And then there was a bowl game.
It may not have the luster of a College Football Playoff semifinal showdown with Alabama or a New Year’s date with another top 10 opponent. Not this year. Those occasions are only reserved for the teams who showcased excellence from start to end — something that no fan base should ever take for granted, given today’s landscape of the game.
When the Horned Frogs learn their destination and opponent for the team’s 13th and final time taking the gridiron this year, the options are limited. It may even result in them staying right at home for a postseason game at Amon G. Carter Stadium. That’s the way it goes for teams who finish the season .500.
TCU’s 2018 season clearly didn’t lead to the desired outcome — not after a top 25 ranking in a preseason AP poll that had more misses than any voter would care to count (see Auburn, Miami, Wisconsin, Michigan State ... woof). The hype was there with quarterback Shawn Robinson set to usher in a new era of Horned Frog football at last, hype that extended even beyond the Horned Frogs’ 42-28 loss to then No. 4 Ohio State — a game which TCU largely held its own for three quarters until the thing slipped away from them with some untimely miscues.
55-7. 42-12. 42-28 to a team hardly anybody gave the Frogs a chance against. There was hope.
Until Texas finally ended TCU’s streak of dominance against the Longhorns a week later.
A week after that, in a too-close-for-comfort win over Iowa State, Robinson sustained what later became a season-ending shoulder injury after attempting to tough it out for two more games. A month later, injuries had snowballed into unthinkable proportions for TCU, the KaVontae Turpin era was over and the Frogs had unthinkably gone winless in October — including a dismal 27-26 loss at Kansas — to fall into a last-place tie in the Big 12 standings.
3-5? It would have been easier to throw in the towel — something most teams may have done — given how far the train had gotten off the rails for the Frogs at that rate.
Only TCU didn’t. Because Gary Patterson refused to let his seniors to have anything less than the best season possible — an approach that quite frankly every FBS coach should carry day in and day out.
There was more ugly to come of course, including a 47-10 whipping at then CFP No. 9 West Virginia on Nov. 10 — a loss that stands as the most lopsided ever in Patterson’s 18 years as head coach. And yet even a demoralizing defeat like that didn’t stop TCU from winning three of its last four games — including two in a row in the final two weeks — to just make it to bowl eligibility.
Who woulda thunk 6-6 at the start of the season? But also, who woulda thunk 6-6 on Oct. 27?
There’s two ways to think about the 2018 season. And it’s up to you, the fan, to decide on which school of thought is most appropriate (and enjoyable).
There’s the first approach dwells on unmet expectations and what could have been, given the potential TCU had on its Week 1 roster, combined with the several self-inflicted losses the Horned Frogs found themselves apart of before the dust settled. It’s an approach that will most likely do you no good, keeping you down in the dumps far longer than you need to be about something that is really just a game in the grand perspective of things.
And then there’s the second approach; that TCU, while not enjoying the success that many had hoped for back on Sept. 1, made the most of the bad hand it was dealt — injuries, off-field drama and more — when the easier option would have been to throw up the white flag; rallying together in November to show that while a playoff/New Year’s Six bid may not have been in the books, football games were still something worth fighting for. All the while, Gary Patterson proved that he could still field a bowl team out a group of third string starters and more.
And whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist, it would seem wise to choose the latter.
Through all the bad — with key injuries surfacing as quickly as fall camp — TCU’s defense still finished as the No. 1 unit in the Big 12, surrendering on average just 344.4 yards per game in a league where 100-point shootouts are far from uncommon.
Through all the woes on offense — including a streak of more than two months in which the Horned Frogs couldn’t hit 30 points in a game — Jalen Reagor became a 1,000 yard receiver and set a school record for most consecutive games with a touchdown catch; right as both a former Ivy League product and a 5th year senior who was never higher than third string earned unexpected chances to record their first ever wins as starters.
Math says TCU shouldn’t be playing another game in 2018. Teams who lose more 20 players to season-ending injuries just typically don’t last. It’s a simple as that. But yet here we are, and the Patterson and the Frogs still have one final matchup to get prepared for before the focus hits the offseason.
He may not view it as such right now. It may get passed up by other performances in the future. But I’ll go ahead and say it, because I think it’s only appropriate to recognize excellence — to give credit where credit is due:
This was, sneakily, one of the best coaching jobs Patterson has embarked on during his time at TCU.
No, there may not have been the spectacle that was dominant performance after dominant performance in 2014. There may not have been any Alamo Bowl comeback (well, at least not just yet) as there was in 2015. And no, this might not be a TCU team fighting through the mid-majors to earn respect on a national level when the blue-bloods would love for nothing more than to kick the small kid on the block straight down to the ground.
But getting a youthful team, ravaged by an unthinkable amount of injuries, to a bowl game after practically dismantling Oklahoma State’s high-powered offense — at least for 30 minutes — in the regular-season finale? That’s just something that most coaches wouldn’t be able to oversee.
No, non-winning regular seasons don’t look nice from afar. But make no mistake. This is — without any hesitation — the best finish TCU has ever seen under Patterson in the years where the Horned Frogs couldn’t finish above .500 by the end of the regular season.
Given the level of competition, better than 2001. Better than 2004. Better than 2013. And most certainly better than the last time the Horned Frogs went 6-6 in 2016.
Some people may call this season forgettable — at least in comparison to where the Frogs were as recently as 2014-2015. Only, who knows what TCU would have done had it not been for the “forgettable” (and I mean truly forgettable 2013 season) that spawned several major changes to the coaching staff and more that offseason. From Bill Snyder’s hiring at Kansas State in 1988 to Patterson’s hiring as defensive coordinator at TCU following a 1-win season in 1997, let it not be forgotten that every high usually — somehow — has its humblest beginnings amid the lowest of lows.
Who knows what 2019 — let alone the upcoming bowl game — may bring for TCU football. Maybe the Horned Frogs will be back in the national title conversation, as they were three of four seasons before this fall. Maybe they won’t, and there will still be more kinks to sort out.
Regardless, coaches and players alike refused to quit this fall when punting away the season seemed like the easiest option on the table. And as long as that bravery and determination stays within this program, the fans should never quit on them.
Let’s not dismiss the 2018 TCU Horned Frog football campaign as forgettable.