From unranked and off-the-radar to College Football Playoff contender, the 2014 TCU Football team surprised everyone — except themselves. How the 2014 Peach Bowl season began from disappointment.
New Year’s Eve 2014: The TCU football team spent the last day of the year in high spirits after decimating No. 9 Ole Miss 42-3 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. A year ago, the mood was far murkier.
TCU safety Sam Carter ’14 roamed Bourbon Street on New Year’s Eve in 2013, watching fans from Alabama and Oklahoma celebrate before the Sugar Bowl. The New Orleans native deliberated whether to give college football another year.
Carter said the Horned Frogs’ 4-8 record in 2013 was “frustrating.” In the team’s second season in the Big 12, it missed a postseason bowl for the second time in Gary Patterson’s 14 years as head coach.
The Rose Bowl triumph over Wisconsin in January 2011 was fading into memory. The program had traversed some rough seas since that perfect season concluded in Pasadena.
Sports talking heads – to the great annoyance of Frog Nation – said TCU couldn’t handle the week-in, week-out grind of a major conference. After going 6-12 in the first two years of Big 12 play, the team had not proven them wrong.
Defensive lineman Chucky Hunter ’14 said he was “embarrassed” by the 2013 bowl absence. That season the Frogs lost six games by ten or fewer points, so they weren’t as far behind as the record might suggest.
“It didn’t bounce our way [in 2013],” said cornerback Kevin White ’14.
In 2014, White, Carter and five other fifth-year seniors were the only remnants from the victorious Rose Bowl squad. They knew about the sacrifice and sweat equity that had gone into TCU’s path to a higher plateau of college football.
“Those guys left us a great legacy,” Carter said of his Rose Bowl teammates. “Do I want my legacy to be 4-8?” he asked during the holiday break in 2013. He did not.
Carter returned to TCU and enrolled as a graduate student. “But I knew we had a lot of work to do,” he said about the football team.
Redemption requires change. Patterson built TCU’s success on a foundation of teamwork and accountability, and the Frogs returned to their roots to restore the winning ways.
“Those [Rose Bowl Champion] guys left us a great legacy. Do I want my legacy to be 4-8?”
Sam Carter '14
In 2013, TCU had not moved the ball well, finishing in the last sixth of Football Bowl Subdivision teams in terms of total offense.
During the offseason, Patterson mixed up his staff. Longtime offensive line coach Eddie Williamson retired. Former offensive coordinator Jarrett Anderson took Williamson’s job.
Patterson hired Doug Meacham from the University of Houston and Sonny Cumbie from Texas Tech as co-offensive coordinators. He chose Meacham and Cumbie for their knowledge of up-tempo, downfield schemes.
“The hardest thing to do was make a change,” said Patterson. “Coaches make a mistake when they say, ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it works for me.’”
At an offseason team meeting, Meacham and Cumbie announced they would install a no-playbook-no-huddle offense and air out the ball, which is typical of other Big 12 teams.
TCU’s pro-style offense needed to adapt to a new generation of players who learned football in part by playing video games. “Kids nowadays are such visual learners,” said Meacham. “A lot of times playbooks are just reference points for coaches.”
The team’s reaction to the change was positive. Senior wide receiver David Porter said he “always wished” for a pass-happy offense. “We were all in.”
Patterson said TCU needed to “even the playing field” by adopting a more explosive system. He summed up the philosophy about change before the start of the 2014 season. “There’s no such thing as staying the same. Either you get better or you [are] getting worse.”
The new coaches had the tools to succeed. The team was loaded with speed, especially in the receiving corps. Cameron Echols-Luper, Kolby Listenbee and Jordan Moore ran track. Deanté Gray could outrun all of them.
But to pull off the team’s transformation, the coaches needed a quarterback with a strong arm and who could stay calm as plays unfolded. Trevone Boykin, who Patterson said was formidable in practice, made his share of mistakes on game days since being baptized by fire as a Big 12 quarterback in 2012.
Boykin did not have a chance to establish himself at quarterback in the two years he had been practicing at three different positions. His results were mixed.
In 2012, Boykin led the Frogs to a historic Thanksgiving win in Austin and a come-from-behind thriller in Morgantown, W. Va. In 2013, the quarterback struggled at times. For example, he threw three interceptions at Oklahoma State.
Boykin was still a work in progress, and some observers lost patience. A few even suggested the player move to receiver for good. Others, including Patterson, believed in Boykin’s potential as a quarterback.
In the final offseason scrimmage of 2014, the Frog offense turned over the ball four times and failed to score. Carter wasn’t worried. “Those guys were kicking our butt each and every day in spring practice.”
When TCU joined the Big 12 in 2011, Patterson promised the Horned Frogs would compete for a Big 12 championship in three years. In a program that had won four bowl games in its entire history before his arrival in 1998, was such a comeback from a 4-8 season possible?
Some Frogs believed in Patterson’s 3-year-old prediction. During the 2014 summer, Carter asked defensive lineman Davion Pierson, “What are they going to say when TCU wins the Big 12 this year?”
But the members of the sports media who cover the conference didn’t believe Carter’s scenario was likely. They voted TCU seventh in the league in their 2014 preseason poll.
“The hardest thing to do was make a change. Coaches make a mistake when they say, ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it works for me’”
Before summer camp, Patterson hung a blank pyramid on the wall of the team meeting room. Inspired by legendary basketball coach John Wooden, Patterson uses the pyramid each year. As players reach their goals, they gradually color the triangular image purple.
At the start of camp, the title above the pyramid for 2014 was “Nuff’s Enough.”
Patterson chose that title because the drama and attrition that had plagued the program was “in the past,” he said. “It was over. We were done with it.”
At the end of the summer training, the head coach changed the pyramid’s motto to “One Heartbeat.” The players doubled down and worked.
“They had earned that,” he said of the revised title.
Carter, who was a captain on defense for the previous two-and-a-half years, was one of the first to sign his name. “The pyramid is saying, ‘Okay I’m committed. You guys look for me to help you,’” he said. “Plus believing in each other and knowing each and every day we go out there to practice that we’re working towards something bigger than just individual goals.”
By putting his name in ink, Carter promised to start at the foundation with a good attitude and a guarantee of accountability to his teammates. One of the words at the base of the pyramid is “family,” and the players take it to heart.
David Porter, who was Boykin’s roommate during their first three years at TCU, moved one house over from White and linebacker Jonathan Anderson ‘14. Safety Derrick Kindred and defensive end Josh Carraway moved right behind them.
“Nine times out of 10, we’re either all going out to eat or at somebody’s house,” Porter said. “We’re always together with teammates.”
After a summer camp battle with Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel, Boykin emerged as the starter for the 2014 season opener against Samford. The quarterback silenced his critics by passing for 320 yards and two touchdowns in a largely error-free game.
Boykin did not look back as the new offense rolled over Minnesota and SMU.
October arrived with a murderer’s row of games. When the Associated Press poll published on Sept. 28, the Frogs had three ranked opponents in October, including back-to-back contests with Oklahoma and Baylor. Both teams were in the Top 10.
Could the Frogs win?
“I knew it would be possible because of the work we do and all the work we put in,” said Porter. “I knew it would have a great chance of paying off.”
After an emotional victory over Oklahoma, students flooded the field to celebrate. Associated Press poll voters rewarded the Frogs with a leap into the Top 10.
The last time TCU was in the national Top 10 was at the end of the 2010 season after winning the Rose Bowl. Then the Frogs were ranked No. 3.
Week-by-week, the 2014 season intensified.
Boykin threw a school-record seven touchdowns against Texas Tech. By season’s end, he had set single-season TCU records for passing yards, total offense and touchdowns.
The team showed off a string off peak performances, including receiver Josh Doctson’s spectacular catch in the Minnesota game—a “SportsCenter” Top 10 play—and a field day of interceptions and fumble recoveries.
Around campus, people who had never shown much interest in football were discussing the next game: “How badly are we going to beat Tech?” So badly, it turns out, the athletics department ran out of the celebratory fireworks it had ordered—for the season.
The contest between No. 6 TCU and No. 9 Kansas State was the first official AP Top 10 matchup in Amon G. Carter Stadium. The Frogs were hot on the trail for their first Big 12 championship.
TCU marched into Austin on Thanksgiving night. That game, more than any other, demonstrated the inversion of the old power structure of the defunct Southwest Conference. In the old league, Texas won 25 titles while TCU claimed nine. But in the SWC’s final 36 years, the Frogs won only one championship.
Perhaps to remind visitors of its long-time dominance, Texas flashed historical highlights on the big screen in the end zone. A graphic with former UT coach Darrell Royal popped up, quoting his reference to Horned Frogs as “cockroaches” for ruining his undefeated season in 1961.
On Thanksgiving night in 2014, the Longhorns’ efforts at playing spoiler came up short. TCU roasted the Big 12’s sacred cows over the holiday fire in a 48-10 win. Now the Frogs were candidates for a possible spot in the first national playoffs.
The fate of the other playoff contenders became almost as important to Frog fans as the team’s final game. Many conversations revolved around whether Florida State would ever lose, how Mississippi State might fare against Ole Miss, or why Baylor should never be allowed to forget that two-touchdown loss to West Virginia.
Going into the 2014 season finale against Iowa State, the Frogs were ranked No. 3 in the nation, two spots ahead of longtime rival Baylor.
“It took some schools 16 years to win a Big 12 championship. It took us three.”
Chris Del Conte
On December 1, ESPN reporter Jake Trotter shared some surprising news on Twitter. “Baylor has hired a PR firm to advocate its case for a playoff spot,” he wrote. Trotter later shared a copy of Baylor’s email attempt to convince media personalities that Baylor was more deserving of a playoff spot than TCU.
Patterson let his team make the final statements on the field.
TCU beat Iowa State 55-3. Horned Frog fans joined the team on the field as Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby presented the conference championship trophy.
“It took some schools 16 years to win a Big 12 championship,” said TCU athletic director Chris del Conte. “It took us three.”
Patterson’s championship prediction now was reality.
“It’s not surprising to us,” said White. “We really felt like we could play at this level and play in this league.”
Carter said: “We’re the first [TCU] team to win the Big 12. It was exciting, knowing we had done it with a group of guys who understood how much work it took to get there.”
The morning after the Iowa State victory, the 12-person national playoff selection committee picked Ohio State and Florida State, instead of TCU.
Patterson took the committee’s decision in stride, affirming his pride in the team and its remarkable season. “They won with class.”
TCU accepted an invitation to play Mississippi in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve—a game the university had never played.
The bowl was the first “New Year’s Six” game in college football history.
The last-minute playoff snub hurt some feelings. White said the Horned Frogs were still fighting to gain national respect. “We still feel like it’s us against the world,” he said before the game against Iowa State. “We take that as a motivation.”
When TCU unfurls its first Big 12 championship banner in the Camden Yards of College Football, the team’s accomplishments in 2014 will be memorable.
Boykin was selected as the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. Linebacker Paul Dawson earned the conference Defensive Player of the Year honors as well as an All-America first team spot.
With 59 yards in the Peach Bowl, Doctson broke TCU’s all-time record for both touchdown receptions and total receiving yards.
Boykin’s name is all over TCU’s record book. He was named a Davey O’Brien finalist for being one of the top three quarterbacks in the country. Boykin was the first finalist to represent O’Brien’s alma mater, but the quarterback finished second in final voting.
The Frogs’ four victories against Top 20 teams were a first in the university’s football history.
Perhaps because TCU fielded the nation’s most improved offense, Patterson won the AP’s Big 12 Coach of the Year distinction. He also won five national coach of the year awards.
The head coach showed leadership in his willingness to evolve in new directions with the offense. As a result, TCU moved from 106th in total yards in 2013 to fifth in 2014.
TCU’s first Big 12 championship season may not have ended with a national title and a solid purple pyramid, but it marked another step in the team’s ascent.
“You need to go prove you’re part of the new royalty of college football. We’re a young football team. We just need to keep growing up.”
“TCU has already won,” said Patterson at midseason before the playoff hoopla and late-season debate on better wins versus worse losses. He pointed out TCU’s inclusion in the Big 12 and a new stadium as evidence of the off-the-field victories.
The national attention was helpful too. “TCU won during this entire process in terms of media exposure,” said Del Conte. “It’s been a great thing.” In a sport where public perception plays a large role, shining a flattering light on the university’s football program could have far-reaching benefits.
In November, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that seven out of 10 high school football players consider TCU and Baylor to be the “Class of Texas.” For perspective, the young players surveyed were not alive when the Southwest Conference ended in 1996.
And, Patterson wants off-the-field success to be just as important as sports trophies. “We have made a name for ourselves in developing kids, not just football players but people,” he said. “That’s probably what I pride myself in the most.”
The program wins with players such as Carter, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology but returned as a graduate student to lead the team in his fifth year. He credited fellow senior safety Geoff Hooker ’14 for being “the glue to the defense.”
Carter said winning depended on walk-on players, many of them paying their own way through TCU, who run scout teams in practice. “They’re really the key.”
Carter also credited the fans, students and alumni for their support. “We are all one heartbeat,” he said. “We all believe in the same thing.”
With 14 starters returning for 2015, the Frogs will have big dreams to chase. The team returns to practice in the spring, starting at the bottom of the pyramid with attitude, accountability and a sense of family.
The pyramid “becomes blank, and [players] have to earn it all again,” said Patterson.
“You need to go prove you’re part of the new royalty in college football,” said the head coach after learning of the team’s playoff fate. “We are a young football team. We just need to keep growing up and keep moving forward.”
As for the team’s seniors, they earned a spot in the Horned Frog record book as well as ownership of TCU’s first Big 12 championship.
“To be the first one to do it, that’s amazing,” said Carter. He thought about his summer prediction of a Big 12 championship at the Peach Bowl announcement in early December.
Memories of the seventh-place preseason projection and the media warnings that TCU couldn’t compete in a powerful conference rushed back.
“What are they going to say now? TCU just won the Big 12,” said Carter. “They have nothing to say now.”