College Football
Is TCU ready for the next step? 'We have to prove it'
College Football

Is TCU ready for the next step? 'We have to prove it'

Updated Sep. 1, 2023 6:34 p.m. ET

Editor's note: Earlier this offseason, Laken Litman went to Fort Worth to see what Sonny Dykes and his staff were doing to help TCU build on a magical 2022 season that culminated with a stunning run to the College Football Playoff championship game. The following story, originally published on July 30, is about what she learned on her visit.

FORT WORTH, Texas — Jeremiah Donati has a voicemail saved on his cell phone from December 2017, right after he was named TCU athletic director. He’s the kind of person who values keepsakes and mementos like that, something he learned about himself as his parents were aging.

And so on one of the biggest days of his life, when he went from deputy to athletic director after Chris Del Conte left for Texas, Donati received what now could probably be described as the most ironic message.

It was a friendly note from Sonny Dykes, who had just been hired as SMU’s head coach, congratulating Donati on the big new gig. The two men had gotten to know each other a bit while Dykes served as an offensive analyst at TCU that previous season under then-head coach Gary Patterson. The best part of the message comes at the end when Dykes says, "Let me know if I can help you in any way."


"I don’t know why I kept it," says an almost flabbergasted Donati. But he’s definitely never deleting it.

Fast-forward almost exactly four years later in November 2021 and Dykes is introduced as TCU’s new head coach. Fast-forward a little more, and Dykes leads the Horned Frogs on a magical dream season where they go to the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history and play for a national championship for the first time in almost 90 years.

So yes. There was something Dykes could do for Donati, though neither of them knew it at the time.

Now, as Donati reflects on the special season that was 2022, which he describes as "a blur," he finds a 5-by-7 purple picture frame in his office that illustrates his favorite moment of the whole thing. Dykes, wearing a black baseball hat with "CHAMPS" in all caps, has his arm around TCU chancellor Victor J. Boschini Jr., who has his arm around Donati as the three men ready themselves for a quick selfie. The Frogs had just beaten Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl and secured a spot in the title game. Purple and white confetti rained down as the trio stood on the podium and took in the moment. Down below, someone saw them take that selfie and snapped a picture of the picture.

"I look at this picture and I think about that selfie," Donati says. "It was so fun to look down and see all the players smiling and our staff hugging and crying. It was validation of what we had just been through.

" … It was the first time since before the pandemic you saw the school and community genuinely happy about something. I’ll never forget that moment. It was like time stood still."

Quentin Johnston (left), Sonny Dykes (middle) and Jeremiah Donati soak up the atmosphere after the TCU Horned Frogs defeated Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl last season. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

The fact that Dykes, in his first year at TCU, somehow led a group that only had four players with bowl game experience to the CFP was discussed at length in the lead-up. The Frogs’ run was remarkable and improbable. They went 12-0 in the regular season and lost a heartbreaker to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game, but this small private school was still considered to be one of the four best teams in the country by the selection committee. They became the first team in the state of Texas to make the four-team playoff and the first Big 12 team to win a semifinal and play for a national championship in the CFP era.

Of course, it all ended with a major flop in the form of a historic 65-7 loss to Georgia, but the overall experience sets the program up nicely for what everyone in Fort Worth hopes is continued progress.

Now as Dykes and the Frogs prepare for the 2023 season, the expectation is to build on last year’s success. Is TCU here to stay or was it just a one-hit wonder? Can the program bounce back from a brutal and public shellacking and prove it has the foundation to be a contender going forward?

"We have to prove it to ourselves," Dykes says. "And everybody else."


Dykes says he didn’t really know what kind of team he had heading into his first season at TCU, and he didn’t have expectations. Did he think he might have a good team? Sure. But there was a long road of learning about each other and building chemistry ahead.

The Frogs were 3-0 heading into a home game against then-No. 18 Oklahoma. The Sooners had beaten them in eight of their last 10 matchups, so nobody predicted what would end up happening. Which was that TCU took a 41-17 lead at halftime and won the game 55-24. Dykes likes to tell the story of what happened when he walked into the locker room at the break.

"I’ll never forget coming off the field, and I was going to address the team because I figured they’d be celebrating and talking," Dykes says. "I walked in, and they were real business-like and saying things that I was going to say. So I basically opened the door and listened for a second, turned around and walked out. It was a lot more impactful for those guys to say that stuff to each other than it was to hear it from me.

"That’s when it struck me that we might have a pretty mature football team. That was a big concern of ours. How mature are we? How are we going to handle success? How are we going to handle failure?"

Looking back at TCU's rout of Oklahoma

The next week, TCU found itself in a tight one against then-No. 19 Kansas on the road. Dykes did the same thing at halftime — walked into the locker room and walked right back out when he heard his players telling each other, "the first half is over, we have a fresh start in the second half," he says.

The weeks went on like that. The Frogs won every single regular season game, lost to Kansas State in overtime of the Big 12 championship, and upset Michigan in the CFP semifinal.

And then national championship week arrived.

"I think that was the first time all year that the lights were a little bright for us," Donati says.

There was panic for the first time.

"The law of averages caught up with us to an extent," Dykes says. "We played such good football for 14 straight weeks, and then I think our players were a little shocked and awed in some ways by how good [Georgia was]."

The minute after Georgia beat Alabama to win its first national title in the Kirby Smart era in 2021, the Bulldogs set their sights on doing it again the next year. So well before the 2022 season started, players expected to be in Los Angeles in mid-January.

TCU did not. Dykes, his staff and the players were all still getting to know each other when fall camp began. They were merely hoping to do better than a 5-7 record and make the postseason.

"Georgia was a team that had been there before and that’s their expectation at the beginning of every season, and we weren’t there yet," right tackle Andrew Coker says. "We’re getting there. It’s one of those things that they had been there, done that, and were more prepared."

TCU didn’t know how different playing in a national championship game was to playing in a regular season game, either. There were so many off-field obligations like media, travel and logistics they didn’t expect. They also didn’t even think about the fact that the game lasts longer in general — longer pregame, halftime, etc. Georgia, meanwhile, was unfazed by all the extra stuff.

"It’s not necessarily who’s more talented or who plays the hardest because both teams are going to be talented and play hard," Coker says. "It encompasses everything. Part of the reason it unfolded the way that it did was because they had been there and expected it, and we did not."

Now they know for next time.

Georgia routs TCU in CFP championship

"It’s something we can embark on," Coker continues. "Georgia, that was their expectation, but it wasn’t necessarily ours. Now, that’s our expectation heading into the season. Going forward, it will be a lot different."

The experience left the Frogs hungry. They don’t expect to make the playoff or national championship game every year, but they do believe the program is ahead of schedule in strengthening the culture and foundation so that they can be legitimate long-term contenders.

That starts with seeing the national championship result as a blessing in disguise, even though that might sound odd. Georgia taught TCU about what the standard is in college football and what it takes to stay on top, and the experience showed just how far they have to go.

"I think you may have had a false security of the separation between the two teams on that day if it was a two-point game," Donati says. "There are things we learned that will help us in the future that you probably don't learn unless you have to go through that tough experience.

"So don't get me wrong, losing that game is hard, and we were disappointed we didn't play better and didn't win. But that's the silver lining, that you see the standard and [can ask yourself], ‘What do we need to do to get to that standard? What are the little things that we can do to make progress toward that?’ If you lose by a point, do you take the time to look at those things?"


Now, TCU gets to find out how good it can really be. As Dykes said during a news conference the day before the national championship, "It’s one thing to get to the top. It’s another thing to be able to stay there."

Dykes is only entering his second season in Fort Worth and is already using language that coaches like Smart and Nick Saban use when they’re trying to get their players to forget about last year and focus on what’s next.

"Last year’s team is over," Dykes says. "It ended on Jan. 9. This is a whole different team and this team hasn’t done anything except have good [spring] practices. That’s the biggest thing this team has accomplished."

So how do they keep building?

Coaches are always talking about "little things." That was something Donati says Dykes sold him on during the interview process. Well before the national championship game, Dykes implemented everything from changing the daily practice music from country or ‘70s rock — like it was in the Patterson era — to hip-hop and rap songs that the players preferred. Practices used to be long and draining in the heat of the afternoon and players felt they had to conserve energy. Now they go in the morning and guys can give 100% for two hours. They play relaxed and confident, which matches Dykes’ personality.

Where does TCU rank in Joel Klatt's post-spring rankings?

Dykes reset the nutrition, recovery, mental health, as well as the strength and conditioning programs when he was hired, too. He brought on Kaz Kazadi, his director of football performance at SMU, to lead that charge. The byproduct was a new culture to bolster operations for years to come.

"He sets the bar and doesn’t let people slip below it," safety Mark Perry says of Kazadi. "Every time we're in here and we don’t have a water bottle on us, he makes us do up-downs just to make sure we stay ready."

"Train like a champion, sleep like a champion, do everything like a champion would do," adds Coker, who said Kazadi made "Championship Expectations" T-shirts that showed up mid-season. "That was [always] said, but it wasn’t necessarily believed."

The program is also more modern than it used to be, Coker says: "It’s more trying to take care of players, build a culture and also have fun at the same time." Even transfers have noticed TCU is different from wherever they came from. "What I’ve learned is to have that killer mentality at all times," says JP Richardson, who played at Oklahoma State last year before transferring. "Never take a day off. Never take a day for granted." The focus leans on discipline, being detail-oriented and effort.

"If Coach says, ‘Toe behind the line,’ and somebody’s toe is on the line, we have to redo the sprint," Coker says before adding, "What we’re trying to do is lead by example. If we see something that’s not our standard, call it out. Last year’s group was not afraid to call people out if something goes wrong, or you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do. There’s no fear of that because we know it’s coming out of love."

"It happened for a reason," Coker continues. "Last year was a result of us buying into what we were supposed to do, and you can expect that again."


Heading into the 2023 season, ticket sales, sponsorships, donations, NIL opportunities and overall morale are up. Expectations have been raised all around the athletic department, not just on the football team. From volleyball to tennis to equestrian, "We reached a point of the mountain we’d never touched before," Donati says. 

Dykes in turn was able to sign a top-20 recruiting class and lure transfers from schools including Alabama, LSU and Florida. "The word is out," Donati says. "We’re not going to sneak up on anyone anymore."

But while Georgia can send 10 players to the NFL Draft and replace them with 10 future draft picks, TCU isn’t at that point yet. Though that’s where the Frogs would like to be and now have a blueprint on how to get there.

"For us, we have to prove ourselves all over again," Dykes says. "We’re not there yet. We have to continue to develop our players and get the most out of them and bring them along. If we’re still making those kinds of runs three or four years from now, then it will be that kind of approach, but I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of thinking that way."

One of the things Smart says has allowed his program to keep its place on top of the sport is the scout team players who didn’t play in the previous season’s national title game turning their respective experiences into starting jobs the next year. He prefers to develop young talent already on his roster rather than relying on the transfer portal to fill voids (even though Georgia does that, too). 

The example he likes to use is defensive tackle Jordan Davis. He played on the scout team his freshman and sophomore years at Georgia and worked his way into starting in the 2021 national title game. Then he was drafted 13th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles.

How far away is TCU from that?

Well, it had a record eight players drafted in the spring, including Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Max Duggan and wide receiver Quentin Johnston, who was taken No. 21 overall. Does Dykes have the depth and playmakers to step up? 

Defensively, TCU returns seven starters. Offensively, they’re not as fortunate. At quarterback, the front-runner is Chandler Morris. He won the job last offseason but was injured in the opener, which caused him to lose his starting job to Duggan. He’ll compete with Oregon State transfer Chance Nolan, as well as redshirt freshman Josh Hoover after Sam Jackson transferred to Cal. Morris has a new offensive coordinator to work with, syncing up with Kendal Briles, who replaced Garrett Riley after he left for the same job at Clemson.

Morris’ biggest challenge will be staying healthy. His sprained knee kept him out last year, but Dykes says he’s "healthier than he has been at any point" with no nagging injuries. Dykes also likes the fact that Morris has the experience of watching Duggan go through a Heisman-caliber season and says he is "determined" heading into a year that he can own.

Chandler Morris will likely be TCU's new starting QB. Can he pick up where Max Duggan left off? (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

"I’m sure last year was frustrating for Chandler because he’s sitting there looking at it and going, ‘Well, I could do that,’" Dykes says. "But at the same time, I think it was a great learning opportunity for him to see how much Max’s life changed week by week. He went from a guy that everybody appreciated and was a good teammate to all of the sudden, a guy that’s a Heisman candidate."

As far as former scout team players who could make names for themselves? Dykes rattles off Paul Oyewale and Michael Ibukun-Okeyode, redshirt freshmen defensive linemen that he believes "will take a big step." Then there’s former walk-on tight end Curtis Raymond, who got some playing time last year and "a big part of his maturation is to say, OK, I can do this. I am good enough to help this team win and have a role," Dykes says. 

TCU has a tremendous opportunity ahead — the Frogs can take ownership of the new Big 12 as Texas and Oklahoma prepare to leave for the SEC in 2024. But can they handle newfound and additional pressure from everybody in the league now gunning for them?

The Frogs appear ready and are determined to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.

"I think a lot of people on the outside looking in just think, ‘Oh, they’re back to the bottom,’" Perry says. "But we still have guys who were in the building last year and know how to go about those things."

After the national championship, Dykes said it would take a while for the sting to go away. He says now that it has — but only to a degree — the only way it can completely subside is to play another game.

"You try to appreciate the fact that you were there, but you also appreciate the fact you didn’t play well," Dykes says. "You didn’t prepare them well, and you wanted to have an opportunity to rectify that as quickly as you can to get that taste out of your mouth.

"I can’t wait until the first week in September and prove that’s not who we are."

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of "Strong Like a Woman," published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.


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