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2017 TCU football has experience, upside, and far less benefit of the doubt

After two straight weird years, the Frogs could be a couple breaks away from a huge season.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In last year’s TCU preview, I proclaimed that my numbers were being too pessimistic, that after an unlucky 2015, Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs were a top-15 squad and dark horse Big 12 contender. I was convinced of this despite the loss of star quarterback Trevone Boykin, receiver Josh Doctson, and three all-conference linemen.

In 2015, they dealt with more injuries than almost anybody. Turnovers luck swung eight points in the other direction, to minus-1.8 points per game.

Their high points were ridiculously high (a 50-7 win over Texas, 40-10 over West Virginia), and even at the end of the regular season, when attrition was taking a toll, they came within a two-point conversion of beating CFP semifinalist Oklahoma in Norman, then outlasted Baylor in a monsoon.

And then they unleashed a 31-point comeback against Oregon. All the bad luck and freshmen in the world, and they finished 11-2 and 26th in S&P+. And now all of those freshmen and sophomores are sophomores and juniors.

I considered going hard against the numbers and ranking TCU ahead of Oklahoma in the Big 12 power rankings. I expected big things from this team, and even early home losses to Arkansas (by three) and Oklahoma (by six) couldn’t completely dissuade me.

Turns out we were both wrong. TCU wasn’t a top-30ish team, as S&P+ thought it was, and definitely wasn’t a top-15 team. After a 4-2 start, the Horned Frogs turned scattershot, destroying Baylor and Texas by a combined 62 but losing to West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State by a combined 73 and damn near losing to Kansas.

They lost five of their final seven, barely qualified for a bowl, then lost said bowl to another disappointing team, Georgia. Final record: 6-7. S&P+ ranking: 47th.

So where did we go wrong? What happened that wasn’t supposed to happen? Will it happen again?

  • Kenny Hill remained maddening. The Texas A&M transfer began 2014 in Heisman form before growing mistake-prone and losing his job. He finished that season with a 2.5 percent interception rate and a 4.2 percent sack rate. In 2016: 3 percent interception rate, 6 percent sack rate. He had a 149.1 passer rating after five games, then produced a 108.6 over the next eight.
  • The receiving corps couldn’t keep guys on the field. You know what doesn’t help your passer rating? A revolving door at receiver. Inside receiver Shaun Nixon missed the entire season, KaVontae Turpin had 14 catches for 188 yards in the first two games, then missed half the year and produced almost nothing. Junior Emanuel Porter was in and out. Ten different players ended up targeted at least 20 times. That’s a little too much balance.
  • The defense barely improved. After it plummeted from 15th to 59th in Def. S&P+ in 2015 because of youth, injury, and assistant coaching change, I expected a bounce back. But the Frogs only improved to 51st. The pass defense was as efficient as ever, and the pass rush was strong, but the breakdowns were enormous (35 plays of 30-plus yards allowed, 104th in FBS) and the passing-downs defense was strangely soft.

Hill’s presence in the run game was important; TCU improved to 40th in Rushing S&P+ as it regressed to 83rd in Passing S&P+. And the offense returns virtually everybody: Hill, running back Kyle Hicks, all 10 primary receivers (plus Nixon), and all but one member of the line two-deep. The back seven of the defense is loaded with juniors and seniors, and thanks to another run of injuries, it boasts more experience than it’s had in three years.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to talk myself into TCU being a top-15 team again, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. The level of experience is enticing. And the Frogs are positioned for success in the Big 12’s second tier; while Oklahoma is projected fifth in S&P+, far ahead of the rest of the field, TCU is one of five projected between 16th and 35th.

Still, there are obvious reasons for tapping the brakes. Hill is a September Heisman guy who has yet to play well in November. The defense hasn’t looked like a TCU defense since coordinator Dick Bumpas retired after 2014. The offense now has to get along without co-coordinator Doug Meacham, who took over sole coordinator duties at Kansas.

The Frogs are only two seasons removed from nearly making the College Football Playoff. Patterson still gets the benefit of the doubt. But until all the pieces come together again — as they did for three straight S&P+ top-10 teams from 2008-10 and another in 2014 — we don’t know that they will again.

I guess that makes this a big year in Fort Worth, huh?


2016 in review

2016 TCU statistical profile.

There was context — the receiving corps struggling to keep guys on the field, the defense not coming around — but Hill’s first year as TCU starter looked like his first year as A&M starter: hot start, then fade.

Granted, the start wasn’t quite as hot as I anticipated.

  • First 5 games (3-2): Avg. percentile performance: 75% (~top 30) | Avg. yards per play: TCU 7.0, Opp 5.6 (plus-1.4) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+: minus-0.3 PPG
  • Last 8 games (3-5): Avg. percentile performance: 50% (~top 65) | Avg. yards per play: TCU 5.4, Opp 5.4 (plus-0) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+: minus-7.9 PPG

The defense was volatile all year, producing a percentile performance in the 80s or higher five times and in the 20s or lower three times. But while the offense had its moments in the latter half (mainly in a 62-22 win over Baylor), the drop-off was clear. Aside from the trip to Waco, TCU averaged just 17.7 points per game after October 1.

The passing game was the primary reason, though the lack of aerial success rubbed off on the run game. Hicks was averaging 5.6 yards per carry five games in but just 4.9 the rest of the way.

TCU is second in the country in returning production this fall. That almost guarantees improvement. But the Frogs need quite a bit of improvement to move back toward the top of the conference.


Offense

TCU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

With Meacham’s departure, Patterson did some shuffling. He moved line coach Jarrett Anderson to inside receivers coach and brought in Arizona State assistant Chris Thomsen to coach the line. He moved running backs coach Curtis Luper to co-coordinator. He brought in fired former Cal head coach Sonny Dykes for a rehab stint as an analyst.

This is more “rearranging cubicles” than any sort of massive overhaul. Patterson proved by bringing in Cumbie and Meacham a few years ago that he will make big changes when he feels it’s necessary, but these moves bely a belief that TCU is close.

We caught glimpses last year. The Frogs averaged 7 yards per play and scored 46 points against Oklahoma, then averaged 7.6 and scored 62 against Baylor. The first five games were really impressive, and the Texas game wasn’t bad. But when things didn’t work, things didn’t work.

  • TCU’s offense in 6 wins: 41.7 points per game, 7.0 yards per play, 70% average percentile performance
  • TCU’s offense in 7 losses: 21.9 points per game, 5.3 yards per play, 35% average percentile performance
NCAA Football: Liberty Bowl-Texas Christian vs Georgia
Kenny Hill
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The run game did improve, but that only matters so much when you pass as much as TCU did; the Frogs ran just 50 percent of the time on standard downs (113th in FBS) and 30 percent on passing downs (92nd). That won’t change much in 2017, so TCU’s improvement relies on the passing game’s improvement.

It’s like everything fell apart at once for the receiving corps.

  • Taj Williams: 24 catches for 488 yards in first 5 games, 15 for 214 in last 8
  • John Diarse: 17 catches for 300 yards in first 5 games, 16 for 142 in last 8
  • Kyle Hicks: 26 catches for 302 yards in first 5 games, 21 for 115 in last 8
  • KaVontae Turpin: 16 catches for 196 yards in first 5 games, 14 for 99 in last 8

Hill made a lot of mistakes, and defenses adapted. But to say the least, the receiving corps didn’t help.

Patterson was worried about drops last spring. Williams managed only a 52 percent catch rate, and though Turpin (73 percent catch rate) was more reliable, he couldn’t stay on the field. If Turpin and Shaun Nixon (68 percent in 2015) are healthy, that would help immensely. So would a sustained emergence from upperclassmen like Jaelan Austin and Emanuel Porter.

And if the upperclassmen can’t hold onto the ball, Cumbie and Luper can turn to youngsters; sophomore Isaiah Graham and freshmen Jalen Reagor and Omar Manning are former four-star recruits, and options like sophomores Dylan Thomas and TreVontae Hights were pretty regarded, too.

One thing is sure: this should be the strongest line in a while. Four senior starters return, including all-conference center Austin Schlottman. If Hill trusts his receivers enough to get the ball out of his hands quickly, both the blocking and protection stats should be strong.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Christian
Taj Williams
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

TCU defensive radar

From 2005-14, TCU ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 15 seven times, peaking at second in 2008 and never falling outside of the top 40. Patterson has been a big reason for this; the former coordinator at Cal Lutheran, Sonoma State, New Mexico, and TCU mastered the nickel defense in a way everybody else wished they could.

You do have to wonder about the role Bumpas played, though. TCU has dealt with a lot of youth, injury, and attrition over the last couple of years, so you could assume regression was a given. But the Frogs fell to 59th in 2015 and 51st in 2016, quite a bit worse than any point in Bumpas’ tenure.

Where did the Frogs struggle the most last year?

  • 102nd in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays), 112th in Passing IsoPPP, 92nd in Rushing IsoPPP. Far too many big plays.
  • 108th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). The pass rush was strong, but there was no disruption against opposing ground games.
  • 102nd in power success rate. No push in short yardage.
  • 127th in passing downs line yards per carry. TCU’s pass rush was excellent, but it was a bit reckless, opening the door for big gains on scrambles and draw plays.

That TCU could rush the passer so effectively without blitzing should have been a huge benefit. Four different linemen recorded at least 4.5 sacks, and non-linemen combined for just 8.5. It shouldn’t have resulted in massive over-pursuit and run vulnerability, but it did. And now two of the three best pass rushers (Aaron Curry and Josh Carraway, who combined for 13.5 sacks) are gone.

Newcomers will determine whether the line can both provide more stability and stand up to the run. ULM transfer Ben Banogu had 14.5 tackles for loss and five sacks for the Warhawks in 2015, providing aggressiveness against both run and pass.

Four-star redshirt freshman Ross Blacklock and 315-pound Ezra Tu’ua could add quite a bit of oomph at tackle. Throw in four-star redshirt freshman end Isaiah Chambers, four-star sophomore end Brandon Brown, touted freshman tackle Corey Bethley, and returning tackles Chris Bradley and Joseph Broadnax Jr., and it certainly seems like there are options and upside here. But losing Curry and Carraway hurts.

Louisiana Monroe v Alabama
Ben Banogu (49)
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If there’s not a drop-off up front, though, there definitely shouldn’t be one anywhere else. Every primary linebacker returns, including leading tackler Travin Howard, and all but one safety is back. Granted, the one loss is a big one — strong safety Denzel Johnson had 11 tackles for loss and six breakups last year — but the experience is impressive.

And at this exact moment, the cornerback position is more stable. Juniors Julius Lewis and Tony James combined to miss 13 games last year, prompting coaches to have receiver Deante Gray play both ways for a while. (He had 8.5 tackles and a breakup.) Freshman Jeff Gladney had to play a larger role than expected. Funny how that will screw up your big-play numbers.

Ranthony Texada remains one of the better corners in the Big 12, and if Lewis, James, or Gladney is ready and able to play a solid No. 2, then the pass numbers should stabilize. But TCU suddenly bears the burden of proof on defense.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Texas Christian
Niko Small (2) and Ranthony Texada
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Special teams abandoned the Horned Frogs. After ranking in the Special Teams S&P+ top 10 in both 2014 and 2015, they fell to 71st. Gray and Turpin were still efficient in the kick return game, but TCU was mediocre elsewhere.

This tends to happen when you hand your unit over to freshmen. Punter Adam Nunez, kickoffs guy Cole Bunce, and place-kicker Ryan Graf were first-year contributors. None was awful, and their development should result in unit improvement. So would Turpin’s good health. He returned four punts for 115 yards and a touchdown in the first two games but had just six for 10 yards the rest of the way.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Jackson State NR 58.7 100%
9-Sep at Arkansas 32 1.8 54%
16-Sep SMU 81 20.3 88%
23-Sep at Oklahoma State 22 -2.3 45%
7-Oct West Virginia 69 14.8 80%
14-Oct at Kansas State 35 2.9 57%
21-Oct Kansas 107 26.6 94%
28-Oct at Iowa State 57 7.0 66%
4-Nov Texas 16 0.6 51%
11-Nov at Oklahoma 5 -12.4 24%
18-Nov at Texas Tech 66 8.2 68%
25-Nov Baylor 28 6.3 64%
Projected S&P+ Rk 21
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 23 / 33
Projected wins 7.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 10.1 (24)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 27 / 35
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / -0.5
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 85% (92%, 77%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.4 (-1.4)

TCU’s going to be pretty good. The Horned Frogs boast a level of returning production that almost assures improvement, and, well, Patterson has a track record. S&P+ projects them 21st and declares them the favorite in 10 of 12 games (and only a two-point underdog in an 11th game).

This is a big year, though, when it comes to proof of upside. Injuries and youth played obvious roles, but the Frogs’ S&P+ ratings (presented in terms of adjusted points per game) fell by 6.6 points in 2015, then another eight points last year. They failed to live up to projections either year, and while a 6-1 record in one-possession games kept them propped up two years ago, they went 1-4 in such games in 2016.

Patterson didn’t make any bold moves this offseason, and he has tools at his disposal. But this level of experience means two things: a big year is possible, but a lot of key contributors are graduating soon. Another retooling is on the horizon, and an only decent 2017 would be a missed opportunity.

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