Looking to turn chips into a ‘chip’, TCU can change the sport with a national championship win

LOS ANGELES — Johnny Hodges loves his chips.

“We’re a team full of chips,” the TCU linebacker said.

In Hodge’s shorthand, it translates to chips on the shoulders. A cliché, sure, but a staple in the heart of the No. 3 Horned Frogs. They weren’t supposed to be here in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

In fact, the last team in a similar position was BYU in 1984. These Cougars are the last national champions to come from outside the current Power Five.

TCU as a member of the Big 12 is clearly a Power Five team these days, but it has been a league hopper for the past quarter century. When its ancestral Southwestern Conference broke up, TCU was passed over for Big 12 membership. From there followed a purgatory of stops in the WAC, Conference USA and the Mountain West.

The desperate purple engine that could finally achieve its power conference brass ring when the Big 12 opened its doors to TCU in 2012.

There is a reason No. 1 Georgia is favored by nearly two touchdowns, the largest streak in CFP National Championship history. TCU is a long shot. If the Frogs win, they would defeat perhaps the best program in the sport. If the Bulldogs don’t already have that mantle, Monday night could go a long way toward building that narrative.

TCU is just trying to hang on, if you believe recruiting rankings. The Frogs have 17 blue-chip recruits on the roster, four of which are transfers. The Dawgs have four times as many.

“You can’t overstate what they’ve done,” former Texas A&M coach RC Slocum, a College Football Hall of Fame member, said of TCU. “They just get after you. They’re not an ebb and flow kind of team. They just stay the same all the time whether things go well or not. It’s hard to beat a team that doesn’t want to be beaten.”

That explains the frogs’ comeback at the end of the game. That explains TCU hanging 55 on Oklahoma. That explains rushing for 263 yards against a shell-shocked Michigan. That explains why the TCU effect cannot be ignored.

Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark jumped around Saturday at CFP National Championship media day as if his conference had already won. Yormark has already stated his intention to expand the Big 12 into the Pacific Time Zone. With USC and UCLA headed to the Big Ten, TCU and the Big 12 entered the LA market this week.

In a way.

There is a niche community about 17 miles north of SoFi Stadium, the site of Monday’s game, called Frogtown. It’s not a city per se, but — as the website proclaims — “a progressive, pocket community … where socially conscious hipsters and multigenerational families live together and call home.”

Frogtown is also the site of a Big 12 takeover this weekend. Really, that’s what they call it: a “takeover.” There’s purple beer at Frogtown Brewery. There will be 200 free Frogtown tacos available at the Santa Monica Pier on Sunday.

Celebrity sneaker artist Kickstradomis designs a pair of Horned Frog-themed kicks.

What does this have to do with beating Georgia? You are missing the point. Yormark is trying to take over the world, and the frogs are his invading army.

“Think about where this conference was six months ago, 12 months ago, 18 months ago,” Yormark told CBS Sports. “It’s been a transformative moment. Obviously, this is a big confirmation.

“It also validates the makeup and composition of our conference. I’m sure there are people who were concerned. What’s going to happen with Texas and Oklahoma out? Nobody talks about that anymore.”

No, they are not. This game could define the hopes and dreams of similar hopefuls when the CFP expands in 2024.

Slocum coached against TCU in the SWC several times during his career. He was also close friends with former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes, father of current TCU coach Sonny Dykes. They were so close that Sonny remembered coming home from high school baseball practice in West Texas and seeing his father and Slocum enjoying a grown-up afternoon drink.

Slocum has seen Sonny, who entered 2022 with just five winning seasons in 12 as a head coach, unlock greatness. Dykes has taken a roster assembled by former coach Gary Patterson to the brink of a championship.

What would it mean for TCU, the Big 12 and college football if TCU actually wins it all?

Las Vegas answered part of that question earlier this month when TCU was installed with the longest odds (16-1) to win the championship when the bracket debuted, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Those who had the foresight to bet $100 on the Frogs would deposit $1,600 if TCU wins Monday night.

“It makes the statement again that no one has a lock on winning,” Slocum said. “Just because you have good players doesn’t mean you’re going to win. The challenge is getting all the guys together, all playing for each other. It gives encouragement to a lot of schools out there that maybe aren’t at the top. It gives them hope. “

That would mean a lot of chips would be redeemed. Hodges is one of 14 TCU transfers. Frustrated with himself and the Navy, he looked for a new home after last season. His father took on the task of emailing each of the other 131 FBS programs. There were no takers.

“I couldn’t even watch a football game on the weekends without feeling sick to my stomach knowing I had underperformed so much,” Hodges said. “I didn’t believe in myself. In life, you have to believe in yourself more than anybody else. … But coming out of high school, I didn’t think I was good enough to play college football. I didn’t believe I was good enough to play on a Power Five [program]. My father did. He got me here.”

TCU defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie noticed because he had played against Navy while at Tulsa before being hired by Dykes. Hodges’ addition turned the defense into an opportunistic unit. TCU was outrebounded by Michigan last week (528-488), but the difference in the game may have been two pick sixes.

“We have a lot of guys on this team that are three-stars, two-stars that didn’t have a lot of offers coming out of high school, so I feel like everybody already had a chip on their shoulder coming in,” cornerback Tre’ said Vious Hodges-Tomlinson.

“It’s time to start taking us very seriously. We’re not a joke.”

Not when Hodges-Tomlinson, the nephew of TCU great LaDanian Tomlinson, is the reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back. Not when quarterback Max Duggan is a former high school 200-meter champion. (It surprised everyone from Oklahoma to Michigan when Duggan led all Big 12 quarterbacks in rushing.) Not when Hodges went from no taker to leading TCU in tackles.

“The media wants the blue bloods to win,” Hodges said after the Michigan game. “They want the blue bloods to play each other. The schools are bigger — bigger fan bases. That’s what they want. For us, [it’s] to put ourselves on the map, make some money and put some respect on your last name.”

That is what motivates Emari Demercado. In his sixth season, he has returned home. Out of high school, his only FBS offers were from Army and Navy. That led him to attend Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California. Once at TCU, he played down the depth chart for most of his career.

When leading rusher Zach Evans transferred to Ole Miss, Demercado backed workhorse Kendre Miller. Suddenly, as a central figure in Monday’s game, Demercado cannot find enough tickets for family and friends to see him play for the national title.

Despite growing up in nearby Inglewood, 5 minutes from SoFi Stadium, he has never set foot in the venue.

Life was sparse, not brilliant. In high school, Demercado lived with a friend’s family because practice at Downey High School started at 5 a.m. in LA, where a huge city is connected by vast stretches of freeways—and traffic—it made sense.

“My mom had bought me a little ’97 Lexus,” Demercado said. “It was just optimal for me to stay with them.”

Prior to the Fiesta Bowl semifinal, Michigan had given up a 100-yard rushing performance all season (Chase Brown, Illinois). Demercado rumbled for a career-high 150 yards in a backup role after Miller was injured.

Oh, and in the sixth year, Demercado managed to get his master’s degree in business analysis.

“I grew up here,” Demercado said. “I had my whole childhood here. I go and go to Texas and can finish my college career here. It’s almost like it’s scripted.”

Chips for everyone.

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