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TCU’s Improbable, Incredible, Confusing Run to the College Football Playoff

Sonny Dykes and Max Duggan led the Horned Frogs to one of the most exciting regular seasons in college football history. Can they continue their late-game magic in Saturday’s semifinal against Michigan?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Texas horned lizard has a strange defense mechanism where it spurts all the blood in its head at potential predators, which seems like a big waste of blood and a pretty bad strategy. The blood doesn’t shoot out with enough power to hurt predators. It’s not hot to burn them, and it’s not poisonous, although it does leave a bad taste in the mouths of dogs and coyotes (and hopefully, Wolverines). The lizard that pitched this evolutionary tactic millions of years ago must have been laughed out of the room—and yet, it works. Predators are weirded out by it, and often leave the lizard alone. It’s confusing, but the landscape of the Southwest is surely filled with the bones of millions of animals that had seemingly better ideas for self-preservation while the horned lizard survived.

The evolution and survival of this year’s TCU football team and its path to the College Football Playoff semifinals against Michigan is just as confusing. The Horned Frogs went 16-18 over the previous three seasons, and coming into 2022, Vegas pegged their win total at 6.5 games. And yet, they eked out win after win, game after game, until they looked back at their season and somehow hadn’t lost. They beat Kansas 38-31 on a stunning Quentin Johnston touchdown catch in the back of the end zone with 90 seconds left:

They came back from 14 down in the fourth quarter to beat Oklahoma State, 43-40, in double overtime:

The next week, they came back from 18 points down to beat Kansas State.

And in late November, their most iconic win of the year: The Frogs trailed Baylor by nine with two minutes left, but scored a touchdown and successfully executed a fire-drill field goal with no timeouts and the clock winding down for the win:

The Horned Frogs eventually lost to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game—in overtime, because of course—but their 12-0 regular-season record was enough to secure TCU’s first spot in the College Football Playoff, where they will play no. 2–ranked Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal on Saturday night.

In 2014, when the College Football Playoff debuted, TCU was one of the schools just on the cusp of qualifying, finishing the season 11-1 and ranking sixth in a decision that was controversial for a couple of weeks—until Ohio State, the team that made it over TCU, won the championship. In the sport’s new system, it felt like anybody could go on a good run and qualify, as opposed to the BCS system, which included only two teams. But over the past eight years, that hasn’t always proved to be true. It has often felt like only the same few elite teams are capable of pulling off playoff-worthy seasons. Of the first 32 playoff spots, 21 went to Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Ohio State; it’s almost impossible to remember that second-tier programs like Michigan State and Washington earned berths in the early playoff years.

This TCU season has flipped that script. The Horned Frogs didn’t make the playoff with class after class of five-star recruits, or really any sort of concerted plan to get here. TCU did hire a new coach this season, Sonny Dykes—but this isn’t a situation where he brought in a Heisman winner, or a load of Louis luggage. This TCU team is broadly the same squad that went 5-7 last year—but they pulled off an iconic season on par with TCU’s 2010 run to the Rose Bowl. (I think it’s something to do with ginger quarterbacks.) And it will probably be the last miracle run of its type before the College Football Playoff expands in 2024, lowering the bar for playoff inclusion—in the future, teams won’t need to go 12-0 in the regular season with a scoreboard full of buzzer-beaters and comebacks.

It’s the stuff college football dreams are made of: A new coach took a bad team and transformed them into potential champions, stringing along improbable win after improbable win. The amazing thing about TCU’s sudden evolution into a College Football Playoff team is how little actually changed.

TCU’s Fiesta Bowl opponent, Michigan, has earned praise around the college football world for sticking with Jim Harbaugh. As the story goes, Michigan was getting antsy and was on the verge of firing Harbaugh heading into the 2021 season after nearly a decade of failures, but the school’s patience has been rewarded with back-to-back wins over Ohio State and trips to the College Football Playoff. (Harbaugh, who flirted with a return to the NFL in early 2022, signed a contract extension with Michigan in February.) TCU’s story is almost exactly the opposite: From 2000 to 2021, TCU was coached by Gary Patterson, a man so pivotal to TCU football that they built a statue of him while he was still the coach, perhaps the only bronze sculpture of an adult man wearing a visor in existence. But the school moved on last year, ditching their program’s most legendary figure—and setting forth on a path that would lead them to the playoff.

When Patterson joined TCU as an assistant coach in 1998, they played in the Western Athletic Conference; the school had pulled off only seven winning seasons since 1960. Patterson quickly built TCU into a program too good for mid-major football, going 23-0 in Mountain West play from 2009 to 2011. The clincher that got them into the Big 12 was a 13-0 season in 2010, when Andy Dalton and the Horned Frogs beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and finished the season ranked no. 2 overall, behind only Cam Newton’s undefeated Auburn team. They kept it up once they got to the Big 12, just missing out on the 2014 College Football Playoff and then winning the Peach Bowl over Ole Miss. TCU was one of the 10 winningest programs in college football during Patterson’s tenure, and with big conference money, TCU was able to completely rebuild its 90-year-old stadium. Patterson might have impacted TCU more than any other 21st century coach impacted their program, non-Saban division.

But Patterson was fading quickly at the end of his tenure, both on and off the field. After winning 10 games in 10 of Patterson’s first 15 seasons, the Horned Frogs had a losing record in conference play in four of his last six. And Patterson seemed lost in the new world of college football. He criticized the sport’s new rules, he complained to boosters that the ability to pay players via name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals was costing him players, he got sued by a player who claimed Patterson demanded he play through injury; he didn’t realize you weren’t supposed to use the n-word, even when asking players not to use the n-word. During the early portion of the pandemic, Patterson used his newfound free time to record a country song called “Take a Step Back,” urging listeners to spend quality time with their families. After a 3-5 start in 2021, he took his own advice, resigning when the school made it clear he would be fired at the end of the season. Patterson now works as a “special assistant” at TCU’s big rival, Texas.

TCU made a safe hire to replace him. The Horned Frogs brought in Dykes, who had joined Patterson’s staff in 2017 before taking the job at SMU, TCU’s crosstown rival in a less lucrative conference. He was transported to his new job on the other side of the Metroplex not by plane, but via helicopter. Dykes is as Texas as they come: His dad, Spike Dykes, was the longtime head coach at Texas Tech, where Sonny was on the baseball team. After graduating, Sonny caught on with a ragtag band of weirdos with an unorthodox style: Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, the innovators of the Air Raid. Leach went on to succeed Spike at Texas Tech, and brought Sonny along with him. Sonny coached Wes Welker as the receivers coach in Lubbock, and later took the Air Raid philosophy to head-coaching jobs at Louisiana Tech and Cal. But he flamed out of the Cal job, a Whataburger man in an In-N-Out world. “I think it made me realize how much I wanted to be in Texas,” Dykes told Sports Illustrated this year. According to ESPN, he considered getting a real estate license before being hired as head coach at SMU. Dykes rebuilt his career at SMU, but openly referred to TCU as a “top 15” job.

Nowadays, when a team hires a new coach, they’re expected to bring many of the best players from the team whose performance earned them the job. Dykes brought only one transfer from SMU: center Alan Ali. If anything, the school lost talent in the portal this offseason—former five-star running back Zach Evans, the best recruit TCU has ever landed, left for Ole Miss. Pretty much everybody on TCU was recruited by Patterson, and played large roles on the teams that went 5-7. Heisman runner-up Max Duggan was there last year, taking five sacks in a 34-point loss to Iowa State. Future first-round pick Quentin Johnston was there, losing a key fourth-quarter fumble in a loss to West Virginia. One-thousand-yard rusher Kendre Miller was there, eating up carries in a three-touchdown loss to Oklahoma.

TCU had 10 first-team All–Big 12 players this year; eight of them were on the roster last year, including left guard Steve Avila, who was named a consensus All-American, and Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, who won the Jim Thorpe Award for college football’s best defensive back. (Hodges-Tomlinson was sold on attending TCU by his uncle, a famous Horned Frog alum named LaDainian.)

And TCU didn’t really shift offensive philosophies under Dykes. After all, he’d already been on the staff back in 2017. And many of Patterson’s assistants were from the Air Raid tree: From 2014 to 2020, TCU’s offensive coordinator had been Sonny Cumbie, who played QB under Leach at Tech when Dykes was an assistant coach. Cumbie was also an assistant at Tech when TCU’s current offensive coordinator, Garrett Riley, played at Tech. (It always comes back to Mike Leach.)

The big difference under Dykes? Mainly … well … vibes.

Dykes isn’t much of a yeller, and is regularly described as “folksy.” He’ll wear shirts with memes on them. (ALL HAIL HYPNOTOAD.) Mostly, he’s not Gary Patterson. And Gary Patterson was a great coach! But the time had come for change.

Duggan started for three years under Patterson at TCU, and you probably didn’t hear about him. But he became a college football superstar under Dykes, winning over fans as much with his passing ability as his heart and fight. He carried TCU to overtime in the Big 12 championship while bleeding out of seemingly every part of his body before giving an emotional press conference about the loss.

TCU’s road to the College Football Playoff doesn’t make sense. They took a 5-7 team and got rid of the greatest coach in program history. They didn’t bring in new stars and didn’t bring in a new system. And yet they’ve had one of the most thrilling seasons in college football history, and are now two games from an unprecedented national title. It’s confusing, but the landscape of college football is littered with the bones of teams that had seemingly better ideas. The Horned Frogs evolved and survived.