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TCU is the most proven Big 12 program this side of Norman

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Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs are a QB away from another run to the Big 12 title game.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Stanford vs Texas Christian
Gary Patterson
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

[The text of this preview has been updated to reflect injury news.]

Last fall, I visited Stillwater to write a pair of pieces about Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy. We talked about what it takes to stand out as a non-Oklahoma in the parity-heavy Big 12.

“The years where we’ve really been able to roll, we stayed really healthy,” Gundy said, before using the Horned Frogs as an example. “OSU and TCU are the same. We recruit the same kids, and in my opinion both teams are very well-coached. Last year (2016) we played them, they were a little beat up, and we were rolling pretty good, so we blew their doors off down there.

“This year, they came in, they were rolling, we had two injuries, and we weren’t the same. Your USCs, your Texases, your OUs, your Alabamas, they can afford injuries we can’t.”

Because TCU has more recently made a serious national title run (2014) and had just defeated the Pokes when the interview took place, my reflex reaction was that Gundy was flattering himself a bit. But it turned out to be a pretty accurate notion.

The Cowboys and Horned Frogs have become the Big 12’s two most reliable non-OU programs, each ranking in the top 25 in five-year S&P+ (the Sooners are sixth), with one or the other finishing as conference runner-up for four straight years. They rank within four spots of each other in both my two-year and five-year recruiting rankings.

The Big 12 is loaded in the middle right now. Iowa State took a few steps forward last year, and it’s likely Baylor will be quite a bit more sturdy. Texas is, as always, a couple of offensive players away from a breakout. Kansas State is Kansas State. Texas Tech’s defense has the returning pieces to improve further on defense. West Virginia has Will Grier.

But until proven otherwise, the top three are the top three. OU went on a supernatural run with Baker Mayfield at QB, OSU has won at least 10 games in six of the last eight years (and has won exactly 10 for three straight), and TCU has won at least 11 games and finished in the AP top 10 in three of the last four. A combination of injury, inexperience, and tight, gut-wrenching losses dropped the Horned Frogs to 6-7 in 2016, and they rebounded right back to 11-3, with a spot in the Big 12 title game, last fall.

Not bad for a team that began the decade in the Mountain West.

TCU bounced back in 2017 because of defense. After two strange years ranked in the 50s in Def. S&P+, the Frogs surged back to 16th last fall, and they’ve got a deep, veteran-heavy defense depth chart this time around. They return six of their top eight defensive linemen, three of five linebackers, and five of seven defensive backs, and while some play-makers depart — end Mat Boesen, linebacker Mat Boesen, cornerback Ranthony Texada — plenty more return. They also added one of the most exciting mid-major linebackers, Northern Illinois grad transfer Jawuan Johnson.

While a good defense could get better, though, a shakier-than-normal offense could get worse. The last two seasons, TCU was 45th and 39th, respectively, in Off. S&P+, and Patterson must replace his starting QB, his leading rusher, two of his top three receivers, and four all-conference talents on the line.

With a schedule that requires both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (plus Kansas State, ISU, and Texas Tech) to come to Fort Worth, the Frogs won’t need that many young offensive play-makers to break out. And as long as Patterson is their head coach, it would be silly to count them out, anyway.

Offense

2017 TCU offensive radar

There was nothing structurally wrong with TCU’s 2017 offense. The Frogs were between pretty and very good at most things, ranking 23rd in rushing success rate and 34th in passing success rate and doing a lovely job of digging out of holes (16th in passing downs success rate).

The problems were random, but substantial.

  • They didn’t start games well. They ranked 75th in Q1 S&P+ and 83rd in Q2 before surging to 17th in Q3.
  • Though the run game was mostly efficient, the failures were pretty dramatic. Despite the excellent success rate, they still ranked 114th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 115th in power success rate.
  • Turnovers were still an issue. The Frogs improved from 68th to 42nd in turnovers committed (17), losing the ball three times in a 14-7 loss to Iowa State, twice in the Big 12 title game loss to OU, and three times in an Alamo Bowl that looked like a lost cause until a late comeback.

But I guess that’s enough talking about last year because a lot of the players that defined last year are gone.

NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Stanford vs Texas Christian
Jalen Reagor
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s who’s back:

  • Junior running backs Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua combined for 1,098 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Anderson emerged as the team’s best back early, cranking out 160 yards against OSU and finishing the year at 6 yards per carry, but he battled injuries and missed the last four games. Olonilua is a 235-pound former four-star with potential and a short-yardage guy, though TCU wasn’t nearly as good in short yardage as it should have been.
  • Sophomore receiver Jalen Reagor, a former blue-chipper, didn’t wait long to make an impact. Granted, he was one of basically four primary options for Hill last year (he had more than three catches in just three games) and will have to carry a heavier load. But he scored a touchdown in each of his last four games, and his 93-yard catch and run early in the fourth quarter of the Alamo Bowl was one of the most impressive plays of bowl season.
  • KaVontae Turpin somehow still has eligibility left. It feels like the senior from Monroe (La.) has been around forever. Over three years, he’s put together 116 receptions, 40 carries, and 15 total touchdowns, including two punt return scores.
  • Despite the losses up front, three linemen with starting experience do return, including junior guard Cordel Iwuagwu and tackle Lucas Niang. Patterson also added four-star JUCO Anthony McKinney.

That’s a decent foundation, especially when you throw in guys like senior receiver Jaelan Austin (15 catches for 242 yards), four-star redshirt freshman receiver Omar Manning, and four-star true freshmen Fabian Franklin (RB) and Tevailance Hunt (WR).

Co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Curtis Luper did a fun job of getting the ball to their play-makers in different ways last year. Olonilua and Hicks combined to catch 49 passes for 457 yards (Olonilua is the rare short-yardage/third-down back, I guess), while Turpin and Reagor also carried the ball 21 times for 169 yards. It was an “all hands on deck” kind of attack, and while the lack of a bellcow perhaps hurt at times, there are still some play-makers here.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Oklahoma
Darius Anderson
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

You do still need a QB, though. It’s a reasonably important position.

Hill brought stability to the run game, with 1,203 non-sack rushing yards over the past two seasons, and while he may have had some glitches, he still threw for over 3,100 yards both years. He set the bar pretty high, and in limited exposure, sophomore-to-be Shawn Robinson didn’t clear it. The four-star from DeSoto (Tex.) went just 6-for-17 passing when Hill was injured against Texas Tech; it didn’t matter because TCU’s defense erased the Tech offense (the Frogs won, 27-3), and windy conditions played an obvious role, but despite solid rushing (nine non-sack carries, 94 yards) the performance left an inconclusive impression at best.

He’s now got an entire offseason to prepare, though. He fended off competition from senior Grayson Muehlstein and Penn transfer Michael Collins, and he’ll have to keep blue-chip freshman Justin Rogers at bay in fall camp. But the smart money’s still on Robinson, who just has to show more of his impressive credentials on the field.

Defense

2017 TCU defensive radar

Goodness, was TCU’s defense fun to watch last year. Patterson and coordinator Chad Glasgow finally found their rhythm again, continuing to employ a wonderfully all-or-nothing pass defense, but they also figured out a way to do the same against the run.

They improved from 62nd to first in rushing success rate and from 108th to eighth in stuff rate. When you’re making that many plays yourself, you can afford a few breakdowns. And it bears mentioning that TCU’s breakdowns were breakdowns.

2017 TCU defensive efficiency & explosiveness

The variety of the attacking was impressive. Five linemen and two linebackers took part in between 10 and 16 run stuffs, and three defensive backs had either seven or eight. (Johnson, meanwhile, took part in 24 at NIU. He’s a perfect fit.)

In that sense, it seems likely that the Horned Frogs can absorb the loss of a few play-makers.

  • Boesen (15 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and a hand in 11 stuffs) is gone, but end Ben Banogu (16.5, 8.5, 12) returns.
  • Howard (seven, one, 11) is gone, but linebacker Ty Summers (eight, four, 16) returns.
  • Orr (three TFLs, eight passes defensed, seven stuffs) is gone, but Innis Gaines (six, four, eight) returns.
NCAA Football: Kansas at Texas Christian
Ben Banogu (15)
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Add in strong safety Ridwan Issahaku, Johnson, exciting sophomore tackle Corey Bethley, a new load of high-three or four-star youngsters, and a couple of guys returning from injury (linebacker Montrel Wilson had 23 tackles and three TFLs in seven games, and corner Julius Lewis had 8.5 in three). That’s a lot of tools, even if the loss of sophomore tackle Ross Blacklock for the season stings a lot. (It might.)

If one unit is to regress, I guess it might be the secondary, simply because of the loss of Texada. TCU still has junior Jeff Gladney and Lewis, but Texada was outstanding, posting 23 passes defensed and 5.5 tackles for loss over the last two years.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at San Diego State
Jawuan Johnson (7)
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

The Horned Frogs ranked ninth in Special Teams S&P+ in 2014 and sixth in 2015 before skidding to 71st. They were ninth again in 2017, though, and pretty much everyone’s back.

That includes KaVontae Turpin, who averaged 30.8 yards per kick return and 16.3 yards per punt return, and scored twice. Not only that, but he was consistent, ranking third in kick return success rate and 36th in punt return success rate.

Don’t get distracted by punter Adam Nunez’s 39.3-yard average, by the way. That doesn’t seem very good, but he gave opponents only eight return opportunities all year and ranked 40th in punt efficiency. An extra yard or two wouldn’t hurt, but he does his job.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Southern U. NR 43.7 99%
8-Sep at SMU 74 9.8 71%
15-Sep Ohio State 1 -13.1 22%
22-Sep at Texas 27 -0.7 48%
29-Sep Iowa State 46 9.3 70%
11-Oct Texas Tech 47 9.8 71%
20-Oct Oklahoma 9 -5.6 37%
27-Oct at Kansas 103 17.0 84%
3-Nov Kansas State 61 12.0 76%
10-Nov at West Virginia 43 3.9 59%
17-Nov at Baylor 50 5.0 61%
24-Nov Oklahoma State 19 2.0 54%
Projected S&P+ Rk 22
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 49 / 16
Projected wins 7.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 10.9 (20)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 31 / 33
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / 2.0
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 52% (44%, 61%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 10.1 (0.9)

Gundy’s “TCU and OSU are basically the same” construct is true in one more way this year: each is a QB away from big success. They’re both breaking in new ones, and it’s just impossible to make confident predictions until we’ve seen them in action.

Going strictly on S&P+, though, TCU’s going to have as good a chance as anyone of getting to the title game. And the schedule is as favorable as you can get — the Frogs get five home games to only four road games, two of which are at KU and Baylor. They are projected favorites in seven of nine league games and are the tiniest of projected underdogs (0.7 points) at Texas. (Here’s where TCU fans point out that the Frogs have pummeled the Horns for four straight years.)

If Robinson is ready, TCU will be, too. And that could make Ohio State’s week three Metroplex visit awfully interesting.

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