Conference-jumping Horned Frogs traveled winding road to title game

TCU’s Andy Dalton circa 2010 (Kevin Reece via AP)

TCU’s Horned Frogs had quite the conference-hopping journey on its long and winding road to the national championship game.

TCU won or shared titles in three different leagues over 16 seasons after the Southwest Conference disbanded. The small, private school was left out when four other Texas schools from the SWC joined the Big 12 in 1996.

“It’s like that old song by Hank Snow, ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’ — our fans, they’ve traveled all over the place,” said John Denton, the Horned Frogs’ kicker for their 1984 Bluebonnet Bowl team who has been part of their radio broadcasts since 1988.

All the way from the East Coast to Hawaii, with stops in the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA and the Mountain West before finally getting an invitation to the Big 12 in 2012. They are now the school located the closest to the league’s headquarters in North Texas, after being either the easternmost or westernmost team in other conferences.

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The long journey by TCU (13-1) has taken it to a showdown with defending national champion Georgia (14-0) in the title game Monday night at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. TCU has just over 10,000 students, about one-third the enrollment at Georgia’s main campus.

The Frogs won their semifinal over Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl, the game where they were a BCS buster along with Boise State in 2009, long before the current four-team playoff.

“We’re focused in on what we’re doing but we understand there’s been so many great teams that built this program to get to where we are,”  TCU quarterback and Heisman Trophy runner-up Max Duggan said. “I’ve had guys from past teams that have been … congratulating me, and they’re rooting for us … whether it’s teams back in the Southwest Conference, teams with Andy (Dalton), the 2014 team.”

The Frogs have already matched the school record for wins set by the 2010 team that, with Dalton as the senior quarterback, went 13-0 with a Rose Bowl victory and was No. 2 in the final AP Top 25 poll. That was the middle of three consecutive seasons (2009-11) when TCU didn’t lose a Mountain West league game before going to the Big 12.

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“What we were able to accomplish toward the end of my (college) career kind of set us up to get to this point where we’re able to not only play in the College Football Playoff but compete for a national championship,” said Dalton, now with the New Orleans Saints. “And to see where the program’s gone from where it started even years before I got there to where it is now, it’s definitely headed in the right direction.”

Within a month after that Rose Bowl victory, the school had raised the final $30 million needed for a $165 million rebuild of Amon G. Carter Stadium, its campus home. Both fundraising and enrollment increased, helping set up TCU’s major conference move.

That was also during a span when the Horned Frogs had accepted an invitation to join the Big East, but never played in the predominant basketball league that no longer sponsors football.

After the SWC dissolved, TCU initially was part of the WAC, then a 16-team conference that is now less than half that size and playing at the Championship Subdivision level after an eight-season hiatus that ended in 2021. Then came four seasons in C-USA before four outright MWC titles in seven seasons.

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TCU bottomed out at 1-10 in 1997, the second season after the SWC, before Dennis Franchione was hired and the Frogs finished his debut season with a victory over Southern California in the Sun Bowl – when Pro Football Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson was a sophomore. LT set an NCAA record the next season with a 406-yard rushing game, and led the nation with 2,158 yards as a senior in 2000.

When Franchione left for Alabama at the end of the 2000 season, defensive coordinator Gary Patterson succeeded him and won a school-record 181 games before his departure with four games left in the 2021 season. The Frogs had 11 seasons with at least 10 wins overall under Patterson and top-10 finishes in the AP Top 25 six times over a 10-season period through 2017, when the Frogs played in their first Big 12 championship game.

There was no Big 12 title game when the one-loss Frogs shared the regular-season crown with Baylor in 2014, the first season of the four-team College Football Playoff. TCU dropped from third to sixth in the final CFP rankings, missing the inaugural playoff even after beating Iowa State 55-3 in its regular-season finale.

The Frogs now have a chance to win their first national championship since quarterback Davey O’Brien and the 1938 team went 11-0 to finish No. 1 for the only the third title in the AP poll era.

“It’s a big deal. You could make arguments that this team should have played for a national championship one more time, potentially two more times before this,” first-year coach Sonny Dykes said. “The landscape of college football has changed, and I think the perception of the Big 12 has changed. Still probably not what it needs to be, but it’s better. And I think all of that allowed us to get in the playoff, and then it was up to us to do something with that opportunity.”

AP Sports Writer Brett Martel contributed to this report.