it.”
Dykes said TCU will honor the late Mike Leach with pirate flag helmet stickers.
“He was a big impact on me and, really, football in general,” Dykes said.
Dykes is one of many successful proteges of Leach coaching throughout college football. The Mississippi State coach, and former Texas Tech and Washington State coach, died earlier this month of a heart condition at age 61.
“I’m sure it’ll be a little bit of shoutout to coach Leach before I take the field,” Dykes said. “Certainly wouldn’t be here without his guidance and mentorship.”
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