In one of Sonny Dykes’ early days at TCU, he was handed a gift by a Horned Frogs fan.
It was a copy of “Spread Formation Football,” a 1952 book by Dutch Meyer, the legendary Frogs coach who is the spiritual forefather to Dykes and known for his offensive fireworks and versatile passing attacks, along with his tutelage of quarterbacks like Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien.
This copy isn’t just any copy. It’s got a hand-written inscription from Meyer to Amon G. Carter, the newspaper publisher and Fort Worth civic booster whose name adorns the TCU football stadium. It resides in Dykes’ office, the same one he first inhabited just 12 months ago when the Frogs were coming off a 5-7 season. The same one he’ll get back to this week to prepare for the College Football Playoff National Championship — a title TCU last claimed in 1938, when Meyer roamed the sidelines.
Dykes, a fan of history, couldn’t have known then that he’d be writing his own chapter so soon.
TCU, the private school that was left out of the Big 12 when the Southwest Conference disbanded in 1996, had to fight and scratch and claw back to relevance, finally earning a Big 12 slot in 2012. Overlooked again after going 11-1 in 2014, the Horned Frogs finally got their shot and didn’t cower, delivering the biggest upset in the CFP era, beating No. 2 Michigan, 51-45, in the highest-scoring game in Fiesta Bowl history.
TCU survived and advanced as they have all season, winning seven straight games by 10 points or fewer during a 12-0 regular season. The Horned Frogs did it again on Saturday by being the aggressor against Michigan, the 13-0 Big Ten champions coming off a playoff appearance last year while TCU was sitting at home.
“I thought we were definitely the most physical team on the field tonight,” Dykes said.
They did it behind a first-year coach in Dykes, who went 19-30 and got fired at Cal in his only previous Power 5. They did it with a three-man front against Michigan’s vaunted offensive line, which won the Joe Moore Award as the best unit in the country, and by pushing the Wolverines around on offense, including rushing for 265 yards, nearly 100 yards more than Michigan.
They did it with their indefatigable quarterback, Max Duggan, a preseason backup who had never played in a bowl game in his TCU career, who became Heisman Trophy runner-up and is now the first player in history with multiple passing and rushing TDs in a College Football Playoff game (two passing, two rushing). Dykes estimated this week that 125 players on the team had never been to a bowl.
They did it behind a stellar defensive effort by Dylan Horton, a defensive end who wasn’t ranked or given a star rating as a recruit, who started his college career as a safety at New Mexico, then transferred to TCU and put on 75 pounds. Against the Wolverines’ collection of blue-chip talent, Horton had four sacks, a forced fumble and a pass breakup. The Horned Frogs’ defense, which was questioned earlier in the season by the CFP committee, responded with two pick-sixes
They won despite losing starting running back Kendre Miller, who ran for 1,342 yards and 17 TDs this year — he left the game with a knee injury with about five minutes left in the first half. His backup, Emari Demercado, a junior-college transfer from Saddleback College who had one career 100-yard game at TCU since 2018, had 17 carries for 150 yards and a touchdown.
They did it in the first game Dykes had played since his mentor, Mike Leach, died — using a version of Leach’s Air Raid offense that’s meant to level the playing field between the haves and have-nots.
“He probably would have gotten a kick out of it,” Dykes said.
The private school with 93,000 living alums that ranks 38th all-time on the NCAA wins list (tied with Virginia) went toe-to-toe with Michigan, which has drawn more than 100,000 fans in 309 consecutive football games and is the winningest program in college football history.
All week long, TCU was confident while Michigan at times seemed overconfident. Michigan linebacker Junior Colson needed confirmation of TCU’s conference affiliation.
Michigan LB Junior Colson talked a bit about #TCU‘s offense on Wednesday.
— Frogs Today (@frogstoday) December 28, 2022
“You always have to fight for credibility,” Dykes said after the win. “It’s part of the deal. Part of what makes TCU great, though, is that they roll their sleeves up, they go to work, they figure out a way to do it … I think we all have a chip on our shoulder. It’s part of the Horned Frog way.”
In making the playoff, TCU was able to exorcise the demons of 2014, when the Horned Frogs lost both a 24-point lead in a 61-58 loss to Baylor then dropped from three to six in the last CFP rankings, falling behind Florida State and Ohio State despite being not playing in the final week of the season. Now, they’ll be the first team from Texas to play for a national title since the Longhorns in 2009.
It’s not always pretty, and it’s not always the same formula. But these Frogs keep finding new ways to win.
“That’s who we are, that’s our football team, and we look forward to teeing it up again in 10 days and having a chance to win a national championship,” Dykes said.
Now, he gets a chance at history himself, behind a wide-open offense and a quarterback who won the Davey O’Brien award, named after Meyer’s star, the Frogs’ only Heisman winner.
Eighty-four years after Meyer made the Horned Frogs the darlings of college football, Dykes can find inspiration in the inside cover of the book on his shelf.
“The spread formation has amazed fans throughout the country, and has produced championship teams for Texas Christian University.”