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

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The Texas horned lizard has a strange defense mechanism where it squirts all the blood out of its head against potential predators, which seems like a huge waste of blood and a bad strategy. Blood does not spurt with enough force to harm predators. It’s not hot enough 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 launched this evolutionary tactic millions of years ago must have been the laughing stock of the room — and yet, it works. Predators are weirded out by this and generally leave the lizard alone. It’s confusing, but the southwestern landscape is certainly littered with the bones of millions of animals that apparently had better ideas for self-preservation while the horned lizard survived.

The evolution and survival of this year’s TCU football team and its road to the College Football Playoff semifinals against Michigan is similarly confusing. The Horned Frogs have gone 16-18 the previous three seasons, and as of 2022, Vegas has calculated their win total at 6.5 games. And yet they won win after win, game after game, until they looked back on their season and somehow they didn’t lose. They beat Kansas 38-31 on a stunning Quentin Johnston touchdown drive from 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 following week they came back from 18 points down to beat Kansas State.

And in late November, their most iconic victory of the year: the Frogs trailed Baylor by nine with two minutes left, but scored a touchdown and successfully executed a practice field goal with no timeout and the clock ticking the victory:

The Horned Frogs ended up losing to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game – in overtime, of course – but their 12-0 regular season record was enough to secure TCU’s first berth in the College Football Playoff, where they will play in . Michigan ranked second in the Fiesta Bowl semifinals on Saturday night.

In 2014, when the College Football Playoff opened, TCU was one of the schools on the verge of qualifying, finishing the season 11-1 and ranking sixth in a controversial decision for a few weeks – until Ohio State, the team that passed TCU , won the championship. In the sport’s new system, it appeared that anyone could have a good run and qualify, unlike the BCS system, which only included two teams. But over the past eight years, that hasn’t always proved to be true. It often seems like only the same few elite teams are capable of putting on playoff-worthy seasons. Of the first 32 playoff berths, 21 went to Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State; it’s almost impossible to remember that second-tier programs like Michigan State and Washington won berths in the early playoff years.

This season of TCU flipped that script. The Horned Frogs didn’t make the playoffs with class after class of five-star recruits, or really any kind of concerted plan to get here. TCU hired a new head coach this season, Sonny Dykes — but it’s not a situation where he’s brought in a Heisman winner or a Louis charge. This TCU team is basically the same team that went 5-7 last year – but they had an iconic season on par with TCU’s 2010 run to the Rose Bowl. (I think it has something to do with redhead quarterbacks.) And it will likely be the last miracle run of its kind before the College Football Playoff expands in 2024, lowering the level of inclusion in the playoffs—going forward, teams won’t need to go 12- 0 in the regular season with a score full of horns and comebacks.

This is what college football dreams are made of: A new coach took a bad team and turned them into potential champions, making improbable wins after improbable victories. The amazing thing about TCU’s sudden evolution into a college football playoff team is that little has really changed.

TCU’s Fiesta Bowl opponent Michigan earned raves throughout the college football world for sticking with Jim Harbaugh. As the story goes, Michigan was growing impatient and was on the verge of firing Harbaugh early in the 2021 season after nearly a decade of failures, but its patience was rewarded with back-to-back wins over Ohio State and trips to College. Football Elimination. (Harbaugh, who flirted with an NFL return in early 2022, signed a contract extension with Michigan in February.) TCU’s history is almost exactly the opposite: From 2000 to 2021, TCU was coached by Gary Patterson, a man so fundamental to football at TCU that they built a statue of him still as a coach, perhaps the only bronze sculpture of an adult man wearing a visor that exists. But the school forged ahead last year, ditching its program’s most legendary figure — and heading down a path that would take them to the playoffs.

When Patterson joined TCU as an assistant coach in 1998, they played in the Western Athletic Conference; the school has had just seven winning seasons since 1960. Patterson quickly turned TCU into a program too good for average football, going 23-0 in Mountain West play from 2009 to 2011. The clincher that put them in the Big 12 was a 13-0 season in 2010 when Andy Dalton and the Horned Frogs beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl to finish the season no. 2 overall, trailing only Cam Newton’s undefeated Auburn team. They continued once they reached the Big 12, narrowly missing the 2014 College Football Playoff and then winning the Peach Bowl over Ole Miss. TCU was one of the top 10 winning 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 may have impacted TCU more than any other coach in the 21st century has impacted his program, division not Saban.

But Patterson was rapidly weakening towards the end of his tenure, both on and off the pitch. After winning 10 games in 10 of Patterson’s first 15 seasons, the Horned Frogs had a losing record in conference games in four of their last six. And Patterson seemed lost in the new world of college football. He criticized the sport’s new rules, complained to sponsors that the ability to pay players through Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) agreements was costing him players. He was sued by a player who claimed that Patterson required him to play through injury; he didn’t realize that you shouldn’t use the n word, even when asking the players not to use the n word. During the onset of the pandemic, Patterson used his newfound free time to record a country song called “Take a Step Back,” encouraging listeners to spend quality time with their families. After a 3-5 start in 2021, he followed 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 great rival, Texas.

TCU made a secure hiring to replace him. They brought in Dykes, who had joined Patterson’s staff in 2017 before taking the job at SMU, TCU’s rival in a less lucrative conference. He was transported to his new job across the Metroplex not by plane, but by helicopter. Dykes is as Texas as they come: His father, Spike Dykes, was the longtime head coach at Texas Tech, where Sonny was on the baseball team. After graduating, Sonny joined a band of unorthodox style weirdos: Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, the innovators of Air Raid. Leach succeeded Spike at Texas Tech and brought Sonny with him. Sonny coached Wes Welker as a receivers coach in Lubbock and later carried the Air Raid philosophy to head coaching positions at Louisiana Tech and Cal. But he came out of the job of Cal, a Whataburger man in an In-N-Out world. “I think that made me realize how much I wanted to be in Texas,” Dykes said. Sports Illustrated this year. According to ESPN, he considered getting a real estate license before being hired as a head coach at SMU. Dykes rebuilt his career at SMU, but openly referred to TCU as a “top 15” position.

These days, when a team hires a new coach, they are expected to bring in many of the best players on the team whose performance earned them the job. Dykes brought only one transfer from SMU: center Alan Ali. If anything, the school lost talent on the portal this offseason – former five-star running back Zach Evans, the best recruit TCU ever got, left for Ole Miss. Virtually everyone at TCU was recruited by Patterson and played key roles on teams that went 5-7. Heisman runner-up Max Duggan was there last year, taking five sacks in a 34-point loss to Texas State. Iowa. Future first-round pick Quentin Johnston was there, losing a key fourth-quarter fumble in a loss to West Virginia. Thousand-yard running back Kendre Miller was there, eating 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 best quarterback in college football. (Hodges-Tomlinson was convinced to attend TCU by his uncle, a famous Horned Frog alumnus named LaDainian.)

And TCU hasn’t really changed offensive philosophies under Dykes. After all, he was already on the team in 2017. And many of Patterson’s assistants were from the Air Raid tree: From 2014 to 2020, TCU’s offensive coordinator was Sonny Cumbie, who played QB under Leach at Tech when Dykes was an assistant coach. Cumbie was also a Tech sidekick when current TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley played at Tech. (Always goes back to Mike Leach.)

The big difference under Dykes? Mostly…well…vibrations.

Dykes is not very fond of screaming and is regularly described as “folks”. He will wear shirts with memes on them. (ALL HAIL HYPNOTOAD.) Mainly, he’s not Gary Patterson. And Gary Patterson was a great coach! But the time for change had come.

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

TCU’s path to the College Football Playoffs makes no sense. They took a 5-7 team and got rid of the greatest coach in program history. They didn’t bring new stars and they didn’t bring a new system. And yet, they had one of the most exciting seasons in college football history and are now two games away from an unprecedented national title. It’s confusing, but the college football scene is littered with teams that seemingly had better ideas. Horned Frogs evolved and survived.