1. A guaranteed shootout every week
Three months is a pretty long time, long enough to change the narratives a few times over. Such is the power of time, and such is the power of an exciting quarterback.
Still, the twists and turns in Oregon's 2015 campaign have been uniquely frequent.
- Game 1: Vernon Adams, a graduate transfer from EWU who is expected to serve as a one-year fill-in following the loss of Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, completes 19 of 25 passes and rushes for 94 yards against his former team in the season opener, a 61-42 win.
- Game 2: With a broken hand, Adams is scattershot, completing only 56 percent of his passes with two picks, in a narrow 31-28 loss to Michigan State.
- Games 3-6: Adams throws only seven passes (and completes only two) while recuperating, and two different replacements -- Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie -- struggle to pick up the slack. The duo combine to complete just 25 of 47 passes with three interceptions in losses to Utah and Washington State. Quarterback crisis in Eugene! Head coach Mark Helfrich on the hot seat!
- Games 7-9: Adams returns to the lineup and plays well, throwing for a combined 887 yards and 10 touchdowns in wins over Washington, Arizona State, and California.
- Games 10-12: Adams goes to a completely different level, completing a combined 30 of 37 passes in wins over Stanford (until then a national title contender) and USC. Combined passer rating over his last three games: an otherworldly 232.6. Oregon finishes the season on a six-game win streak, having averaged 45 points per game in that span.
From crisis to catharsis, Oregon's 9-3 season was about four mini-seasons in one, and the primary narrative tended to focus on the quarterback position, which makes sense for a school that has been so offensively revolutionary over the last decade.
But here's the thing: Oregon scored fewer than 26 points just once all year. Even during the first half of the season, the CRISIS! portion, the Ducks averaged 41.5 points per game, a still-healthy 31.8 if you remove the EWU and Georgia State games.
The problem from start to finish, of course, was the defense. Oregon ranks 88th in Def. S&P+; in two conference losses, the Ducks allowed 107 points and 1,171 yards, and even in their nine WINS, they allowed 34 points per game.
Every moment of improvement was followed a setback -- they allowed only 5.6 yards per play to Michigan State, then allowed 5.7 to Georgia State. They allowed only 5.6 combined to Stanford and USC, then allowed 6.8 to Oregon State. Coordinator Don Pellum's defense was a bend-don't-break unit that broke a lot, especially against the run.
The Alamo Bowl has massive shootout potential, in other words, even without TCU star quarterback Trevone Boykin. After all, Utah didn't have Boykin either. Neither did Oregon State.
2. Gary Patterson and chess pieces
Sometimes the chess pieces do exactly what they're supposed to do, and for an extended amount of time. Sometimes they break in two, or they go in the wrong direction on the board, or they get suspended for attacking a cop outside a bar. TCU's 2014 season falls into the former category, 2015 in the latter.
A year after rolling through the season at 12-1, nearly making the College Football Playoff, finishing third in the AP poll, and setting the bar absurdly high, Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs have dealt with a mountain of setbacks, from defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas retiring, to All-American receiver Josh Doctson getting hurt, to quarterback Trevone Boykin missing the OU game with injury (and then attacking a cop in San Antonio), to most of the starting 11 on defense either getting hurt or transferring.
That TCU went 10-2 in an "everything goes wrong" year is in many ways a lovely sign for the program moving forward. The Horned Frogs went 0-2 in the state of Oklahoma (they lost by 20 at Oklahoma State, then lost in the last second at Oklahoma) but still got past everybody else on the docket, from Minnesota in the season opener, to Kansas State in a ferocious October comeback, to Baylor in a late-November monsoon. This was a test of perseverance, and TCU mostly passed it.
So now what? Boykin's suspended, and Doctson's still out. Oregon might induce a high-scoring affair in any circumstance, but can the Frogs get enough stops to counter an offense that is missing its engine?
A lot of that answer will depend on the secondary. TCU employs a high-risk pass defense that did well despite massive injury turnover this year -- 26th in Passing S&P+ -- but teeters on the balance between making and allowing big plays. TCU ranks 12th in passing success rate allowed (32.4 percent) but 125th in Passing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the successful plays). They don't allow many big ones, but the big ones they allow are bigger than almost anybody else's.
Safeties Travin Howard, Derrick Kindred, and Denzel Johnson are major play-makers; the trio has combined for 22.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, 11 break-ups, and five forced fumbles. And all things considered, that the D allows only 12.9 yards per completion is awfully impressive when paired with a 49 percent completion rate. But of the 200 completions TCU has allowed this year, 26 of them have gained at least 30 yards (111th in FBS).
That three of Oregon's top six targets have averaged at least 16 yards per catch (Darren Carrington 20.1, Charles Nelson 17.2, Dwayne Stanford 16.0), and all six have averaged at least 13, tells you how aggressive Vernon Adams is in looking downfield. If he connects on too many longer passes, it's probably lights out for the Frogs. If he doesn't, then a TCU offense led by either Bram Kohlhausen or Foster Sawyer (probably Kohlhausen, who averaged 8.3 yards per pass attempt over 47 attempts in 2015) could keep up.
3. Key Stat: Count the big plays
I gave it away, didn't I?
S&P+ Projection: TCU 36.0, Oregon 33.7
Team Sites: Addicted To Quack, Frogs O' War
|Category||Oregon offense||TCU defense||TCU offense||Oregon defense|
|EXPLOSIVENESS||1.41 (8)||1.37 (108)||1.34 (27)||1.22 (55)|
|EFFICIENCY||48.6% (12)||36.9% (23)||48.1% (15)||45.5% (102)|
Oregon's offense produced 88 gains of at least 20 yards (eighth in FBS), and Oregon's defense allowed 71 (105th). That's a combined 13 big gains per game. TCU was almost conservative in comparison: 79 on offense (19th) and 56 on defense (50th). TCU's offense likely won't be in full efficiency mode without Boykin, and opposing offenses aren't typically very efficient against TCU as a general rule, so the big gainers will be vital ... and perhaps plentiful. The team with more of them probably wins.