How TCU surprised college football and reached championship game vs. Georgia

One year after Georgia toppled mighty Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship game, unlikely upstart TCU is the only program remaining in the Bulldogs’ path to a repeat performance.

Alabama was college football’s crème de la crème, the bogeyman who always loomed over any successful Georgia season. This time, the Bulldogs are playing the Alabama role. TCU is the surprise story, a program that has defied everything fans thought was the conventional road to this point.

TCU reaching the championship game is shocking, especially those whose attention centered on the SEC throughout the fall; especially for the more casual viewer who hasn’t seen much of TCU since Trevone Boykin was quarterbacking the Horned Frogs.

Their season was marvelous and miraculous. They’ve given hope to middling programs around the country that it is possible to reach this stage (which makes the coming expanded playoff format only more intriguing). It’s not insane to suggest that TCU has changed what seemed inconceivable in a sport that’s defined by Haves and Have Nots.

“I think that if you had asked us before the season started, would we play for a national championship, most of us probably didn’t think that we would,” first-year TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “Thought that we were capable, certainly, but we just hadn’t done it together.”

TCU’s success begins with Dykes, a Texas native who’s led the Frogs to a 13-1 record. Dykes’ first head-coaching job came at Louisiana Tech, where he went 22-15 in three seasons. He took over as Cal’s coach in 2013, going 19-30 before he was fired in January 2017.

Months after Dykes’ dismissal, Cal athletic director Mike Williams, upon hiring a new football and basketball coach, said during an interview with SFGate that, “I think we had coaches who hadn’t quite settled into California, the Bay Area or the Cal experience.”

Dykes returned to Texas, joining TCU as an offensive analyst. SMU hired him as head coach in 2018. Dykes won 30 games across four years with the Mustangs. He had a winning record in three of those seasons, including a 10-win campaign in 2019.

TCU was searching for a coach after Gary Patterson’s 20-year run ended with a midseason resignation in 2021. Since posting double-digit wins in three of four seasons from 2014-17, the Frogs had fallen into mediocrity. TCU informed Patterson that it intended to change coaches, but asked him to finish the season, a request he declined. The Frogs finished 5-7 and hired Dykes in November 2021.

Dykes came back to Fort Worth with low expectations. TCU was unranked and projected for seventh in the Big 12. So began a borderline unfathomable run that produced Texas’ first College Football Playoff participant.

Quarterback Max Duggan, informed in August that he wouldn’t start, became the engineer to one of the great underdog stories in college football history. His tale is one that Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett certainly could appreciate.

Starting quarterback Chandler Morris was injured in the second half of the season opener against Colorado. Enter Duggan, whose decision not to transfer proved one of the better of his life. In 13 games, he threw for 3,321 yards, with 30 touchdowns against four interceptions. He not only was a Heisman Trophy finalist, but finished runner-up for the honor.

Duggan’s backyard style was perfect for highlight reels. His top target was receiver Quentin Johnston, whose size-speed combo will make him a first-round NFL draft pick in April. The explosive offense was complemented by an opportunistic defense. The Frogs tied for the Big 12 lead in sacks, with 30. Their 16 interceptions ranked second in the conference, while their four pick-sixes tied for the national lead.

TCU developed baffling resiliency quickly. It often wasn’t pretty, but the team kept winning. TCU won five games by one possession, including tight victories over SMU (42-34), Kansas (38-31) and Texas (17-10). Perhaps the wildest win occurred in Waco, when the Frogs rushed their field-goal unit onto the field in time for a buzzer-beating 29-28 victory over Baylor.

“Just a general belief in each other and a belief that we’re good enough,” Dykes said. “I think that’s been the message really since I got the job here, was that we’re good enough. We’re good enough to compete.”

The narrow margins produced skeptics. In November, the Frogs weren’t even favored in Austin against the Longhorns. For months, it seemed that outsiders looked for reasons to keep TCU out of the playoff rather than argue for their worthiness. The Frogs built their own case: As other schools lost around them, TCU remained unblemished. They entered conference championship weekend a perfect 12-0, ranked third.

“We used it all season,” linebacker Dee Winters said of the constant skepticism. “I think our coaching staff does a great job just motivating us. But when you hear how you’re about to lose to a team or however many points you are going to lose by, it just fuels us as a team. I think everyone takes it into consideration, and it fuels them.”

Johnston added: “We use it as motivation because why not? It’s one of the main things I feel like has driven us to the success we’ve come to this year.”

The Frogs’ good fortune seemingly ran out during the Big 12 Championship game, when they lost in overtime to Kansas State. They nonetheless made the four-team playoff. The first team on the outside was Alabama, which suffered two last-play losses that doomed it when compared with one-loss TCU and Ohio State.

TCU’s latest bizarre event occurred Saturday. TCU upended No. 2 Michigan in a wild 51-45 victory. It was the highest-scoring Fiesta Bowl. The teams combined for 44 points in the third quarter alone – TCU was outscored 24-20 in the period, but its 21-6 halftime advantage buoyed it.

There were several odd sequences in the game. Michigan twice went scoreless inside the 2-yard line. TCU produced two pick-sixes. A lot went the Frogs’ way, but that’s their bottom line. They’ve figured it out when others couldn’t.

The team led by Dykes and Duggan, once the unheralded backup, then sat back and comfortably watched the Peach Bowl madness on New Year’s Eve. The team that began the season unranked, spent the season living on the edge and didn’t even finish as a conference champion was one win from immortality. The team that entering this season had only four players who had appeared in a bowl game for TCU grew up fast.

The Frogs will try to complete the incredible by upsetting Georgia in the championship game. They opened as 13-point underdogs; no surprise given the on-paper talent gap between the schools.

“We’re going to play again in (nine) days, and we’re going to hear the same crap that we heard leading up to this ballgame,” Dykes said after the Fiesta Bowl, a nod to the continuous outside doubts.

This time, Georgia is what it used to fear. It’s the big bad team waiting at the end of the schedule. The Frogs are a story for which Georgia fans would’ve rooted if the story had ended against anyone else. It will be difficult for TCU, an uphill climb to pull off one last magic trick.

But if the Frogs manage one more surprise, they could be the best underdog story in this sport’s history.

“It’ll be a big challenge for us,” Dykes said. “But our players have been able to overcome challenges all year, and we’re excited about an opportunity to try to do it again.”