After an off-season that outed the Horned Frogs as much cartel as football program, Gary Patterson and the Frogs look to shift the focus back to football and establish themselves as among the Big 12 elite during their first season in a real conference.
A lot of the headlines surrounding the team will center on the offseason turmoil and the Frogs skill players, but the step up in conference is both more intriguing and more determinative of their success than anything else. They have the studs on the first team to compete with the Texas' of the world (which hasn't been too tough of late), but can they go through a schedule that includes Oklahoma, West Virginia and even teams like Oklahoma State?
The fighting Pattersons bring back all Mountain West quarterback Casey Pachall to man an offense that's loaded with playmakers. Last season, Pachall put himself on the map with his performance against RG3 and bookended his first season as a starter with 473 yards in the regular season finale against Boise State. I'm the opposite of a Boise State fan, but even Aaron Murray down at Georgia struggled against the Broncos. Pachall has a trio of stud receivers he is already familiar with and the continuity hurdle isn't there. If he has the time, he'll light it up again.
The ground game has two pre-season Doak Walker watch list players despite losing Ed Wesley to the NFL supplemental draft in July. Depth shouldn't be a problem either, with a high school All-American serving as the third string back. If there are holes, they will compliment an explosive pass game and again make the unit one of the best in the country.
As with all teams, the offensive line will ultimately determine this team's fate during their inaugural run in the Big 12. The line lost 3 starters from last year (both tackles and a guard). Despite their recent successes, TCU is not an institution like Oklahoma or Texas, and their recruiting isn't on that level yet. As such, replacing the goon squad has to be a concern.
On the defensive side, the team lost its top tackler from 2010 (Tanner Brock) to arrest after he was pushing weight out of his off campus residence. But the truth is the linebacking unit played well without him last year and will be fine without him this year. The front seven has a stud in Stansly Maponga who could give the Jeffcoat-Okafor tandem at UT a run for best defensive end in the country. The Frogs are solid up front; the question is can they hang on the outside.
As with the other Big XII teams we've documented, the Horned Frogs struggled against elite passers last year. They hung on to beat Boise State last year, but Kellen Moore still put up 320 yards and they were shredded by Baylor's Robert Griffin III. Granted the Baylor game was the season opener and there wasn't anyone better that Griffin last year, but the stats show they could have problems against the pass again, particularly in light of the higher level athletes they'll be squaring off against on a consistent basis.
Beyond the athletes however, the defensive scheme is ideal for the pass happy Big 12. The Purple Amphibians use a five back defensive set as their base defense. If their personnel can step up and keep up, their move to the conference's elite will be much quicker.
Frankly, there's no reason TCU shouldn't be able to beat an overrated Texas squad (provided they can give Pachall time), but West Virginia is explosive on the outside and OU is OU. Factor in a loss at the hands of attrition and a relative lack of quality depth that go along with the bump in conference, and 9-3 looks like a reasonable expectation for the Metroplex's premier college football program.