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Led by Heisman hopeful quarterback Trevone Boykin and the eighth-ranked passing attack in the country, TCU hasn't simply caught up to the Big 12: It's hoping to make the jump from 4--8 to the final four

WITH 13:47 left in the third quarter last Saturday, TCU junior quarterback Trevone Boykin dropped back to pass from the Kansas State 19-yard line. Unable to find an open receiver, he abandoned the pocket, then burst into what turned into a gaping hole up the middle. He streaked past the 15 to the 10 to the 5, where a pair of Wildcats finally forced him to consider his next move. "Our team needed a spark, and somebody had to make a play," Boykin said later with a shrug and a laugh. "I looked to my left and my right and saw two guys closing in. You either dive or jump, so I jumped."

Seated among the 48,012 at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Nikita Boykin was not pleased by what was unfolding. As she watched her oldest child go airborne, she sighed and thought about what she had told him again and again: If it doesn't make sense, don't do it. Choosing to imitate a helicopter with two missiles approaching—that did not make sense.

The K-State defenders slammed into Boykin's legs, sending the 6'2" 205-pounder head over heels—a fitting image for both the quarterback and his team. Over the last three years Boykin has been in and out of the starting lineup and rotating between QB and wide receiver, while the program has struggled to achieve liftoff in the high-powered Big 12. But in flipping into the end zone (and, to Nikita's chagrin, landing flat on his back), Boykin put the sixth-ranked Horned Frogs up 24--7 on their way to a persuasive 41--20 victory over No. 7 Kansas State, a win that not only catapulted Boykin high up the Heisman leader board but also possibly crash-landed TCU—unranked to start the season—in the first College Football Playoff.

Only two Power Five teams remain unbeaten: Mississippi State and Florida State. The Horned Frogs are 8--1, their lone blemish a 61--58 loss at No. 8 Baylor on Oct. 11 in which they surrendered 24 points in the last 11 minutes. The combined record of TCU's three remaining opponents: 10--18.

The team's drive for the playoff is likely intertwined with Boykin's chances at the Heisman, and it's impossible to say which seemed less plausible in August, after a 4--8 season in which Boykin was benched. In his first year as a full-time starter, he has thrown for 2,691 yards and 23 touchdowns, with just four interceptions; he has also run for 546 yards and seven more scores. "It's not a distraction," Boykin says of the Heisman talk. "We kind of laugh about it, joke about it, because who would have thought?"

NOT GARY PATTERSON. When TCU moved from the Mountain West to the Big 12, the coach predicted it would take his team three years to adjust. That proved prophetic, though he didn't seem to think Boykin would be the one who would lead the Horned Frogs to the top.

As a redshirt freshman, Boykin took over for the final nine games after junior Casey Pachall was suspended for a DWI charge. Boykin threw for 1,980 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for 417 yards, as the team, which started 4--0, wobbled to 7--6, including a 17--16 loss to Michigan State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Pachall reclaimed the job in 2013, and Boykin started the opener against LSU at receiver. But Pachall injured his left wrist in the second game, and Boykin once again stepped in, going 2--3 before Pachall replaced him in his sixth start. Over the course of the season Boykin became the first player in TCU history to have a 100-yard receiving game, a 100-yard rushing game and a 200-yard passing game.

The Frogs finished eighth in the Big 12 in 2013 and 104th in the nation in offense. Patterson, who had won the '11 Rose Bowl and earned the Big 12 invite by building a defense-first powerhouse, realized he needed to score more to compete in his new offense-happy conference, so he brought in two disciples of the Air Raid scheme as co--offensive coordinators, Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham. Meacham had been the tight ends and receivers coach at Oklahoma State, where he learned the Air Raid from current West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen and his replacement as OC in Stillwater, Todd Monken. Cumbie had absorbed the system playing for coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech and as an assistant in Lubbock, including a year as co--offensive coordinator under Kliff Kingsbury in 2013.

The new coordinators arrived at the same time as Matt Joeckel, a fifth-year transfer from Texas A&M, where he had played in the Air Raid while backing up Johnny Manziel. Almost every preseason evaluation of the Frogs assumed Joeckel would be the starter, but Boykin wasn't ready to concede. He received encouragement from Cumbie, who watched tape of each of the 468 passes Boykin had thrown over the previous two seasons and felt that despite Boykin's erratic play, his strong arm and running ability made him a perfect fit for the Air Raid.

"There are times that you doubt yourself," Boykin says, "but when things are not going good, part of being a leader is that you can't show those emotions or tell anybody what you're really feeling."

With Cumbie's encouragement, Boykin was able to draw out the quarterback that, he says, "has always been in me." He beat out Joeckel in August and, his confidence surging, has played with a swagger that recalls the self-belief of two other quarterbacks from the Lone Star State—Robert Griffin III and Manziel. Boykin has even impressed the coach who called plays for Manziel during the former Aggie's Heisman-winning season of 2012. "They're letting [Boykin] freelance," Kingsbury says. "You can tell they're not cutting the field in half. It's all progression read stuff. Then you incorporate the quarterback run stuff, and it's just like the perfect storm. It's pretty much impossible to stop unless they turn the ball over. That's the beauty of having a guy like that. Because even if it all falls apart, he's still going to somehow make a play out of it."

That playmaking ability was apparent on Nov. 1 at West Virginia. With Heisman hype building, Boykin connected on just 11 of his first 29 passes for 126 yards and an interception, and the Horned Frogs trailed 30--28. Then, with less than two minutes remaining, he threw a 40-yard strike to junior receiver Kolby Listenbee to set up Jaden Oberkrom's 37-yard field goal and a 31--30 win. Still, Boykin felt personally responsible for TCU's offensive woes that day and orbited the locker room apologizing to teammates. Cumbie pulled him aside for a pep talk. "There's no way you can be perfect for 12 games," the coach told him. "Today was not our day throwing the football."

After the West Virginia game and during the run-up to Kansas State, Patterson kept Boykin from speaking to reporters. "I think [the West Virginia game] put everything in perspective," Patterson says crisply, adding that Boykin has played considerably better when he isn't surrounded by media in the week leading up to a game.

The coach didn't love Boykin's bravado on the dive for the end zone last Saturday, but he understood it. "There's a lot of things I'm not comfortable with," Patterson says, "but those are the things that make him good." It was hard to complain since Boykin played close to error-free football against the Wildcats, passing for 219 yards and running for 123. Against the Big 12's best defense—which had surrendered just 100.9 rushing yards per game—the Horned Frogs gained 553 total yards, including 334 on the ground.

BEFORE EACH TCU home date, Nikita and family—she has four other children ages three to eight—gather at her sister's home to make signs. That tradition dates to Trevone's days at West Mesquite (Texas) High, where as a senior he racked up 4,729 yards of total offense and 58 touchdowns. Mike Overton, Boykin's high school coach, remembers the spring of 2008, when Trevone transferred from across town. As he watched Trevone throw 30-yard darts, Overton called in his coaches and said, "We've just uncovered a gold mine." After Boykin torched Texas Tech on Oct. 25 with seven touchdown passes in an 82--27 win, Overton, whose current team at Mesquite Horn High is 9--1 and ranked 19th in Class 6A by Texas Football, texted his former star, "More people are calling me about you than they are about my own team!"

Nikita raised Trevone in the Dallas area, and for a while they bounced from home to home. At one point they resided in the South Dallas projects. "I don't really remember much [about living there]," Trevone says, "but anytime you're in a place like that it's a struggle. You just try to find ways to beat it and find a way to get out of it." Nikita chooses to remember it for the good: She signed Trevone up for Pop Warner football at the local Boys & Girls Club, and when she watched him shine for the West Dallas Vikings, she started to think that her boy might be special.

Trevone's grandparents Marvin and Janice Smith intervened when he was in the seventh grade; he would go live with them in Mesquite "until I got myself together," Nikita says, declining to elaborate. At his grandparents' house Trevone lived with six of his cousins (three boys, three girls) who were close to his age. "I was an only child at the time, and it felt like I needed to be around more kids," Trevone says. "We played ball together, grew up together, played on the same high school team. Grandma brought us up, and she spoiled us."

Nikita remained a part of Trevone's life but even after she got her own place, Trevone stayed with his grandparents. "I thought he should be somewhere more stable, where he had friends," she says. "I didn't think I should take him away when he was settled." The approach worked, and Overton recalls Trevone as a charismatic jokester who was popular with his teammates. A three-star recruit, he chose TCU, the only FBS school to recruit him as a quarterback.

Throughout that time Trevone also stayed in contact with his father, Rodrick Smith, who lives around Dallas and comes to TCU games as often as he can. When he does, he sees Nikita and Grandma Janice waving their homemade signs and screaming. More than a few times this season, Nikita says, her son's rapid ascension has moved her to "happy tears."

WITH THREE games left, Boykin's mission is simple: Win at Kansas and Texas before finishing at home against Iowa State. If TCU pulls off that sweep, Boykin will almost certainly be a Heisman finalist, but his team's destiny is less clear. Baylor, which is also 8--1, leads the conference race by virtue of that three-point, head-to-head win, and with no championship game in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs can't settle the score. A loss by the Bears—they play Oklahoma State, Texas Tech (on a neutral field, in Arlington) and Kansas State—would clear the way for TCU to claim the league title, but that would also diminish the Frogs' strength of schedule.

All TCU can do is win each of its last three games as convincingly as possible and hope that's enough to land one of the four playoff spots. Will it work? Who knows. But in this great leap into the unknown, the Horned Frogs do have Trevone Boykin leading the way. He's shown that he knows what to do when a goal is in sight.

With Cumbie's help, Boykin was able to draw out the QB that, he says, "has always been in me."

"The beauty of having a guy like Boykin," says Kingsbury, is that "even if it all falls apart, he's still going to somehow make a play."


Photograph by Darren Carroll for Sports Illustrated

ESCAPE VELOCITY In his first season as a full-time starter, Boykin has gained more than 3,200 yards; he shredded Kansas State for 219 through the air and another 123 on the ground.


Photographs by Darren Carroll for Sports Illustrated

GOOD BALANCE Junior back Aaron Green (22), a Nebraska transfer, rushed for 171 yards and a TD against K-State.


Photograph by Darren Carroll for Sports Illustrated

PASSING MUSTER Boykin, who was moved to receiver last season, now finds himself at the center of TCU's offense and the Heisman chatter.