Column: A round of applause, please, for playoff-crasher TCU

Let’s all give a round of applause to TCU, the interloper at this year’s national championship game.

The Horned Frogs might not win the title — reigning champ Georgia is a two-touchdown favorite heading into the game Monday night — but they’ve given the College Football Playoff something it desperately needed.

Variety.

Face it, the last thing we needed was another rematch of teams from the same conference.

“I’ve always believed that the cream rises and the more opportunities that schools outside of the traditional brands get, the more those schools can become traditional brands,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said.

The four-team CFP has been largely monopolized by a exclusive cabal of powerful programs during its first eight years of existence.

Alabama has played in the title game a whopping six times. Clemson reached the finale four times. Ohio State and Georgia were two-time finalists before this season. The only other schools to make it this far were Oregon in the very first year of the playoff and LSU, which capped its dominating 2019 season with a crown.

Most annoying of all, a pair of national title showdowns were simply do-overs of Southeastern Conference championship games between Alabama and Georgia.

Great for the SEC.

Not so much for the rest of the nation.

Now comes TCU, which is technically part of the Power Five group of conferences that rule the sport but sure feels like an outsider.

“I think it’s great to have a new face,” said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who will call the championship game at SoFi Stadium near Los Angeles. “Not only just a new face, but their story and what they had to do to get here.”

The TCU journey is much more than what the Horned Frogs accomplished this season, going from unranked at the start of the year to becoming the first Big 12 school to win a playoff game and earn a shot at the title.

The small, private school from Fort Worth, Texas, has been a vagabond in this era of conference realignment.

First, the Horned Frogs were tossed from their longtime home when the Southwest Conference collapsed in the 1990s. Jilted by an expanded Big 12, they bounced from the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA to the Mountain West Conference in search of a stable home.

After initially accepting an invite to move again, to the Big East, TCU wound up jumping instead to the Big 12 when that league — desperate for new members to ensure its survival — finally came calling in 2012.

“Man, it just doesn’t seem that long ago TCU was in the Mountain West and trying to get respect from people around the country,” Herbstreit recalled.

That quest for respect can be traced to the 2010 season, when the Horned Frogs finished 13-0 and No. 2 in the national rankings.

Who knows what might’ve been if the playoff had come along sooner? But that was the BCS era, when only two teams got an opportunity to play for the championship, and the big boys weren’t about to let a Mountain West school storm their club.

Auburn beat Oregon in the championship game, while TCU had to be content with a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.

“I think that really helped their brand that day and then eventually to join the Big 12,” Herbstreit said, though he quickly added: “A lot of people still don’t respect them.”

Indeed, even after the Horned Frogs were selected for the playoff — despite an overtime loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game for their only defeat so far — the focus was squarely on No. 1 Georgia’s bid to repeat as champion and the possibility that Big Ten rivals Michigan and Ohio State could meet again in the title game.

That scenario fell apart when the unbeaten Wolverines were knocked off by TCU in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal and Georgia, of course, finished off the Big Ten with its comeback win over the Buckeyes.

Finally, we’ve got a true Cinderella playing for the championship.

“If you’re really taking a poll with Georgia fans, they don’t know a whole lot about TCU,” Herbstreit said. “To me that’s fun. Because they’re not going to back down, I assure you, and they’re incredibly confident, and I think it’s going to be a great game.”

There could be a lot more great games when the CFP expands from four to 12 teams for the 2024 season, not to mention the hope that even more fresh faces will get a shot at winning it all.

It may sound a bit farfetched, but maybe a program such as Tulane — which knocked off mighty Southern Cal in the Cotton Bowl — follows the path laid out by Gonzaga in men’s basketball, a once-obscure school that built its reputation through countless tournament appearances and, eventually, a couple of trips to the championship game.

“There’s a lot of good football teams that deserve to be in the playoff,” Dykes said. “If you exclude them, it’s hard to break in.”

His voice rose with excitement as he looked ahead to a playoff expanded three-fold.

“You can’t help but look at how much fun it’s going to be when we get to that 12,” Dykes said. “The best thing, it’s going to include more people. And I’m a big believer in inclusion.”

Until then, another round of applause for TCU.

The Horned Frogs already made this playoff a winner.

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Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap_top25

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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