ARLINGTON, Texas -- No. 3 TCU's unforgettable 2022 season has been defined by its best players coming up big in the biggest moments to some how, some way, pull it out in the end. Perhaps that's why Horned Frogs quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Max Duggan was in tears after his team's 31-28 overtime loss to No. 10 Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game.
After 10 straight games without a bye against arguably the toughest schedule in major college football, TCU finally came up short. It's something that's probably felt inevitable at various points throughout the team's captivating ride toward the College Football Playoff, but it nevertheless arrived at a tough time with the program's first outright Big 12 championship on the line.
"There's nothing more that I want than to bring this school a championship," said an emotional Duggan. "Today we fell short. I didn't make enough plays to help us offensively ... I think that's where it hurts the most is that you've been so down before, so low. To get so close and it falls short."
Without Duggan, it may not have been close at all.
The TCU quarterback pulled together one of the signature individual efforts of the college football season with his team down 28-20 with just under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Facing third-and-15 from the TCU 30-yard line, Duggan ran 32 yards over back-to-back plays to move into Kansas State territory. He then broke off an improbable 40-yard scramble down the sideline to set up an 8-yard touchdown scamper one play later. Duggan then found tight end Jared Wiley for the 2-point conversion to force overtime.
After running for 95 yards on an 80-yard touchdown drive because of penalties, Duggan collapsed red-faced on the turf with exhaustion.
"Typical Max Duggan performance," said TCU coach Sonny Dykes. "Gritty, tough, made plays when he had to. Did everything he could to give us a chance to win. Did exactly what Max does. I think if you watch this game today, I think it's pretty clear that he's certainly deserving to, if not win the Heisman Trophy, to certainly be in the conversation.
"The guy is one of the best players in college football," Dykes continued. "I think it's pretty obvious."
Duggan was far from perfect Saturday. An interception in the end zone late in the third quarter squandered a TCU scoring opportunity, and his throws were a little high to start the game. Still, Duggan showed just how important he has been to putting together one of the most unlikely seasons in Big 12 history.
Despite coming off the bench during the first game, Duggan has cleared 3,000 yards passing, 400 yards rushing and 35 total touchdowns. He led four game-winning drives and was inches away from a fifth. No player outside of USC quarterback Caleb Williams has swung more games in college football this year or elevated a team that so recently missed a bowl game.
There's not much question that Williams is a more talented football player than Duggan; every school in the country wanted Williams out of high school and he can make every throw, and he may still win the Heisman Trophy despite losing his biggest game of the year in Friday's Pac-12 Championship Game. But in the fourth quarter of the Big 12 Championship Game, Duggan showed how critical he has been to TCU's success while sacrificing his body to the brink of exhaustion. Despite playing multiple games without healthy versions of receiver Quentin Johnston and running back Kendre Miller, Duggan carried the Frogs to 12-0.
Heisman voters, don't discount it.
"[Max] really brings the team up every time we get in sort of a dark place, the usual ups and downs throughout a football game," wide receiver Quentin Johnston said. "He's always the one to come, especially with the offense, kind of be that spark."
TCU's attention turns to the 13 people down the road at the Gaylord Texan who make up the College Football Playoff committee. The Frogs have been screwed before, missing out on the 2014 playoff due to the lack of a Big 12 title game and falling out of the 2017 New Year's Six selection because of it. Prayers will be flying across Fort Worth, Texas, in hopes that the same fate doesn't occur again.
"Look, we were literally an inch away from winning the game or certainly having a chance to and being 13-0," Dykes said. "My hope is they see it the same way I saw it and realize, 'Hey, look, this is a team that certainly the résumé is good enough and we deserve to be a part of it. Our hope was to not have to rely on a beauty contest. Our hope was to kick the door down and make sure that we were Big 12 champs and there was no discussion about it.
"I'm concerned, obviously, but again, I've got faith in the committee. I know that we deserve to be in, so my guess is we'll be in."
Playoff status -- the Frogs are likely in the CFP field anyway at No. 3,-- and Heisman chatter don't seem front of mind for Duggan, but the latter is clearly unavoidable. Even in TCU's first loss of the season, Duggan turned in the kind of performance that should at least get him to New York.