ATLANTA -- When the College Football Playoff semifinals kick off on Thursday, Trevone Boykin will be watching, just like everyone else. Boykin’s TCU squad suffered maybe the most painful playoff snub of any team in the country this year, falling from No. 3 in the selection committee’s penultimate rankings to No. 6 in the ones that mattered, despite routing Iowa State 55-3 on Dec. 6. Yet any animosity Boykin held toward the new postseason model disappeared after he and his teammates found a way to heal on New Year’s Eve.
When he flips on the TV this Thursday, only one thing will go through his mind. “I’ll be happy that we won the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl,” Boykin said.
The Horned Frogs delivered one of the most telling statements of 2014 bowl season by demolishing No. 9 Ole Miss 42-3 in the Georgia Dome. They did it against one of the toughest defenses in the country, and they silenced critics who questioned TCU’s spot among college football’s premier programs.
Back in August no one would have predicted Wednesday’s scene in Atlanta. TCU went 11-14 in its first two seasons in the Big 12, and Patterson’s remarkable tenure -- he notched double-digit victories in eight of his 11 seasons at the helm prior to joining the Big 12 in 2012 -- was coming into question. But an assistant coaching shake-up and a quarterback’s star turn launched the Frogs on a different trajectory. Now, the program looks like a top-five team heading into ’15.
Junior quarterback Boykin and the offense expected a challenge in the Peach Bowl. Ole Miss boasted the country’s top-ranked scoring defense, allowing 13.8 points per game. It had surrendered more than 20 points only twice this season, and the Rebels’ résumé included wins over two SEC programs participating in New Year’s Six bowls: No. 1 Alabama and No. 8 Mississippi State.
But TCU dominated Ole Miss, in every facet of the game. On the Rebels’ first series, Horned Frogs cornerback Chris Hackett intercepted quarterback Bo Wallace. TCU turned that miscue into a touchdown on a Kolby Listenbee-to-Aaron Green trick-play pass just two snaps later. It was the beginning of a long and painful night for Ole Miss.
Wallace threw another pick late in the first quarter, followed soon after by his biggest mistake in a game full of them: With TCU leading 21-0 and two minutes remaining in the second quarter, Wallace and Ole Miss set up deep in their own territory. The Frogs pressured Wallace into a quick throw to avoid a safety, and TCU defensive end James McFarland grabbed his errant toss before landing in the end zone. The pick-six made it 28-0, and the rout was on.
At that point, TCU fans started chanting a familiar refrain: We want Bama.
“It was crazy,” McFarland said with a smile.
TCU sacked Wallace five times in total -- four in the first half -- and forced him into three picks and a third-quarter fumble. The Rebels couldn’t make up for Wallace’s errors in the passing game, rushing for a mere 19 yards on 37 carries. The Horned Frogs developed a reputation for their offense after averaging 46.8 points per game this year, but Patterson wasn’t surprised by his defense’s performance.
“It wasn’t like it was just a bunch of hey-yous,” Patterson said.
The Frogs put the cap on a 12-1 season just one year removed from floundering in the Big 12. Patterson’s crew owned one of the country’s sorriest offenses in 2013, producing a 4-8 record, the coach’s worst at TCU. Many wondered if the team truly belonged in a Power Five conference. Then Patterson lured co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham -- both spread-offense gurus -- to Fort Worth and completely revamped his offensive philosophy.
The experiment worked wonders thanks largely to the emergence of Boykin. The quarterback threw as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns in 2013 while splitting time with Casey Pachall as the starter. But Boykin blossomed into one of the country’s most dynamic playmakers this season. He threw for 3,901 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions; Boykin earned more first-place votes in the Heisman Trophy race than any player outside of the three finalists.
The quarterback made it a point not to fail as a passer, or a team, this season. After TCU gave up 24 fourth-quarter points in a 61-58 loss to Baylor on Oct. 11, he made a declaration to his teammates. “I looked at those guys after the game, and we put in our hearts that we would never lose again,” Boykin said. “Everybody had the same goal and the same mindset, and that’s what we came out and did today.”
Boykin’s maturation comes at an exciting time for TCU. There might not be a more intriguing team in the Big 12 -- or the nation, for that matter -- heading into 2015. The Frogs lose only one starter on offense, left tackle Tayo Fabuluje, while also returning five starters on defense. A trip to Minnesota stands as the only obstacle in their upcoming nonconference schedule, while this year’s Big 12 co-champion, Baylor, must venture to Fort Worth in TCU’s regular-season finale. On paper, that’s a recipe for a legitimate playoff run.
Patterson made a name for himself by building a consistent BCS-buster during the early 2000s. As a member of the Mountain West, TCU reached two BCS bowls and won the Rose Bowl in ‘10. But now the coach holds the reins of a program that has busted out of its underdog role. The Horned Frogs almost completed their quest for a national title this year, but fell out of the playoff’s top four on the final weekend of the season. On Wednesday there was no sign of a playoff hangover at the Georgia Dome. Patterson’s plan is to build on that for next year.
“For next year, I don’t know what it tells us,” Patterson said. “But it does set a precedent.”