INGLEWOOD, Calif. — It rained in Southern California on Monday. It poured on TCU.
Both are rare occurrences this year. The Horned Frogs soared to new heights, becoming the first Texas team to make the College Football Playoff, beat Michigan in a thrilling Vrbo Fiesta Bowl and became the longest of long shots to make the national championship game. It’s a storybook season that will be remembered in TCU lore.
They’d just as soon forget about the ending of it, watching Georgia celebrate a second straight national championship with a 65-7 humbling. It doesn’t wipe out a season of magic, but it provides a cold dose of reality on how much work Sonny Dykes has left to do to elevate TCU to the level of the sport’s powers.
Georgia does this to teams. The Dawgs opened the season with a 49-3 win over an Oregon team that finished 10-3. They crushed LSU by 20. Georgia averaged 46.6 points against ranked teams this season, fourth best in college football history and the best ever by an SEC team. So in a post-mortem exam of the season with this result in mind, what does this all mean for the future of the TCU program?
“We’ve got a good football team, and it was a tough one tonight,” Dykes said. “We’ll evaluate what happened. Couldn’t be more proud of our football team, though. … I think we’re all disappointed that we didn’t play better and we didn’t coach better and we didn’t represent our team better than we did tonight. But we’ll learn from it. And next time we’re on a stage like this we’ll handle it better.”
The question is, how can TCU get back to this stage? Dykes spoke this week about trying to seize this moment, because most programs rarely get this opportunity.
“If you haven’t been there before, then it’s hard to say, well, we’ll be back next year, you know what I mean?” he said.
No one will pick TCU to get back to the national championship game in Houston next year, especially with the star powers they’ll be losing in quarterback Max Duggan, who has already said he’s entering the NFL draft, and surefire first-round pick Quentin Johnston and All-American corner Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson.
But in Dykes’ first year in Fort Worth, Texas, he has the Frogs in prime position to be the class of the new-look Big 12. Oklahoma, the only consistent winner in the league over the past two decades, is taking its 14 league titles since 2000 and heading for the SEC, along with Texas, possibly as soon as 2024. No other program has won more than three Big 12 titles over that span, including the Longhorns. Kansas State beat TCU this year for the title, also its third.
There obviously are no guarantees. Just a year ago, Baylor and Oklahoma State played an incredible league championship game, then Baylor beat Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl and Oklahoma State rallied to beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Both finished 12-2 and in the top 10. But just a year later, the wheels came off. Baylor finished 6-7, and Oklahoma State finished 7-6 and saw several starters head for the transfer portal, including four-year starting quarterback Spencer Sanders.
But the difference is TCU is already building on the success of this season.
Dykes’ first season showed that his vision for the program can be the bedrock of a strong foundation. He once described his plan for digging SMU out of 40 years of malaise as “come home, have fun and tell your friends.” In the transfer portal era, his easygoing style attracts players who are looking for a fresh start and his relationships in Texas allow him to find players who want to come home. At TCU, he’s able to target a higher level of player, such as adding three players from Alabama — two originally from the Fort Worth area — who entered the transfer portal. He mentioned this week that TCU had six transfers on campus for official visits while the team was in Los Angeles preparing to play Georgia.
Dykes also signed the best recruiting class TCU has ever signed since class rankings began, a huge priority if the Horned Frogs ever want to close the gap with the Georgias of the world. No national champion in the CFP era has ever had a recruiting class outside the top 15 in the four years prior to winning the title. TCU has never had a single top-15 class since ESPN began its recruiting rankings in 2006. The Frogs rank 17th this year in ESPN’s rankings.
There is support, resources and a commitment to building new facilities, including a $40 million center for performance and wellness that’s scheduled to begin construction next year.
Texas Tech was the only other bright spot in the league in bowl season, building on a strong inaugural season under Joey McGuire to beat Ole Miss in the Texas Bowl. The rest of the league went 0-6. And TCU beat Michigan before suffering a 58-point loss to Georgia.
TCU set attendance records this season for students, and reenergized the fans. The school said there has been a 31% increase over last year in early applications by students who list TCU as their top choice.
“It’s one of the things that’s most disappointing,” Dykes said Monday night. “Look, you hate it for your players and your fans that traveled all the way to L.A. They really invested in our program. I know flights were expensive. I know tickets were expensive. I know all of it was hard to do. And our fans answered the call. Every single time we asked them to do something, they’ve done it. We’re disappointed for them. We feel like we let them down with our performance tonight. We certainly wouldn’t be where we are without them. And wish we would have represented TCU and the football program better tonight than we did.”
It has been a long year for Dykes, hitting the ground running last December after taking the job, finishing up a recruiting class, then putting in work.
The ending will sting for a long time, he said. But he mentioned that the new players are moving into their dorms this week and it all begins anew.
“We’ll wrap up recruiting,” Dykes said. “Still have three or four recruits that we’re chasing, and hopefully get those guys on board and just continue to build and learn from tonight and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
With a 12-team playoff coming in 2024, there’s a much greater chance the Big 12 will be represented. And TCU proved it can crash the party in style.
“It gives hope to everybody,” Dykes said this week. “That’s the great thing about our team this year. When you look at what we have been able to do, I think schools that maybe haven’t been among the traditional powers, historically, can look and say, ‘We can do this.’ I bet there are lots of people in Manhattan, Kansas, saying, ‘Look, we can do this,’ or in Lubbock, Texas, or in Houston, Texas, or in Orlando, Florida, or all these different places — Stillwater, Oklahoma — where they have said, ‘If they can do it, we can do it.’ And I think they are right.”
Dykes’ job now, however, is to keep them from doing it. This season proved he can. Now he just has to close that gap on the rest of the college football elite.