LOS ANGELES — When TCU takes the field in Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game, it will mark 13 years since a team from Texas played for the national title.
In that span, nine different programs have gotten this close to the ultimate prize representing states as big as Florida and Ohio and as small as South Carolina and Oregon. But for a state as massive as Texas, where football is as ingrained into the everyday culture as smoked brisket, its long absence from college football’s biggest stage is difficult to imagine.
Yet the fact it’s TCU breaking the drought — a small private school with a 45,000-seat stadium — rather than the historically more powerful Longhorns or Aggies stands as one of the more interesting case studies in the history of the sport.
And for both TCU and its conference, the Big 12, this long-awaited breakthrough could not have come at a more opportune moment.
“Fortuitous is a good word for it,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “The timing was really good.”
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Rewind to July of 2021. By all outward appearances, college athletics was in a period of conference stability. Commissioners of the five power leagues were on the verge of approving a plan to expand the playoff from four teams to 12. Everyone in the sometimes dysfunctional family of college sports seemed happy.
But when word leaked seemingly out of nowhere that the Big 12’s two premium brands in Texas and Oklahoma were going to leave for the Southeastern Conference, all hell broke loose. Then less than a year later, hell doubled down.
When UCLA and Southern Cal announced accepted invitations to the Big Ten on June 30, the landscape of college sports — particularly for a league as historically vulnerable as the Big 12 — had rarely seemed more uncertain. Was college sports headed toward a new model with just a couple superconferences? Would the playoff still expand after months of negotiations that seemed to go nowhere? Would the Big 12 even stay intact?
These were very real questions, particularly for a school like TCU that spent 16 years in the conference realignment wilderness after the breakup of the Southwest Conference. When the Horned Frogs finally landed an invitation to the Big 12 in 2011, it felt like they’d made it back to the big time. Was it all about to be taken away once again?
But then TCU started playing football. And the team that was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 didn’t just go on a magical run to Monday night’s championship game against Georgia, it reset the entire narrative of its league.
“It means a lot to the conference, and we’re drafting right behind them,” said Brett Yormark, who was hired as Big 12 commissioner in June. “It’s a big moment for us.”
Big 12 lost reputation as football powerhouse
Ever since Texas’ loss to Alabama in the BCS championship game to conclude the 2009 season, the Big 12 has struggled to maintain its once-mighty football reputation. The league nearly fell apart in 2010 when Nebraska and Colorado left, then again the following year when Texas A&M and Missouri bolted for the SEC.
Since then, the only Big 12 school to make the playoff was Oklahoma, which the Sooners did four times with three blowout semifinal losses and one overtime loss to Georgia in the epic 2017 Rose Bowl.
It wasn’t just a narrative that the Big 12 played an inferior brand of football that couldn’t win playoff games, it was very much part of the calculus for how Texas and Oklahoma projected the future of college sports. Whether it was money, recruiting or playoff success, Texas and Oklahoma chose to leave a league where they had all the power and cachet for a conference where there’s real risk they could take a step back competitively.
So imagine how brutal the national conversation would have been for the Big 12 if Texas or Oklahoma, not TCU, had gotten into the playoff and beaten Michigan in the semifinals last Saturday before they head out the door in 2025.
Instead, TCU’s success combined with stunning levels of mediocrity from Texas and Oklahoma this season is more than validation for the remaining and incoming members of the Big 12 — it’s the first salvo in what looks like a new era of stability, and perhaps even respect for what the league can offer in its future form.
“It’s important for the Big 12 and our credibility to have teams that perform well and can win,” Dykes said. “You lose two of the more high-profile members of the conference, obviously, with Texas and Oklahoma moving on. But what I think was so good about the Big 12 this year was you got to see, from top to bottom, just how good the league was. It’s probably the best the Big 12 has been in a long time, and the two brand name institutions really weren’t as good as they typically are.”
Big 12 football stabilized by more than TCU success
Of course, TCU alone has not stabilized the Big 12. Former commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who was stunned by the departures, quickly moved to add Cincinnati, UCF, Houston and BYU, who will join next season. And Yormark got a huge financial win in October by negotiating a media rights package with ESPN and Fox Sports that will pay each member roughly $32 million annually — a number few would have predicted the day Texas and Oklahoma announced their departures.
But there’s no doubt TCU’s success has injected a new level of confidence in the Big 12’s ability to compete over the long haul, particularly now that the 12-team playoff expansion has been settled beginning in 2024. Barring something crazy, the Big 12 will have at least one team in the playoff every year because automatic bids will go to the six highest-ranked conference champions. This year, TCU and Kansas State would have made it.
And the simple truth is that staying in the Big 12 with this setup and this much momentum makes it far likelier that the Horned Frogs get back into the playoff before either Texas or Oklahoma, who will have to climb over a whole lot of elite SEC programs to get in a position even close to this favorable.
While Texas and Oklahoma had multiple reasons to jump ship, staying might have looked pretty attractive if the playoff had expanded years ago.
“It’s a great question,” Yormark said. “I will say that this is why I was personally bullish on CFP expansion because of the possibilities like this. It gives everyone a chance and some hope and vision for what can be accomplished. Whether it would have affected realignment, I don’t know. We can all make those determinations now, but it is what it is. We’re excited TCU is here.”
TCU has spent most of its football history as the third or even fourth wheel of the Longhorn-Aggie rivalry, never big or threatening enough to upset the traditional balance of power. Even when the program reached historic highs like going undefeated and winning the Rose Bowl after the 2010 season, it was more of a niche story than part of the mainstream football culture in the state.
“When you go to Walmart in Texas in the past you hadn’t seen a whole lot of Horned Frog gear,” said Doug Meacham, the wide receivers coach who has had multiple stints at TCU.
But with Big 12 stability, competitive respect, playoff expansion on the horizon and a top-20 recruiting class signed for next year, the little private school in Fort Worth might be poised to carry the banner for the entire state.
“Look, we’re the flavor of the month. I get that,” Dykes said. “I’d like for us to be the flavor of the decade. I believe we have to have all the pieces to be able to sustain something for a long time. Now it’s up to us coaches and players to do it, but we certainly have the opportunity and not everybody can say that.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken