With leadership issues in the rear-view mirror, TCU prepared to earn back status as Big 12 elite

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LAS VEGAS – Ask TCU head coach Sonny Dykes for the difference between the team that won 13 games in 2022 en route to the national championship game and the five-win team of 2023 that became the first national runner-up to not reach a bowl game the following year and his answer is simple: Leadership. The 2022 team had it in spades. The 2023 squad sorely lacked it. 

But don’t take that as Dykes passing the buck to his players. He firmly carries the blame for the season, and for a roster that entered the 2023 campaign lacking in the leadership required to handle tough times, like the season opening loss to Colorado. In 2022, TCU was 6-1 in one-possession games. Last year, the Frogs were 0-4 in close games. 

“If you have a lack of leadership it is the coach’s fault and I didn’t do a good enough job last year of developing those guys,” Dykes said. “That leadership can’t be taken for granted. We must develop that 365 days a year.”   

Dykes said his team was behind throughout the 2023 campaign. He moved the spring practices back a few weeks last season to give his players a chance to recover from a 15-game season that concluded in mid-January in a blowout loss to Georgia. A new offensive coordinator and the loss of the best player at literally every position created a vacuum of uncertainty. Max Duggan. Steve Avila. Dee Winters. And that’s just three of the leaders lost to the NFL.

The cracks in the armor were obvious after a three-point loss to Colorado in Week 1 at home. The Buffaloes took a 45-42 lead on a 46-yard touchdown pass from Shedeur Sanders to Dylan Edwards with 4:25 on the clock. The Horned Frog faithful assumed they’d see a repeat from 2022: TCU marching down the field for a clutch touchdown in Amon G. Carter Stadium. Instead, the Frogs’ last drive ended with a turnover on downs at the Colorado 36. 

“We didn’t make the plays in those crunch time moments like we did the year before,” Dykes said. “That’s how small the margin of victory is. The difference between a great season and a bad season can be five or six plays.” 

All five of TCU’s players at Big 12 media days in Las Vegas see it as their responsibility to fill the void that wasn’t from 2022 to 2023. Linebacker Namdi Obiazor arrived in Fort Worth from JUCO ranks ahead of the 2022 season. He watched TCU ride positive vibes and strong leadership to a Fiesta Bowl win over Michigan as the Horned Frogs became the first program in Texas to qualify for the College Football Playoff. 

“I’ve experienced a great season and a bad season (at TCU) and we know that is up to the players to get us back on track,” Obiazor said in Las Vegas. “Me and some of the other upperclassmen with experience need to be the guys who step up in big moments. We didn’t do that last year. That’s on us.”

Josh Hoover began the season on the bench as Chandler Morris’ backup. Injury allowed him to take over as QB1 in Funky Town by midseason. He threw for over 300 yards in five of his six starts. Despite flashes of brilliance, TCU lost four of its last five games. The only victory for the Horned Frogs after Oct. 14 was a win over Baylor. Two of those losses were one-possession games to Texas Tech and Texas. 

“Leadership comes in different forms,” Hoover said. “We need a mix of guys who can lead by example and get up in front of the team or in the huddle to say what is needed. The best teams are player led. We weren’t that last season.” 

The Big 12 is open for business. Not just for conference realignment or advertising. It’s also the most parity-driven conference at the Power Four level. The SEC is dominated by Alabama, Georgia, and LSU. The Big Ten has Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. The ACC is a fight between Clemson, Florida State, and Miami. Who are the power players in the Big 12? That’s to be determined. 

The Horned Frogs should be in that discussion every year. Fort Worth provides access to a treasure chest of high school talent. Plenty of high-level players in the portal want to return to the Metroplex. The NIL budget is at the top-end of the Big 12 landscape with sources saying it is close to a $15 million dollar payroll. 

TCU went 5-7 the year before Dykes arrived. He turned the program around and started his tenure 12-0. He doesn’t need his Horned Frogs to be perfect. The expanded playoff and automatic bid for the Big 12 champion provides grace. The Frogs should be in the Big 12 championship hunt every year. Yes, even this year. Even with the Big 12 media poll projects TCU in the bottom half of the standings. 

“Our goal is to win a conference championship and see what we can do after that,” wide receiver Jack Bech said. “We have the talent. Now, we need the focus and execution. That starts at Stanford in Week 1 and then we’ll go from there.” 

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