College Football
Can TCU keep momentum after unexpected run to CFP title game?
College Football

Can TCU keep momentum after unexpected run to CFP title game?

Updated Jan. 12, 2023 3:21 p.m. ET

Long after Max Duggan fulfilled his postgame media responsibilities at a formal CFP news conference, the Texas Christian quarterback, who threw two interceptions in one of his poorest performances of the season, answered question after question from a gaggle of reporters in the despondent visiting locker room late Monday.

Duggan easily could have slipped away to avoid the throng of microphones and cameras whose owners made pointed inquiries about the details of a 65-7 shellacking TCU absorbed from Georgia. Nobody would have blamed him for politely declining another round of interviews and just fading into the rainy California night, his collegiate career having ended with a resounding thud.

But that’s not what leaders do — and that’s not what Duggan did in the aftermath of a game he said will sting for quite some time. The player most responsible for the Horned Frogs’ unfathomable rise from seventh in the preseason Big 12 poll to an appearance in the national title game made himself available until the journalists in attendance asked him anything they wanted. That’s the kind of maturity and self-awareness the face of a program needs.

"When you come off of a game like that," Duggan said, "you know what you need to get better at if you want to be on this stage again, if you want to compete with guys like Georgia. You gotta make sure that you’re doing the right stuff in the offseason, whether it’s weight room, whether it’s getting better in the film room, on the field, stuff like that. I think our guys are excited about the challenge in the next coming years."


Proving this year’s undefeated regular season and subsequent trip to the College Football Playoff were something more than a collective flash in the pan is a challenge that feels simultaneously attainable and unrepeatable given the uniqueness of TCU’s positioning in the sport. It’s clear head coach Sonny Dykes and his staff have both the infrastructure and intellectual foresight necessary to navigate a modern landscape predicated on adaptation, but the number of stars that neatly aligned for the Horned Frogs to even reach the national championship game dripped with utopian serendipity.

Any team that enjoys the kind of sustained success TCU did from September through late November understands the framework of rebuilding a program. Athletic director Jeremiah Donati made the right choice in plucking Dykes from Southern Methodist last November, and Dykes then made two shrewd moves: hiring Tulsa’s Joe Gillespie to implement the 3-3-5 defense and bringing offensive Wunderkind Garrett Riley — the younger brother of USC head coach Lincoln Riley — with him on the short drive across the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Both coordinators are rising stars.

Dykes and his staff demonstrated a heightened understanding of how influential the transfer portal can be by signing 14 players to accelerate the roster revamp after former head coach Gary Patterson resigned. They flashed a keen eye for talent by hitting on a slew of players who became starters and primary contributors: linebacker Johnny Hodges from Navy (team-high 87 tackles); safety Mark Perry from Colorado (second on the team with 84 tackles); tight end Jared Wiley from Texas (245 yards, four TDs); interior lineman Alan Ali from SMU (two sacks allowed in 536 pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus) and cornerback Josh Newton from Louisiana-Monroe (limited opposing quarterbacks to an NFL passer rating of 56.4, per PFF), among others.

What does the future hold for TCU?

RJ Young looks at TCU's path ahead after the Horned Frogs' blowout loss to Georgia in championship game.

"This is just the start," said Perry, who is expected to return for his senior season. "It’s the new expectation, you know? I hope the young guys are ready to step up to the challenge because we didn’t come this far (just) to come this far. So I think it’s a start, just a start."

Perry’s reference to the young guys includes both the underclassmen on this year’s team and an incoming recruiting class that sits 19th in the 247Sports Composite. If the rankings hold, Dykes will have compiled the program’s highest-rated class since 247Sports began tracking data in 1999, and that’s due in large part to the inroads he’s made with in-state recruits. The top eight players to sign with TCU for 2023 played high school or junior college football in Texas, and Dykes has secured 13 of the top 101 players in the state.

Having that kind of never-ending pipeline in his backyard is why it’s reasonable to believe Dykes can sustain the Horned Frogs’ momentum on the recruiting trail. Four-star quarterback Marcos Davila from Midland, Texas, became TCU’s first commitment for the 2024 cycle when he gave a verbal pledge shortly before Christmas. Davila is the No. 289 overall prospect and one of 55 players from the state with four- or five-star ratings.

"This team is just now getting started," Wiley said. "The strides that we made in year one, you know, it’s going to fuel the hunger for these guys going into year two, and it’s just going to be better and better. 

That’s certainly what Dykes and his staff are hoping for, especially with the impending departures of traditional Big 12 powers Oklahoma and Texas — both of whom are bound for the Southeastern Conference in 2025, if not sooner — as well as the forthcoming CFP expansion that will invite 12 teams to the party beginning in 2024 and includes guaranteed berths for the six highest-rated conference champions.

But there were elements of fortuitousness attached to TCU’s run that can’t be ignored, an undeniable confluence of advantageous factors that calls into question how replicable this year’s success really is.

Chief among them is the coalescence of some of the greatest players in school history at exactly the same time. Duggan, who scored 41 total touchdowns, became the first Horned Frog to finish second or higher in the Heisman Trophy voting since 1955 while deftly handling an early-season benching before roaring back to life. Quentin Johnston, who caught 60 passes for 1,069 yards and six touchdowns, is expected to become just the second TCU wideout selected in the first round of an NFL draft. Cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, who snagged three interceptions and tallied 15 pass deflections, is just the second TCU player to win the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the best defensive back in the country.

Tailback Kendre Miller (1,399 yards and 17 touchdowns); interior lineman Steve Avila (consensus All-American); defensive end Dylan Horton (team-high 10½ sacks, team-high 15 tackles for loss) and inside linebacker Dee Winters (second to Horton in both categories with 7½ sacks and 14½ tackles for loss) are some of the other starters expected to depart.

The Horned Frogs also benefited from down seasons at both Oklahoma and Texas, where the former introduced a new coach and the latter endured a serious injury to its starting quarterback. There was also an injury to eventual Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams in the Pac-12 title game that, along with Utah’s stifling defense, paved the way for TCU to be the 3-seed in the CFP despite losing in the Big 12 Championship Game. And then there’s the transfer portal, a fickle beast that both giveth and taketh away because one year’s success doesn’t portend another.

"We were able to have a good season," Duggan said. "This one hurts, but I know this program is going in the right direction."

That’s undeniably true. But setting a new standard is far easier than matching it.  

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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