“TCU, Baylor and Utah are legitimate top contenders for a spot in the College Football Playoff” is a phrase no college football fan 15 or 20 years ago would have ever thought would be possible to say with a straight face. College football sure has changed, or evolved, over time and perhaps no other season illustrates that as well as this season that continues to unfold.
If you were a college football fan in the early or mid-1990s and went into a coma for 20 years to awake to college football today, boy would you be in for a shock. TCU, Utah and Baylor are top national title contenders and Tennessee, Nebraska and Colorado are not? And what conferences are these teams in? Yikes. Anyone who ever tries to tell you college football does not change has a complete ignorance for the history of the game, and the last 20 years are evidence of that. We have seen a massive reformation of how the national title is decided, twice. Programs have grown out of seemingly nowhere to become top 25 teams worthy of big bowl invitations (Boise State). IT’s true that the blueblood programs like Alabama and Ohio State will always be nationally relevant and in the national title hunt every so often, but the balance of power has shifted slightly to other programs that have planned for a long-term growth by investing in its football program.
TCU’s story has been one of my favorites to watch. A long time member of the old Southwest Conference, TCU was left behind by Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor when the four teamed up with the Big 8 to form the Big 12 in 1996. TCU went on a search for a permanent conference home that included stints in the WAC, Conference USA and Mountain Wets Conference before ultimately accepting an invitation to join the Big East. That, uh, didn’t exactly pan out as TCU accepted an invitation to join the Big 12. TCU in the Big 12 just made too much sense and was the obvious choice once the invitation finally came.
Gary Patterson has been the helm of the program since 2000 (as an interim coach in 2000) and he has been a constant steady rock for the program through so many changes and has directed the program in the right direction toward a bigger goal, a national championship. Under Patterson, TCU has grown to be a top BCS-busting threat and now, for the second straight year, TCU is a legitimate national title contender — TCU has been a top 10 team since October 26, 2014. The Horned Frogs are coming off the ultimate display of the evolution of college football with a thrashing of the Texas Longhorns. There may not be another game that better demonstrates how much this game has changed. Texas losing 50-7 to TCU is nothing short of embarrassing for the Longhorns program, one that has slipped down the pecking order in its own state by the likes of Texas A&M, TCU and Baylor.
Baylor’s rise from the ashes of college football has been fascinating. Since leaving the Southwest Conference for the Big 12, Baylor had 14 straight losing seasons from 1996 through 2009. Art Briles, who took over in 2008, was starting to build something with the program though, and he hit a home run with the recruitment of Robert Griffin III. RGIII showed great promise in his freshman season but missed the majority of the 2009 season with an ACL injury. When he came back though, Baylor was ready to take off. Baylor has now had three seasons of 10 wins or more since 2011, a feat nobody could have ever predicted if they had watched Baylor anytime since 1903. What remains to be seen is if this is the new norm or simply a temporary high in Waco.
One might even wonder the same about what is happening in Salt Lake City with the Utah Utes. Utah has had its success in the past, but it has been a while since we thought of Utah in the national title conversation as we do now. Sure, Utah finished the 2008 season as the No. 2 team in the nation with a 13-0 record and a victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and they finished No. 4 with a 12-0 record in 2004, but neither season saw Utah as an actual national title contender because they played in the Mountain West Conference. But now things are different. Utah is rising in the polls as a member of the Pac-12 and in what many believe to be the toughest division in college football (Pac-12 South). Utah’s blowout win at Oregon was seen by many to be a changing of the guard in the conference, and a win against Michigan (I believe to be the most improved team in the nation so far) have many buzzing about Utah, but I still think nobody gets out of the Pac-12 South without a loss so we will see if the Utes keep chugging forward.
This is why I like watching the Group of Five conferences the way I do. Somewhere in that bunch there is a program trying to become the next TCU or Utah. Could it be Cincinnati? Or Memphis? At some point I still think the Big 12 is going to open the door for two new programs, so somebody is going to have a chance to live the same dreams fans of TCU and Utah are living right now. Who knows what teams we will be talking about in the national championship conversation 20 years from now?