COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 03 Big 12 Championship - TCU vs Kansas State
Getty Images

No. 3 TCU emerged as one of the unlikeliest College Football Playoff teams since the format started in 2014. From missing a bowl game in 2021 to becoming the first Big 12 team outside of Oklahoma to make the field in 2022, TCU's one-year turnaround is among college football's best stories. However, don't think that the Horned Frogs are happy to be here in the semifinals. They have their sights set on a national title. 

Heading into the playoff's ninth edition, the Big 12 is the only conference without a CFP win. That can change with the Frogs, who became the first Big 12 squad to go undefeated in the regular season since the league moved to a round-robin format. With Heisman finalist quarterback Max Duggan leading the way, TCU proved it can handle its business. 

Prior to the season, TCU boasted the same national championship odds (200-1) as Purdue, Arizona State and Mississippi State. Reaching the CFP is exceeding expectations by a mile. Still, here are three reasons that TCU should be considered a legitimate national championship contender heading into the final stretch. 

1. It boasts an elite group of skill players

In a year when whole units have stood above individual excellence, TCU might have the best collection of offensive stars in the CFP.. Quarterback Max Duggan finished No. 2 in the Heisman Trophy voting after a sensational senior season in which he emergedas a nationally relevant dual-thread quarterback. Running back Kendre Miller had more than 1,300 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns. The hidden star might be wide receiver Quentin Johnston, who has elevated himself into a first-round wideout in the 2023 NFL Draft. 

"Johnston's an above-the-rim playmaker whose athleticism and contested-catch abilities make him WR1 at this point in the proceedings," CBS Sports NFL Draft analyst Ryan Wilson wrote of Johnston

With Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson sidelined by a foot injury, TCU boasts the best quarterback-running back-wide receiver trio in the playoff by a notable margin. The trio leads all QB/RB/WR groupings in the CFP in yards and narrowly trails Ohio State for most touchdowns. The dynamic talents mean that TCU can strike at any moment -- and that it can keep up with anyone. 

GroupTotal YardsTotal TDs

Max Duggan-Kendre Miller-Quentin Johnston (TCU)



Stetson Bennett-Kenny McIntosh-Brock Bowers (Georgia)



C.J. Stroud-Miyan Williams-Marvin Harrison (Ohio State)



J.J. McCarthy-Donovan Edwards-Ronnie Bell (Michigan)



2. It is comfort being uncomfortable

Out of the four College Football Playoff teams, only one has a wealth of experience playing in close games. TCU played six games within one score in 2022 and posted a 5-1 record. If Duggan had fallen just six inches further forward in the Big 12 Championship Game vs. Kansas State, the Frogs could have potentially been a perfect 7-0 in such games. 

Michigan is the only other team in the playoff that has played multiple one-score games. The Wolverines went 2-0 in those outcomes, but needed some miracles just to escape a middling Illinois squad. Georgia sleepwalked against a bad Missouri team, but managed to pull away at the end. Ohio State did not play a single matchup that was decided by fewer than 11 points. 

In the biggest moments, Duggan and TCU come alive. In five conference games between Oct. 15 and Nov. 12, the Frogs more than doubled their opponents' second-half points (86-40). In back-to-back performances against Oklahoma State and Kansas State, the Frogs outscored their opponents 51-10 in the second half. 

While the close margins were held against TCU during CFP deliberations, they give the Frogs a close-game DNA that other programs have not needed to develop heading into a playoff sure to be filled with competitive matchups. In the biggest moments, Duggan and TCU stand up. That will be a huge advantage against elite level competition. 

3. The Frogs are battle-tested

The Big 12 was college football's deepest conference this season, trailing only the SEC in average SP+ as every single member of the league ranked No. 62 or higher. The Frogs also played SMU, giving them 11 opponents in the top half of college football's power rankings in 13 games. 

What's more is that TCU navigated that tough schedule without a single open week between the SMU game on Sept. 24 and the Big 12 Championship Game vs. Kansas State on Dec. 3. Simply put, no team has had to be mentally stronger than TCU over the 13-game run to the final stage. 

The last-second win over Baylor on Nov. 19 remains the perfect example of TCU finding plays when it needs them and operating under duress. Trailing or tied with the Bears for the entire game, the Frogs executed a two-minute drill in the fourth quarter to set up a walk-off field goal as time expired. The fire drill seemed chaotic in the moment, but coach Sonny Dykes said after the game the play was something the team practiced every week. 

The College Football Playoff is ultimately a battle of physical and mental attrition on the biggest stage. From a pure talent and depth perspective, the Horned Frogs rank well behind Georgia, Ohio State and Michigan  However, TCU has the mental fortitude to compete -- and maybe even win it all. 

Making a CFP case for ... No. 1 Georgia | No. 2 Michigan | No. 4 Ohio State