Sonny Dykes had only been head football coach at Texas Christian University for a couple of weeks last winter when he and wife Kate made the 122-mile drive south from Fort Worth to Temple. His to-do list was already long, but almost nothing was more important than visiting star wide receiver Quentin Johnston and convincing him to stay at TCU for the upcoming season.

Gary Patterson had been Johnston’s coach with the Horned Frogs for the past two years, and now, with TCU nudging Patterson out eight games into the 2021 season, Johnston knew the NCAA transfer portal was teeming with opportunities for him.

A coaching change can prompt a mass exodus of talent into the transfer portal, and in his first days at TCU, Dykes did everything he could to prevent players from leaving. Dykes had spent the previous five seasons as head coach at Southern Methodist University, and he had a keen understanding of how transfers could decimate a team—or, if pursued deftly, improve it. “There are different points of view,” Dykes told me last fall. “I choose to view it as an opportunity to improve our roster. And I view it as an opportunity for young people, if they made a mistake, to rectify it. The first thing I did [at TCU] was start recruiting our current players. You have to get in front of things so much more now than you ever had to in the past. It’s just different now.”

To explain how the 12–1 Horned Frogs, picked during the preseason to finish seventh in the Big 12, just had one of their best seasons ever and will play Michigan in a national semifinal game Saturday, that drive Sonny and Kate Dykes took to Temple is a good place to start. After he accepted the TCU job, Dykes vowed to do as much as he could to keep the team’s roster intact. Yes, he and his coaches also planned to recruit transfers from other schools, but first on the agenda was retaining veteran talent, beginning with star wide receiver Johnston.

When Dykes and Kate hopped in the car to visit Johnston at his family home in Temple, they thought it would be the first of approximately twenty off-season house calls they’d make to see TCU players all over Texas. A COVID-19 outbreak just about halved that number, but the message Dykes delivered to Johnston and the other Horned Frogs players he managed to visit still made its way through the program. “One of the very first things I said to the players was, ‘Just so everybody’s on the same page, you are my guys,’ ” Dykes told the Athletic. “‘I didn’t bring you in, but I’m not gonna sit up there after a loss and say, ‘Wait ‘til I get my guys.’ Because I don’t believe in that.”

Quentin’s parents, Sherry and Carl Johnston, welcomed the Dykeses into their home, served them food, and exchanged telephone numbers during a two-hour visit. The Johnstons were sold. “Coach Dykes, he’s just warm,” Carl told the Athletic. “He’s easy to talk to. Just the way he carries himself, I like his disposition.” Sherry added: “It made me feel really comfortable, knowing he was going to be taking over.”

Quentin Johnston remembered how, weeks after Dykes had sat in his living room, the new coach announced that any players without Easter Sunday plans would be welcome at the Dykeses’ home. “They basically opened the house up to anybody who didn’t have anywhere to go,” Johnston told the Athletic. “That alone kinda opened everybody’s eyes that he really cares about us. This is a guy I want to go, day-in and day-out, and fight for.”

Johnston’s decision to remain at TCU paid off. This season, in addition to the team’s success, he caught 53 passes for 903 yards and is projected to be a top-fifteen pick in next spring’s NFL Draft.

Few NCAA football programs managed the last off-season more effectively than TCU did. The Horned Frogs lost twelve players, including some good ones. But Dykes held onto key contributors, including Johnston, and acquired fourteen transfers in a class ranked thirteenth by 247Sports.    

“We wouldn’t be where we are had we not added those [transfer] players,” Dykes told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s a way to fix your program quickly.” TCU’s starting defense includes several transfers, including first-team All-Big 12 cornerback Josh Newton and second-team all-conference linebacker Johnny Hodges. Hodges is a former lacrosse player who had been a part-time starter at Navy. When he entered the transfer portal, only TCU expressed an interest. He led the Horned Frogs with 76 tackles and was named Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year. Newton earned All-Big 12 honors as the starting cornerback opposite senior mainstay Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, who earlier this month won the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation’s best defensive back.

Dykes’ management of the comings and goings of the transfer portal has been impressive, but it wouldn’t have meant a thing if the coach hadn’t been able to build a cohesive team amid all that change. TCU defeated five ranked opponents this season, tied with Tennessee for most in the nation. The Horned Frogs also consistently rallied to win close games, including six come-from-behind victories

The Frogs scored 28 straight points to overcome an 18-point deficit in an October win over Kansas State. Quarterback Max Duggan, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Johnston to beat Kansas with 96 ticks left on the clock. TCU beat Baylor by scoring nine points in the final two minutes and seven seconds. In that one, they hustled the field-goal unit onto the field with no timeouts and got Griffin Kell lined up for a 40-yard kick at the buzzer.

Amid those close calls were a 31-point beatdown of Oklahoma and a 48-point rout of Iowa State. The TCU defense allowed Texas just 199 total yards in a 17–10 win in Austin. TCU’s magic finally ran out in a 31–28 overtime loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game. 

“I think our team has been a really gritty, competitive team that’s got a lot of confidence,” Dykes said at a pre–College Football Playoff press conference this week. “That’s the key. When you have a team that can overcome deficits, it really comes down to a belief in each other and confidence in each other. And confidence comes from a work ethic and an understanding that our team has put the work in, paid the price, done what they need to do.

“So if things don’t go our way early in ball games, we don’t panic,” he continued. “Guys keep grinding, keep working. . . . We’re a team that’s never really paid much attention to the scoreboard. We just keep on playing.”

In a season when the Horned Frogs were forced to rally late over and over again, a season when almost no one outside the program knew what to expect from them, they have become the first Texas team to make the College Football Playoff and just the second team to make it after beginning the season unranked. 

“We’re excited to get out there and kind of show what we can do,” guard Wes Harris said this week. “But it’s also big for TCU. I don’t think we’ve been on the map—or a scale this big—in quite a long time.”