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Max Duggan led the Frogs in rushing and passing during Saturday’s championship-game loss, but this year’s team became the first Texas-based and non-OU squad to qualify for the four-team playoff since its inception. Courtesy TCU Athletics

The fairytale hasn’t ended. Rather, the story has taken a turn for the real, and that’s OK.

Hypnotoad’s power stretched too thin on Saturday afternoon as the Frogs fell to Kansas State in overtime and let the conference championship — which should have already been decided on the field during the season — slip away. Undoubtedly, the loss led to some crabby evenings and a sleepless Sunday waiting inevitably for the playoff selection committee to screw TCU yet again, but this time, that didn’t happen. Sonny Dykes’ upstart squad retained their third-place ranking and became the first Texas-based university and non-OU Big 12 squad to qualify for the playoff. Their opponents are the undefeated champions of the Big 10 — which, curiously, has 14 teams — the Michigan Wolverines, who are the bluest of bloods in the college football universe.

Their team colors notwithstanding, U of M is the winningest college football program ever. The maize and blue are just 11 victories shy of 1,000 all time, and their nemesis, Ohio State, are in second place and would need three undefeated regular seasons to catch Michigan, assuming “that team up north” lost every game during the same span.

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How did TCU manage to lose their conference championship game and remain in contention for a national title? Narrative. I’m not going to posit that Dykes’ Frogs are the best team in the country, because I don’t think that’s true, but they are undoubtedly and it’s not even close the best story in college football. The Funkytowners were unranked to start and won five spats with second-half comebacks while surviving their conference slate. They found themselves in familiar territory in Arlington last weekend, trailing by 11 in the championship with a pair of possessions remaining. The team of destiny as they’ve been called by many tied the game before losing in overtime but not before a Heisman-moment performance from their quarterback, who has the most compelling individual story in the game. It’s the stuff of legend. No one, especially not me, thought TCU’s loss would improve their story, but it has.

The boogeyman selection committee has bestowed official respect onto Purple Nation, who will advance to compete for the grand prize. I don’t believe a great season by a run-of-the-mill squad with TCU’s national media draw would have moved forward, but the Frogs have character, and the nation wants to see more.

Many criticisms can and should be levied at TCU for the KSU game at JerryWorld. There will be gripes about the officials Kendre Miller should have been given a TD in overtime, by the way and questions about who should have rushed the ball. If I had one complaint (I have many), it’s that TCU’s offensive playcalling seemed especially vanilla. Not Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla but 99-cent QuikTrip “I’m not sure if this is supposed to be ice cream or frozen yogurt, but it’s bland as hell!” vanilla. Still, it set the stage for the drive that solidified something that TCU fans have known for a while: Heisman candidate Max Duggan deserves the trophy and awarding him this honor would be a stopgap for a sport that is losing its case in the court of public perception.

Allow me to explain. To the casual fan, college football’s less than subtle professionalization is becoming a turnoff. Rules have changed, and norms have shifted. This month, instead of just the inevitable coaching carousel of hires and fires, avid followers will be watching the transfer portal with a microscope and high school recruits will be graduating early to be handed $100,000 checks, if they played their senior seasons at all. People yearn for a simpler time of collegiate pigskin, when players were paid only with undisclosed manila envelopes and off-the-books car leases. Eighteen-year-olds used to half-marry a university and be locked in for four years regardless of the situation. I’ve never been one to judge or favor mandates of what someone can do with their own body and labor — I’m not a Texas legislator, after all but the new landscape of constant transferring and big money NIL deals have inspired a stark “get off my lawn” reaction from many.

Heisman voters, mostly made up of talking heads and former winners of the award, can help quell the negative perceptions, and it might be their last chance. Recently, I compared Max Duggan to former Heisman winner Tim Tebow and thought inviting Duggan to the ceremony was warranted. Things have escalated after championship weekend. Mad Max needs to and deserves to — win the Heisman Trophy. Two quarterbacks, USC’s Caleb Williams and OSU’s CJ Stroud, were the previous favorites. Stroud was presumably eliminated following the Buckeyes embarrassing home loss at the claws of the Wolverines, and Williams, who was an extreme odds favorite going into last weekend, failed at another attempt, this time handily, to beat Utah, leaving only Georgia’s Stetson Bennett, who barely got dirt on his uniform all season long. Duggan lost as well as Williams and Stroud but not before conducting a late game-tying drive in which the bashed and bloody senior accounted for 95 rushing yards and a touchdown before passing for the two-point conversion to force overtime.

Despite the Frogs loss, the game can’t be mentioned without marveling at Max’s warrior nature and the titanium in his veins with an undefeated season on the line. The Duggan legend thickened as the tearful leader sat answering questions from reporters with a face as red as his hair. His vulnerability would destroy any critic who thinks these kids just compete for a paycheck and an NFL tryout. Duggan is a relic, an artifact of a sporting world which may never exist again. The Iowan signed with TCU without concern for NIL money because there wasn’t any then. He fought when it seemed his football career might not continue at all after he had heart and blood-clot surgery. He stuck with TCU when their offense was one of the worst units in FBS. He fought when the coach who recruited him was separated and when the new coach said he’d be the backup to a promising younger player. Duggan has accounted for 96 touchdowns in his career (which, in theory, could continue next year) while improving his passing stats every season, and he appeared in 45 games. The Heisman for Duggan is a lifetime achievement award, and there might never be another one-school senior like him in this position again. Duggan is as hard-working, resilient, and real as we’d all want our kids to be. He’s the kind of person you’d want your daughter or son or nonbinary child — to marry. The Heisman voters have a chance to revive and rekindle the perception of college football by handing the trophy to a player everyone agrees embodies all of its best values.

1 COMMENT

  1. Superb commentary and superb writing. Thank you for this. Sums up my thoughts exactly about Max Duggan and his accomplishments.

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