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TCU vs. Baylor and 3 big questions that could ultimately decide the Big 12

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The 110th meeting between Baylor and TCU is by far the biggest, with the lead in the Big 12 and a top-five ranking in the Week 8 polls at stake (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2).

Baylor and TCU had already circled this one on the calendar anyway.

The Bears have always had what TCU wanted, a chance to compete with the big boys in a big conference. Watching power-conference Baylor squander those opportunities for years while TCU slowly built its mid-major program through the Dennis Franchione and Gary Patterson eras, only to see Baylor explode once the Frogs finally reached the same stage, has filled TCU fans with hate.

For eight-point favorite Baylor's own part, it has a healthy fear of Patterson's anti-spread wizardry, which has made the Frogs a nemesis for the Bears. Art Briles has a 2-2 record at Baylor against TCU, and the sum of the scoreboards reads 180-122 in Patterson's advantage.

This is possibly the biggest Big 12 rivalry either team has. And now both teams are undefeated and ranked in the top 10. It's one of the biggest football games Waco has hosted, and it'll be the first big game held within the beautiful confines of McLane Stadium.

They should go ahead and name McLane the Thunderdome, because only one contender is going to come out of this game alive. Here are three themes to this game that will shape Baylor and TCU's big moment on the stage.

1. Where is this rivalry trending?

Perhaps the first nationally relevant game these teams shared in their 115-year series was in 2011. RG3 hit the Heisman radar with a 21-of-27 performance that netted 359 yards, five touchdowns, and zero interceptions in a 50-48 upset of the No. 15 Frogs. TCU was in the midst of a rebuild after losing most of its Rose Bowl-winning defense. The Bears shredded a young corner named Jason Verrett, a future first-round pick.

The following year, No. 23 TCU sharpened its approach to Briles' juggernaut offense and managed to stop the run and pick off Nick Florence four times despite also yielding 15 yards per pass attempt. In week two of replacing TCU QB Casey Pachall, Trevone Boykin ripped the Bear defense for four touchdowns.

Last year, TCU mastered the art of taking away both the deep pass and the run against the No. 9 Bears, but was done in, 41-38, thanks to four turnovers.

Patterson has influenced how the Big 12 defends the spread and Baylor's variety of the attack. His main tactic has been to play TCU's various quarters coverages, but to show deep and wide safeties as well as wide outside linebackers. That encourages run reads by Baylor. TCU then sneaks players back toward the box before the snap:

TCU has a very experienced defense coming into this game, as well as an offense ranked 12th in S&P, but Baylor has some strong trend lines in its favor as well. It has another strong defense, senior QB Bryce Petty, and is getting healthy at WR at the right time.

Baylor is due to bring something extra to this game tactically. Or else it risks TCU mastering anti-Baylor tactics with one comprehensive game plan and establishing dominance of Texas' current top-10 rivalry.

2. How does TCU handle Baylor's pressure?

Since RG3 took Baylor to the national stage in 2011, the Bears are 21-1 in Waco. That includes a 4-0 home mark against Texas and Oklahoma, a 2012 upset over Big 12 champion Kansas State, and some blowout offensive performances. While playing well on the road has come slowly, Briles' program is no stranger to playing well in big-time games in Waco.

The "1" in "21-1" was TCU in 2012. For TCU, this isn't a chance to take on Wisconsin after a month's preparation or an opportunity to catch OU by surprise at home before the Sooners play Texas. The Frogs will have the Bears' full attention in a hostile environment.

How do they handle that pressure?

And then there's the kind of pressure you can see on your TV screen, the pressure that Baylor's defense loves to put on people. Baylor ranks No. 7 in tackles for loss per game. The Bears are currently ranked third nationally in defensive S&P (TCU is 18th). They love to crowd the line of scrimmage like the Michigan State Spartans, with the safeties within 10 yards and the cornerbacks often in press coverage on the outside. They bully and destroy weaker opponents in a fashion that other defenses don't attempt.

Even against a spread alignment, they will crowd you out and dare you to beat them over the top (And if you do? Fine, now we get the ball back!) or else get smothered and quickly punt it back:

TCU's victory over the Sooners last week came largely as a result of strategies the Frogs employed to spread out the Sooner defense, keeping pass rusher Eric Striker as far from TCU QB Boykin as possible.

They did this in a few different ways, including using super-wide splits:

TCU wide 2x2

As the field-side linebacker, Striker has to be available on non-blitz plays to take away quick inside routes by the slot receiver. Thus in these sets, he's forced to line up a mile from the QB. TCU would also use insanely wide splits by the offensive line or trips sets to force him wide.

Unlike Oklahoma, Baylor's best pass rushers line up at DE and can't be removed from the equation with spread concepts. They'll also respond differently to TCU's preferred passing plays.

TCU uses spread alignments to create easy reads and easy throws for Boykin, who is having by far his best season (140.86 passer rating after two years in the 120s) in this new offense. However, Baylor will take away quick in-breaking routes of this variety and force him to take some time to make a read or to be consistently accurate on outside breaking routes.

How will Boykin handle the biggest game of his life, with an incoming Shawn Oakman (6'9, 280 pounds, five sacks) in front of a raucous crowd?

The best bet for TCU is to heavily feature the run game, which has some versatility thanks to Boykin's own prodigious skill, a powerful line, some good backs, and a pair of blocking tight ends. It ranks No. 28 in yards per attempt.

Baylor has taken a few steps backwards in run defense on the weakside, with Eddie Lackey's replacement now injured against TCU and Ahmad Dixon's head-hunting replaced by Orion Stewart's pass-oriented skills. Texas was able to drive the Bears off the ball some in the run game, running at the weakside for 4.8 yards per carry despite a makeshift OL.

3. Can Baylor's passing game get back on track?

Charlie Strong nearly shut down Bryce Petty. The would-be Heisman-winner went only seven-of-22 through the air for 111 yards at five yards per attempt.

Iowa State actually limited the Bear passing game some as well, holding Petty to 7.6 yards per attempt, rather than his 2013 season's 10.4. The Cyclones followed the Patterson plan, showing deep quarters safeties and wide linebackers before hurrying into the box.

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For all the hype regarding Baylor's receives, they've struggled over the last 10 games or so when they've faced deeper secondaries. One suggestion is that Baylor has actually regressed over the last few years in terms of having experienced, freakish athletes who are impossible matchups at WR. In 2011, they had Tevin Reese, Terrance Williams, and Kendall Wright, three aliens who were impossibly quick and hard to defend on vertical routes.

In 2012, it was just Reese and Williams. In 2013, Antwan Goodley and Reese, and the latter was injured for lackluster performances such as the loss at Oklahoma State.

Goodley has been an explosive player, but otherwise the Bears' better receiving talent is in the 2014 freshman class, led by KD Cannon. It's not clear that the Baylor passing game has enough to overwhelm opponents with skilled DBs who can sit on top of Briles' deep routes.

On the flip side, it's not clear that TCU is one of those teams. Oklahoma got the Frogs in trouble several times with a new wrinkle, placing Sterling Shepard in the slot and throwing him on bender routes up the seam:

A page from Baylor's playbook. Play action and a double move by a slot receiver against a helpless safety. Derrick Kindred was burned more than once this way against OU.

The problem for TCU is when Baylor plays with tight end Tre'Von Armstead on the field and three WRs.

TCU vs Baylor S20F

The problem comes in covering that Y receiver, particularly on play-action plays. The strong safety ($) needs to be an active part of stopping the run, or else that H (Armstead) can motion over and give Baylor a running numbers advantage. Likewise, the weak safety (W) must leave the boundary corner in one-on-one coverage with the Z receiver. Covering a good slot receiver with all of that grass and no help underneath is a difficult task for a 210-pound, run-stuffer like Kindred, or really anyone else.

This would be a good time for freshly landed alien Cannon to have a big game in the slot for the Bears after a quiet performance against Texas.

If Baylor were to use four-receiver sets, TCU could play dime with both Kindred and Sam Carter in and a quicker safety over the top. Or the Frogs could play another CB at SS, leave Kindred deep, and play Carter underneath. But TCU is left sending out several big tacklers and not many coverage players.

The TCU cornerbacks are still strong, with veteran Kevin White at one spot. But redshirt freshman Ranthony Texada may be due for some learning experiences against this Bear offense, like Verrett back in 2011. This Frog secondary is excellent overall, but it doesn't have an abundance of coverage specialists, as Oklahoma demonstrated.

Prognosis

TCU played an outstanding game against Oklahoma and had a host of anti-Sooner wrinkles in its game plan that allowed a 37-33 upset in Fort Worth. However, it's not clear that the Frogs' defense matches up quite as well against Baylor's passing game this season, or that Boykin can continue his run of excellence against a defense that won't allow itself to be stretched so thin underneath.

If Baylor starts scoring, as it generally has in this series, can TCU keep up? The rise of Baylor's defense and its sizable home-field advantage should be enough to carry it through against its rivals.