February 4, 2023

FORT WORTH, Texas – A year ago, TCU was sitting at home, its season over. The Horned Frogs missed a bowl game for the third time since 2005, leading to the program making a head coach change for the first time in more than two decades.

TCU hired Sonny Dykes on November 29, 2021. Fast forward to the present, and the Frogs are the first Big 12 team to go 12-0 since the conference switched to a round-robin schedule in 2012, and will play No. 1. 10 Kansas State at 12 p.m. ET on Saturday in hopes of winning the first Big 12 championship in the program’s history and batting a ticket to the College Football Playoffs.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately since it’s been almost a year,” said defenseman Mark Perry, a move from Colorado. “I never really expected to be sitting here at 12-0 and preparing to fight for a Big 12 championship. It’s everything I could have dreamed of.”

Saturday is more than an opportunity for the program to claim a rare conference crown. It’s also an opportunity to reintroduce the Big 12. Since Texas and Oklahoma finalized their plans to move to the SEC in 2025, four different teams have played for a conference championship: Oklahoma State and Baylor last year, Kansas State and TCU this year.

However, TCU has an opportunity to join Oklahoma as the only member of the Big 12 to earn a trip to the College Football Playoffs and establish itself as a premier program while the conference landscape is on a shift with the departure of the Longhorns and Sooners prepared .

“It was so much fun to be part of this team because I think we did a remarkable job [handling the moment] — and I’m not exactly sure why,” Dykes said. “Once we’re done, we sit down as employees and say, ‘Why did we do so well? Was it something we did? Is it something they did?’ We’re going to kind of go back and find a way to bottle it in some way.”

The transformation in the first year is virtually unprecedented. Since the CFP started in 2014, there has never been a freshman coach who has taken his program to the playoffs. The closest was Kirby Smart, who shrugged off a 7-6 first season to lead Georgia to the national championship game in his sophomore year. For comparison, the four coaches involved in last season’s college football playoffs — Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, Kirby Smart and Luke Fickell — had a combined 33 years of experience on the job. USC coach Lincoln Riley could also lead the Trojans to the playoffs in his freshman year; But unlike the Trojans, who have filled their roster with star transfers, TCU is doing it with virtually the same group that went 5-7 last season.

Dykes stands in stark contrast to his coaching career rivals with names like Louisiana Tech, Cal, Texas Tech and SMU. Smart is a national champion trainer in Alabama and Georgia. Harbaugh led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance. Riley has coached Blue Bloods Oklahoma and now USC.

However, Dykes’ reserved confidence has found the perfect home at TCU.

“He doesn’t say a lot, he’s not a head coach who’s going to say a lot of words,” Perry said. “He’ll give it to you directly. He likes to say he should do your job. I think everyone incorporates that into their mentality every day.”

TCU was one of the most resilient teams in America when it finished in the top three. The Frogs’ schedule is the second-toughest of any top-10 team in the Sagarin ratings, eclipsed only by Kansas State because the Wildcats had to play TCU. The Frogs rank #1 nationally for record strength, which combines opponent difficulty with results. Quarterback Max Duggan has spearheaded several comebacks to establish himself as a Heisman Trophy contender.

“I don’t feel like the guys are tight or anything,” Dykes said. “I think they’re just excited about the opportunity. I think that feeling comes from believing that they have confidence and are prepared. That’s the great thing about this group.”

Unlike Big Ten or SEC, the Big 12 Championship Game doesn’t simply serve up a weaker opponent on a plate through a division setup. Instead, thanks to the 1v2 setup, TCU is the only playoff contender to face a top 10 opponent while a rematch with Kansas State awaits. The Horned Frogs had to come from a 28-10 deficit against the Wildcats in the first half to come away 38-28 thanks to a bevy of KSU quarterback injuries. Kansas State has only won a single conference championship since 1934, and the Cats won’t go down easily.

Criticism of the surviving Big 12 is simple: none of the 12 teams in the new league have won national championships in modern times. TCU won titles in 1935 and 1938… but winning with Davey O’Brien isn’t the best indicator of prestige in 2022. The Horned Frogs may end that in one fell swoop in Arlington, Texas.

TCU football has written one of the true working-class stories in college football, making its way from the WAC to the national stage over the past 20 years. The fight to 12:0 is just the last chapter on this journey. And with a premier championship pitch on Saturday, the Horned Frogs will have America’s attention when they punch their ticket.

“Bring [a Big 12 title] Going back to Fort Worth would mean anything,” said three-year offensive lineman Steve Avila. “Not only for me, for the fans and everyone who lives here, but above all for my teammates. We’ve been through so much. So much has happened, especially for the people who have chosen to stay and trust this coaching staff.”

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