INGLEWOOD, Calif. — There’s a reason a few thousand heartbroken TCU fans lingered at SoFi Stadium until the dying seconds of their team’s 65-7 loss on Monday night.
They endured every Stetson Bennett touchdown, every U-G-A chant, every rendition of Hail to Georgia because history suggests it might be awhile before they get to watch the Horned Frogs play for the national championship again.
College football’s past decade has been dominated by the same half dozen traditional powers. Interlopers who unexpectedly crashed the College Football Playoff have typically proven to be one-hit wonders.
At the height of Mark Dantonio’s tenure, Michigan State made a surprise semifinal appearance in 2016. The Spartans nosedived the following season and have won more than seven games just twice since then.
Behind a dynamic passing attack, Washington also slipped into the CFP the following year. The Huskies have endured a pair of coaching changes since then and have reached the Pac-12 title game only once.
Last year, Cincinnati became the first Group of Five program to break through college football’s glass ceiling and claw its way into the playoff. The Bearcats followed that with a ho-hum four-loss 2022 season culminating with coach Luke Fickell bolting for Wisconsin.
Now it’s TCU’s turn to try to figure out how to buck that trend and avoid falling back to the ranks of fringe contenders. While red-eyed TCU seniors left SoFi Stadium lamenting a humbling loss and toting locker name plates under their arms as souvenirs, underclassmen framed Monday’s shellacking as offseason motivation and this 13-win season as a springboard.
“We’re going to try to use this season for confidence,” said Chandler Morris, who is expected to take over for Max Duggan as TCU’s starting quarterback next season. “This was Coach Dykes’ first season here, and look what we did. We’re going to try to build on this and get to that tier that the Georgias and Alabamas are on.”
Despite being on the wrong end of Monday night's historic title game blowout, TCU is actually better positioned than previous CFP outliers to build on its banner season. The imminent changes to the CFP’s format are one major reason. Expanding the field from four to 12 teams in 2024 will allow a wider variety of teams to dare to dream of securing a playoff bid and making an out-of-nowhere run.
Texas and Oklahoma bolting for the SEC also makes TCU’s path to the playoff more wide-open in years to come. Soon, there won't be any perennial juggernauts in the Big 12 anymore. Why can’t TCU surpass the likes of Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Cincinnati and Baylor to emerge as the big dog in the new-look conference?
TCU produced 11 double-digit win seasons from 2001 to 2017 before the Horned Frogs backslid in Gary Patterson’s last three-plus seasons. They went 21-22 during that underachieving stretch and lacked the edge that defined the program during his heyday.
When Sonny Dykes arrived following Patterson's resignation, the heart of this year’s team was already in Fort Worth. Employing a lighter vibe and innovative schemes, Dykes and his staff did an admirable job developing Heisman Trophy finalist Max Duggan and fellow multi-year starters receiver Quentin Johnston, corner Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson and linebacker Dee Winters.
The transfer portal makes it easier than ever before to plug roster holes on the fly, and Dykes took full advantage. TCU added 13 transfers during Dykes’ first offseason, more than half of whom became starters or key rotation pieces.
The result was a tough-minded, never-say-die team that rallied from multiple double-digit deficits, won seven one-possession games and exceeded all expectations. The Big 12 media poll projected TCU to finish seventh in the league this season. As recently as October, the Horned Frogs were 150-to-1 longshots to win the national championship.
While TCU was able to overcome its talent deficit against Michigan in the semifinals nine days ago, the Horned Frogs resembled a deer staring down a semi truck against Georgia’s experienced quarterback and stable of future NFL prospects. The Bulldogs led 17-7 after one quarter, 38-7 by halftime and 52-7 by the time Kirby Smart pulled Stetson Bennett after three quarters.
How can TCU possibly close that Grand Canyon-sized gap? TCU might never be able to outduel Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State for five-star prospects, but the transfer portal gives Dykes another way to stockpile Dallas-Fort Worth-area talent. The Horned Frogs’ 2022 roster featured several home-grown players who originally signed with the likes of Texas, LSU and Oklahoma out of high school, only to transfer to TCU in search of a second chance. Dykes already has landed some key transfers for 2023 as well to go with a high school recruiting class that Rivals ranks among the nation’s top 20.
While Monday night was Duggan’s last game in a TCU uniform, the Horned Frogs don’t appear to be hurting at the quarterback position heading into next season. Morris, a former Oklahoma transfer, won the starting job ahead of Duggan entering this season, only to sprain his knee in the third quarter of TCU’s season opener. He fits Dykes’ offense even better than Duggan does and has drawn praise for his arm talent and accuracy.
In a somber postgame locker room on Monday night, after a remarkable season ended with a whimper, Morris made it clear that he won’t be satisfied if TCU turns out to be another Michigan State, Washington or Cincinnati. He thinks TCU can keep closing the gap on the Georgias and Alabamas of college football and get back to the big stage before long.
“At the end of the day, we want to win championships,” Morris said. “The seniors laid the foundation. Now we have to keep going.”