For a few years now, talking up TCU has been a pet project of mine. Their defense ranked first in the country in Def. F/+ in 2008*, I would mention. The Horned Frogs ranked in the F/+ Top 6 for three straight years (2008-10), I would also note. They went 12-2 against BCS conference teams from 2005-10 (they beat Oklahoma in Norman in 2006 and Clemson at Clemson in 2009), I would be sure to point out. Remember how everybody thought a smoking hot Wisconsin team would be a favorite if there were a college football playoff in 2010? Yeah, TCU beat them, too, in the Rose Bowl. If you'd have asked me who should be playing in the BCS title game against Auburn in 2010 -- 12-0 Oregon or 12-0 TCU -- I'd have crafted a very convincing (to me, anyway) argument that it should be TCU.
The school of Sammy Baugh, Davey O'Brien, Dutch Meyer, Bob Lilly and Dan Jenkins has been the nation's preeminent mid-major college football program not named Boise State in recent years, and the Horned Frogs can even make a rather convincing case that they have been better than Boise State. Even last year, when forced to replace a wealth of defensive difference-makers, the Horned Frogs limped around on defense for a month or so, then went right back to dominating. They became the first team to win at Boise State since Washington State did it in early-September 2001. The next conference game they lose will be their first since 2008. Gary Patterson has built a program as incredible in its consistency as in its outstanding defensive play. And beginning in 2009, TCU even figured out how to play some excellent offense.
But now, all the platitudes in the world don't matter. After 15 years of mostly dominating in the relative mid-major abyss, TCU got called up to the major conference level again. Originally scheduled to join the Big East, the Horned Frogs instead jumped at the chance to replace Texas A&M in the Big 12. As they say, it's time for me to put my money** where my mouth is. If TCU is as good as I've been saying, they will compete just fine in a loaded Big 12 conference this fall.
There is, of course, a bit of a hedge coming. The offense must replace not only five players with starting experience, but also its young, exciting offensive coordinator. Meanwhile, the vaunted 4-2-5 defense was already dealing with a decent amount of attrition before losing some players to drug arrests back in the winter. This isn't the year to go to battle with a depleted secondary, but TCU is forced to do just that. If they were still in the Mountain West, or even if they had moved to the Big East, the Horned Frogs might still be looking at another temporary step backwards in stature. But in one of the two deepest conferences in the country, a step backwards in 2012, however temporary, could solidify unfair "not ready for prime time" memes. This is the Horned Frogs' most important season in a very, very long time, and they might be playing it with a lesser squad than what they have fielded for most of the last six years.
Or, you know, they might fit in just fine on the offensive side of the ball, wreak havoc on the defensive line, win close games with stellar quarterback play, and win the Big 12 in their first try. Either/or.
(The Big 12 is going to be so much fun this year, you guys.)
* Yes, they allowed 35 points and 436 yards to Oklahoma that year. No, that doesn't sound like an output that the No. 1 defense in the country would allow. But a) that's still well below Oklahoma's average of 548 yards per game that season, b) three plays generated 194 yards, and the other 67 plays gained just 242 (3.6 per play), c) TCU held Stanford (a Top 25 offense that year) to 193 yards, and d) the Horned Frogs held Kellen Moore and Boise State to 250 yards. That was a really, really good defense, even if it allowed three long pass plays to one of the greatest pass offenses in college football history.
** Yeah, my money is staying safely in my pocket. But you know what I mean.
A powerhouse under Francis Schmidt and Dutch Meyer in the 1930s and a resurgent program in the 1950s, the Horned Frogs fell to a desolate place, winning just 15 games in a ten-year span in the 1970s and early-1980s. If they were cheating like the rest of the Southwest Conference in that time, they were doing a terrible job of it. They experienced just one eight-win season in the final 36 years of the SWC, and they were removed from the major conference ranks, but under first Dennis Franchione (remember when he was the hottest name in coaching?), then Gary Patterson, TCU has won 10 or more games in eight of the last 11 seasons. They were the last team not named Oklahoma to win a game at Owen Field in Norman. They are expanding and renovating their tired stadium. They are regaining their major conference perch in 2012. They are officially a major college football program again. […]
Once a team earns my trust, it is difficult to lose it, and despite the loss of 14 combined starters (and a 2010 YPP margin that screams "REGRESSION!"), TCU has my trust. They have one of the steadiest recent track records in the country, and they have potentially the best coach as well.
There is no question that an incredibly deep 2010 gets a little thinner in 2011, and there is no question that inexperience on the offensive line will prevent a new quarterback from skating along with few problems. This is why Boise State is the rightful team to beat in the Mountain West in 2011. But appearances suggest that a step backwards for TCU will just be temporary, as coaching, development, and improving recruiting are all in the Horned Frogs' favor.
TCU is one of the best stories in college football, having truly built a powerful program with no major conference support. Life begins anew for the Horned Frogs; many key components to the Rose Bowl team are gone, while Big East membership, a new Amon G. Carter Stadium await, and a second chance await.
Even for a team that had played at such a high level in recent years, the departure of 14 starters was a little too much to face without regression. And even knowing what we know now about Robert Griffin III's season, watching Griffin and Baylor hang 564 yards on the TCU defense in the Bears' 50-48 win in the season opener was a little jarring. Two weeks later, UL Monroe underdog tactic'd their way to 204 yards in its first 22 plays before the Horned Frogs could get a handle on the Warhawks. The seeming collapse was finished two weeks later, in Week 5, when SMU beat TCU, 40-33, gaining 461 yards in the process.
A funny thing happened, though, on TCU's trip west to face San Diego State the next week: suddenly, TCU's defense became The TCU Defense™ again.
First Five Games: TCU 31.1 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 28.5 (plus-2.6)
Last Eight Weeks: TCU 32.1 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 21.5 (plus-10.6)
There were still some moments of vulnerability along the way -- Wyoming averaged 5.5 yards per play in a 31-20 TCU win, and Colorado State averaged 6.5 in a 34-10 TCU win -- but these moments still came in easy wins, and they were countered by some incredible play. The Horned Frogs held New Mexico to 1.8 yards per play, UNLV to 3.0, BYU to 4.4 and Louisiana Tech to 5.1, and they provided more than enough stops for what had become one of the best offenses in the country.
Looking at who does and doesn't return for TCU in 2012, we could see the same dynamic: slow start, followed by tremendous finish. It might be a good thing, then, that the schedule is incredibly back-loaded.
Gary Patterson's reputation is rather well-established at this point: defense, defense, defense. And given his background (longtime defensive backs coach, Dennis Franchione's defensive coordinator at New Mexico and TCU) and TCU's extreme recent defensive success, that makes sense. But it ignores the fact that TCU has made serious offensive strides over the past five seasons. Once a liability, the TCU offense has improved from 85th in Off. F/+ in 2007, to 75th in 2008, to 26th in 2009, to 24th in 2010, to 16th in 2011. It is almost a reflex to call TCU a defense-oriented team, but it is only so true these days.
There is still a question we have to answer, however: how much of TCU's recent offensive surge was due to offensive co-coordinator Justin Fuente? Fuente was promoted from quarterbacks coach to co-coordinator in 2009, and TCU's offense improved by 49 spots. He left Fort Worth to take the Memphis head coaching job this offseason, leaving behind fellow co-coordinator Jarrett Anderson and new co-coordinator Rusty Burns. Anytime a successful assistant leaves, it casts a little bit of uncertainty on everything; Fuente's departure in no way guarantees a drop-off, of course, but it could.
Regardless, Anderson and Burns have a lot of toys with which to play.
- Junior quarterback Casey Pachall. Pachall was simply outstanding in his first season succeeding Rose Bowl champion Andy Dalton, completing 67 percent of his passes with minuscule sack (3.4 percent) and interception rates (2.0 percent). The former four-star recruit has lovely size and arm strength, and he raised his game on passing downs: TCU ranked 29th overall on standard downs, but 11th on passing downs. I've long called passing downs the "playmaker downs," and Pachall has proven himself quite the playmaker. He should fit right in in the Big 12. Of course, Pachall hasn't exactly had the happiest offseason. It was recently revealed that Pachall failed a drug test in February and later admitted to having dabbled in marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy in the last year. He has since passed further drug tests and will not face (further) disciplinary actions this fall, but with the entire TCU team seemingly coming under the spotlight for drug issues, it was at least a little disheartening to see that the quarterback, the face of the program, was also involved.
- Running backs Matthew Tucker and Waymon James. A fantastic trio of running backs became a duo when Ed Wesley left the team this offseason. But barring a run of injuries or suspensions, two great running backs are typically enough. James was incredibly explosive last fall, averaging 7.2 yards per carry and scoring six touchdowns, while Tucker, at 227 pounds, excelled in short-yardage situations, scoring 12 touchdowns. He still averaged 5.7 yards per carry, however; he's good in short-yardage, but he isn't a short-yardage back. Carries were evenly distributed last fall -- Tucker had 123 carries, James 121, Wesley 120 -- so one should probably expect that Tucker and James will both see their load increase by around five carries per game. If they both need a spell, TCU still has senior Aundre Dean (130 yards last year) and intriguing freshman B.J. Catalon coming off of the bench. You hate to lose a player as exciting as Wesley, but TCU can withstand a loss at running back.
- Receivers Josh Boyce, Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter. As with the running back position, TCU had some outstanding receiver depth last year. Though the Horned Frogs were run-heavy (they ran 65 percent of the time on standard downs and 42 percent of the time on passing downs, both quite a bit more than the national average), four receivers were targeted at least 30 times last season, and three return. Boyce (998 yards, 10.4 per target, 64 percent catch rate) was unquestionably the leader in the receiving corps last year, but Carter's explosiveness (352, 11.0, 72 percent) is intriguing; his last nine receptions of the season gained 202 yards (22.4 yards per catch). Boyce and Carter combined to catch nine of 11 passes for an absurd 283 yards and five touchdowns in the win at Boise State, and Dawson (500, 8.2, 74 percent) provides a nice option in the horizontal passing game.
- Newbies. It is exciting to have such a strong, proven trio of receivers, but TCU's receiver depth is equally intriguing. Four-star redshirt freshman LaDarius Brown excelled this spring -- at 6'4, 220 pounds, he brings a different dynamic to what is otherwise a relatively small receiving corps (Boyce, Dawson and Carter average 5'11, 182 pounds) -- and freshmen Griffin Gilbert (a four-star tight end) and Kolby Listenbee (a high three-star receiver) might be ready to contribute sooner than later. Throw in Catalon at running back, and you've got an interesting batch of newcomers to an already potent offense.
If there is a concern for this offense beyond Fuente's absence, look up front. All-Mountain West guard Blaize Foltz does return, but only two other players with starting experience return, and one (center Eric Tausch) has started just one game. Gone are five players who had accounted for 73 career starts; that is a lot to lose from a line that ranked 14th in Adj. Line Yards and 27th in Adj. Sack Rate last year. A lot is expected out of big, sophomore BYU transfer Tayo Fabuluje, and a wealth of highly-touted redshirt freshmen enter the rotation, but that is still a lot of new blood, especially soldiering that projected starting tackle James Dunbar's status is currently unknown because of shaky academics.
The first few weeks of the 2011 season really weren't kind to TCU. Even with late improvement, the Horned Frogs' season-long numbers were still startlingly off: 75th in Passing S&P+, 76th on passing downs, 77th on third downs, 46th in Adj. Sack Rate. TCU was still perfectly strong against the run (seven in Rushing S&P+, 14th in Adj. Line Yards), but it probably goes without saying that you don't want to be short-handed in the secondary when you join the Big 12. The offense should be strong, and despite some attrition, the defensive line should still be solid, but all eyes are on the secondary this fall.
While there were clearly the early issues, TCU's secondary in 2011 was really rather experienced. Players were getting used to new roles, but three of last year's top seven were still seniors. Those three are gone, as are strong safety Devin Johnson (drug arrest) and corner Travaras Battle (other). The five combined for 26 percent of TCU's 2011 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss (8.0 from Johnson), three interceptions, 21 passes broken up, and seven forced fumbles, and for a second straight year, new pieces will litter the top of the depth chart. Obviously Patterson's track record suggests things won't totally fall apart, and the secondary could be bolstered by the return of safeties coach Chad Glasgow after an ill-fated season as Texas Tech's defensive coordinator. (Glasgow left TCU for Tech, and both defenses got worse.) But playmakers will still be needed. Corners Jason Verrett and Kevin White combined for 4.0 tackles for loss and five passes defended (all by starter Verrett), so that's something. And sophomore safety Jonathan Anderson was interesting, if inconsistent, as a redshirt freshman. But little-used (and unused) players like junior safeties Trent Thomas and Elisha Olabode, sophomore safeties Antonio Graves and Sam Carter, and redshirt freshmen Chris Hackett (a high three-star recruit), Jamie Byrd, Travoskey Garrett and Quincy Aldridge occupy quite a bit of space on the depth chart. They will have to produce for the patented Patterson 4-2-5 defense to succeed.
If the secondary is strong, the defense will follow suit, even with a couple of holes in the middle. Rose Bowl hero Tank Carder (70.0 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, five passes defended) is gone after what seemed like 11 years in Fort Worth, tackles D.J. Yendrey (a 2011 starter) and Tanner Brock (a 2010 star who missed 2011 with injury) were taken down by drug busts, and three backup linebackers (Kris Gardner, Deryck Gildon and Greg Burks) are also gone. But there are quite a few interesting candidates at both positions. At tackle, David Johnson (7.0 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman) is exciting, if light (270 pounds), and Chuck Hunter (2.0 tackles for loss) was a recent star recruit. At linebacker, junior Joel Hasley logged some backup time last year, sophomore Marcus Mallet was rather highly-touted in high school, and newcomers like sophomore Paul Dawson and freshmen James McFarland and A.J. Hilliard could quickly contribute. It's a battle royale, basically, but there is certainly a wealth of candidates to fill the Tank-sized hole. And it doesn't hurt that Randy Shannon, former Miami head coach and long-heralded defensive assistant, joins the staff as linebackers coach.
Even with inexperience, TCU is not without its stars, of course. As long as end Stansly Maponga is lurking, TCU will have at least a decent pass rush. He is a sack-and-strip master: he logged 13.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks last year, and only five FBS players forced more fumbles than his five. Plus, he is active; his 55.0 tackles were quite high for an end. He made life easy for his defensive end counterparts -- returnees Ross Forrest and Jon Koontz combined for 10.0 more tackles for loss. Maponga is the capital-S Star, but senior strongside linebacker Kenny Cain isn't exactly chopped liver. Cain filled the "tackling machine" role well but also recorded 3.0 tackles for loss and defended five passes (one pick, four broken up).
As a potential top-15 team, TCU should expect to roll through the first half of the schedule and at least hold its own in a loaded final stretch (last five games: at Oklahoma State, at West Virginia, Kansas State, at Texas, Oklahoma… yeesh). But as a BCS conference newcomer, perhaps more Utah-esque expectations (the Utes went 8-5 in their first season in the Pac-12) should be set. If you are a believer in "the grind" of a major conference, then the latter would be fine, but… I'm not. TCU will be fine in that regard. Still, with trips to SMU, Baylor, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas, even a top-15 team might only go about 8-4. So we'll set the bar there. (I am truly a professional bet-hedger.)
With the well-publicized drug arrests and the attrition that followed, it has been, to say the least, a less-than-ideal offseason for Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs. That's not exactly what you want when you're preparing to face what will be your toughest schedule since probably either 1994, 1991, 1989 or 1985. Still, I have enough faith in Patterson, that offense, and that defensive line to assume the Horned Frogs will fare rather well in its new digs. Playing the role of underdog is nothing new to TCU, and while the Horned Frogs might not be able to get away with an underdog mentality for too much longer, it should serve them well in the short-term.
But no matter what happens in said short-term, one has to marvel at the job Patterson has done to date. TCU shows that, no matter how stacked the college football deck is against success for the "little guys," good coaching, good planning, and good execution, sustained over the long haul, can bring you to where you want to be. (And if you are in a good media market, like TCU, you can make it even further up the conference totem pole than others, like Boise State.)
Seventeen years ago, TCU was preparing for its final season as a major-conference team. The Southwest Conference was disintegrating, and the Horned Frogs' long run of below-par play (they were perhaps the worst major conference program in the country from 1974 to 1983, and they experienced only two winning seasons from 1972 to 1994) prevented them from being part of the Big 12's formation. (And yes, that played as large a role as Texas governor Ann Richards' Baylor influence.) TCU went 5-17 in its first two years in the WAC, but it has been one steady, upward climb since the hire of Dennis Franchione in 1998. TCU has been to 13 bowls in 14 years, won three different conferences (WAC, Conference USA, Mountain West), and worked its way up four consecutive top-15 finishes. And now they're back where they probably feel they belonged all along. It'll be for naught if they don't keep winning now, but what a journey it's been.
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