They started the season with a new head coach and no ranking.
Then they started winning games, sometimes on last-minute touchdowns or last-second, fire-drill kicks.
The more everyone expected them to lose, they found ways to win — 8-0, 10-0, 12-0 — until the TCU Horned Frogs, little, old TCU was in the College Football Playoff. A once-afterthought program was representing a league, the Big 12, that was supposedly left for dead about 17 months ago.
Even then, few believed. All week the Horned Frogs were told they were going to get run over by a behemoth of a Michigan offensive line. All week they were told they should be happy to be there, a plucky, underdog program fortunate to even get a chance to be on this stage.
All week they were told it was going to end.
Then it didn’t end.
“Nothing outside of our walls matters,” said Dee Winters, TCU linebacker extraordinaire.
Maybe this is what it took, maybe this is the kind of team that could survive such a wild shootout, a game that the Horned Frogs seemingly put away three or four times only to have the Wolverines climb up off the canvas and renew the fight.
Maybe this is what was needed for the College Football Playoff, now in its ninth season and headed toward expansion, to produce the closest thing to a Cinderella as this cruelly top-heavy sport has known in a long, long time.
It took everything. It took everyone.
It took cornerback Bud Clark intercepting Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy in the first quarter and running it the other way for a touchdown. It took Winters doing the same in the third. It took two goal-line stands — one a snuffing out of a Philly Special, the other a fumble recovery after a controversial replay reversal.
It took four sacks by Dylan Horton and 13 tackles for a loss by the team (plus an intentional grounding penalty). It took three pass deflections by Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson and 150 yards rushing from Emari Demercado. It took two more rushing scores by quarterback Max Duggan, including a lower-the-shoulder barrel-in that set the physical tone as much as any teeth-rattling hit by the defense.
Tough? Physically and mentally TCU is tougher than maybe anyone can describe. The Horned Frogs have won 13 games this season and in many of them the other team was left wondering how in the world it lost. You can add Michigan to that list — although two pick-sixes is a well-worn strategy for defeat.
“I think all week we heard about Big Ten football and how they were going to line up and run over us,” head coach Sonny Dykes said. “We did a great job stopping the run and forcing them to do some things they are less comfortable doing.”
Donovan Edwards broke a long one early, but otherwise averaged 2.95 yards per carry. That meant Michigan needed McCarthy to throw it 34 times, nearly 12 more than his per-game average. He completed just 20, not counting those two crushing interceptions.
When the TCU offense seemed too slow late in the game, there was a brilliant 76-yard catch and run by Quentin Johnston. And when the defense appeared to tire, there was a final stuffing of Michigan in the last seconds.
There was plenty of controversy as well, and the inexcusable reversal of a Michigan touchdown will rankle those in Ann Arbor forever. But it was TCU who recovered a goal-line fumble on the next play. Besides, the Horned Frogs didn’t make the calls, and plenty of bad ones went against them, too.
TCU just rolled with it. The ups and downs, comebacks and momentum shifts.
“I think our guys did a great job staying neutral, not getting too high or too low,” said Duggan, who went just 14-of-29 for 225 yards and threw two interceptions, yet never looked rattled.
“He’s tough,” Dykes said. “Nothing bothers him. He’s just got that confidence and belief in himself.”
That’s this team. No one believed in TCU this season because there was no reason to believe in TCU this season. It went 5-7 last season and saw legendary head coach Gary Patterson, the architect who brought the Frogs from mid-major football to the Big 12, fired. They hadn’t won 10 games since 2017.
In came Dykes from SMU and even the most die-hard fan might have hoped for an 8-4 season that showed potential for the future.
Instead, everything changed, everything grew.
“Just go 1-0 every single week and eventually we will be there,” Winters said.
Every coach tries to preach that. This time it worked. Like a purple snowball, it just grew with each rotation, each victory. Not just the win total, but the amount of faith that it would continue. Maybe everyone else thought Michigan would maul them off the field, but the Frogs sure didn’t.
“We want to be the tougher team,” Duggan said. “That is what we take our pride to be.”
One play at a time. One hit at a time. One sustained counterpunch at a time. TCU will assuredly be monster underdogs in the title game in Los Angeles on Jan. 9, expected to lose, expected to fail, expected to just be a bit part in someone else’s stories.
That’s fine. That’s where TCU is most comfortable. Overlooked and unloved. Count the Frogs out at your own peril, because they are still standing and still standing their ground.