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 come this close to the ultimate prize representing states as large 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 in everyday culture as smoked brisket, its long absence from college football’s biggest stage is hard to imagine.
But the fact that 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 sports history.
And for both TCU and its conference, the Big 12, this long-awaited breakthrough couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
“Random is a good word for it,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “The timing was very good.”
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Rewind to July 2021. By all outward appearances, college athletics was in a period of conference stability. Commissioners for the five power leagues were on the verge of approving a plan to expand the playoffs from four teams to 12. Everyone in the sometimes dysfunctional college sports family seemed pleased.
But when word seemingly leaked out of nowhere that the Big 12’s two premium brands in Texas and Oklahoma would be leaving for the Southeastern Conference, all hell broke loose. Then less than a year later, hell doubled.
When UCLA and Southern Cal announced accepted invitations to the Big Ten on June 30, the college sports landscape — especially for a league as historically vulnerable as the Big 12 — had rarely seemed more uncertain. Was college sports headed for a new model of just a couple of super conferences? Would the playoffs still expand after months of negotiations that seemed to be going nowhere? Would the Big 12 even remain intact?
These were very real questions, especially for a school like TCU that spent 16 years in the wilderness of conference realignment after the dissolution of the Southwest Conference. When the Horned Frogs finally earned an invitation to the Big 12 in 2011, it felt like they had returned to the big time. Was everything about to be taken away 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 draft right behind them,” said Brett Yormark, who was hired as Big 12 commissioner in June. – It is a big moment for us.
The Big 12 lost its reputation as a football powerhouse
Ever since Texas’ loss to Alabama in the BCS championship to end 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 jockeyed for the SEC.
Since then, the only Big 12 school to make the playoffs has been Oklahoma, which the Sooners did four times with three semifinal losses and one overtime loss to Georgia in the epic 2017 Rose Bowl.
It wasn’t just a narrative of the Big 12 playing an inferior brand of football that couldn’t win playoff games, it was very much part of the calculus of 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 capacity for a conference where there is a real risk that 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 entered the playoffs and beaten Michigan in the semifinals last Saturday before walking out the door in 2025.
Instead, TCU’s success coupled with impressive levels of mediocrity from Texas and Oklahoma this season is more than vindication 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 to and with respect for what the league can offer in its future form.
“It’s important to 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 great about the Big 12 this year was you got to see, top to bottom, how good the league was. It’s probably the best the Big 12 has been in a long time, and those two brand-name institutions weren’t really as good as they usually are.”
Big 12 football stabilized with more than TCU success
Of course, TCU alone has not stabilized the Big 12. Former commissioner Bob Bowlsby, stunned by the departures, moved quickly to add Cincinnati, UCF, Houston and BYU, which will join next season. And Yormark scored a huge financial victory in October by negotiating a media rights package with ESPN and Fox Sports that will pay each member about $32 million annually — few would have predicted the day Texas and Oklahoma announced their departures.
But there’s no question that TCU’s success has injected a new level of confidence in the Big 12’s ability to compete long-term, especially now that the 12-team playoff expansion has been settled starting in 2024. Barring something crazy, the Big 12 will have at least one team in the playoffs each 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 more likely that the Horned Frogs will return to the playoffs before either Texas or Oklahoma, who will have to climb over a whole bunch of elite SEC programs to get into a position even close to this favorable one.
While Texas and Oklahoma had more reasons to jump ship, it could have looked pretty attractive if the playoffs had expanded years ago.
“That’s a great question,” Yormark said. “I would say this is why I was personally optimistic about the CFP expansion because of opportunities like this. It gives everybody a chance and some hope and visions of what can be achieved. If it would have affected realignment, I know no. We can all make those decisions now, but it is what it is. We’re glad TCU is here.”
TCU has spent most of its football history as the third or even fourth wheel in the Longhorn-Aggie rivalry, never big or threatening enough to upset the traditional balance of power. Even when the program reached historic heights like going undefeated and winning the Rose Bowl after the 2010 season, it was more of a niche story than part of mainstream football culture in the state.
“When you go to Walmart in Texas in the past, you wouldn’t see a lot of Horned Frog gear,” said Doug Meacham, the wide receivers coach who has had several stints at TCU.
But with Big 12 stability, competitive respectability, playoff expansion on the horizon and a top-20 recruiting class signed for next year, the small private school in Fort Worth could be ready to carry the banner for the entire state.
“Look, we’re the flavor of the month. I understand that, Dykes said. “I would like us to be the flavor of the decade. I think 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 everyone can say that.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken