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Why longtime underdog TCU is a 2015 national championship favorite

A blueblood just won it all. A bunch of longtime powers are in the running for next year. Also leading the pack is TCU, which was a mid-major just four years ago.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

For those of you just joining us, the confetti is still falling on Ohio State's title celebration in the inaugural College Football Playoff, OSU's eighth claimed national championship. The Buckeyes will bring back scads of talent and seem to have a never-ending supply of great quarterbacks, so they will rightfully be listed as a good bet to repeat as champions.

However, the TCU Horned Frogs should be right there with them, despite claiming no national championships since 1938, being left out of the original Big 12 in 1996 before clawing their way in three seasons ago, and boasting a student enrollment of about 10,000, dwarfed by Ohio State's 57,000-plus.

The Frogs were probably the most improved team in the country in 2014. They jumped from 4-8 (2-7 in the Big 12) in 2013 to 12-1 (8-1 in the Big 12) in 2014. Considering head coach Gary Patterson's record of eight 11-win seasons across three conferences since 2003, it's now clear 2013 was a slump, not a sign that TCU couldn't compete in the Big 12.

That bounceback was due in large part to the drastic improvement of quarterback Trevone Boykin. Let's set the stage.

In 2013, the sophomore completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 1,198 yards, seven touchdowns, and seven interceptions while trading quarterback duties with Casey Pachall.

In 2014, Boykin completed 61.2 percent for 3,901 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while rushing for 707 yards and eight touchdowns. He nearly tripled his attempts (176 compared to 492), but he increased his accuracy while drastically improving on production and creating opportunities for his teammates. He finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy race as a quarterback after spending half the previous season at wide receiver.

His offense jumped from 25.1 points per game to 46.5, No. 2 in the nation. The Frogs averaged 6.68 yards per play (11th) and 533 yards per game (fifth) after ranking worse than 100th in the country in both the year before. Told by either words or numbers, the transformation of the TCU offense in the span of one year is staggering.

As an neutral observer with no connection to TCU, watching Boykin and the Horned Frogs grow up was one of the most pleasing things I've witnessed in years. It was like watching a baby monster learn it had sharp claws and teeth, then figure out how to use them in short order. It was like watching a person learn to walk, run, and sprint in the same stride. It was like realizing you can microwave the cookies before putting them in the bowl with the ice cream.

It's difficult to say too much about how Boykin progressed, but it's not just about him. The Frogs will be loaded in 2015, likely returning 16 starters (a staggering 10 on offense) and almost the entire coaching staff. That includes quarterbacks coach/co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie, who has received a lot of credit for helping to boost Boykin's game after coming over from Texas Tech the previous year.

Running backs B.J. Catalon and Aaron Green are back, and the entire receiving corps headlined by Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee will return. Oh, and four starters on the offensive line.

The defense loses several starters, including Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Paul Dawson, but Dawson is the seventh consecutive conference defender of the year to suit up for the Frogs, and they've gotten on admirably after losing the others.

TCU's defense has ranked No. 12 or better in Football Outsiders' F/+ stat for six of the last seven years despite losing stars along the way. The difference is that their traditionally inconsistent offense, which ranked No. 94 in F/+ just a year ago before reaching No. 16 this year, is now far from dead weight.

With the Frogs falling just short of the College Football Playoff, it looked an awful lot like a team venting its frustration when they demolished Ole Miss, 42-3, in the Peach Bowl. One would expect Patterson to frequently remind his players how close they came to the Playoff, as to keep that anger simmering during the long, hot Texas summer.

Their 2015 schedule is maneuverable. They open with what could be a tricky road game at Minnesota Sep. 3, but they get Texas and West Virginia at home, as well as a tantalizing regular season finale against Baylor in Fort Worth. They do need to go on the road to face both Oklahoma schools and Kansas State.

It's a schedule with tiger pits, but the Frogs have the tools and talent to make the selection committee's next choice an easy one. Now they just have to do it.