The narrative for the upcoming Big 12 season couldn’t be clearer when it comes to which teams will appear in the league’s championship game: A rematch between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Iowa State Cyclones is assumed. But you know the rule about making assumptions.
Consult the Tarot, chart the zodiac, or plug all the data from a hundred seasons into a supercomputer designed by Jeff Sagarin and Phil Steele, and there still would be no guarantees. That’s why it’s fun and sometimes useful to consider the potential party crashers, the dark horses of the race.
However, while the narrative at the top of the league couldn’t be clearer, things in the Big 12 get murky fast beyond the top 2 teams. Kansas is obviously doomed to remain at the bottom of the standings this season, but there does not much separation is apparent between numbers 3 to 9.
Cases could be made for Texas, Oklahoma State, WVU, K-State, Baylor, and Texas Tech to rise above the fray and challenge the top 2 for a spot in the championship game. However, TCU seems to be the team getting the most traction with prognosticators and fans as a potential Big 12 dark horse this season.
So, is TCU really a dark horse contender this season? Here are few points to consider for and against the hypothesis:
The Case for TCU
1. Trajectory – A big reason many are buying TCU stock this preseason is the way the Frogs finished 2020, going 5-1 after starting the season 1-3. Had the Texas Bowl been played, TCU may well have finished the season on a 6-1 run with a victory over Arkansas.
2. Zach Evans – After only carrying the ball four times in TCU’s first four games of 2020, the former 5-star recruit came to life with 81 yards on 7 carries at Baylor. He would go on to post two games with 100 yards or more (at KU and vs Louisiana Tech) to finish the season with 415 yards on 54 carries – a gawdy 7.7 yards per attempt – and 4 touchdowns. Now, Evans appears primed to be the featured back in an offense that has typically taken a running back by committee approach and leaned heavily on QB run game. If Evans can blossom into a star this season, look out.
3. Defense – A staple of Gary Patterson’s teams, the defense should be solid again this season, but not quite on the caliber of some of Patterson’s best. As Matthew Postins wrote in his article on TCU’s defense, the Frogs could be elite at both corner positions, and pieces are in place to improve on last season’s pass rush that averaged 2.7 sacks per game, including DE Khari Coleman and LB Dee Winters.
4. Gary Patterson – If you haven’t heard the phrase, “never bet against Gary Patterson,” or some variation thereof, you haven’t been following TCU football for very long. After 3 straight mediocre seasons, many simply feel that it’s time for Patterson to right the ship as he seemingly always does. In other words, the Frogs are overdue for a good season.
The Case Against TCU
1. Schedule – The Big 12 schedule makers did TCU no favors this season. Want a bye week? OK, how’s week 3 sound? That’s right, TCU will play 10 straight weeks from SMU to Iowa State. Speaking of ISU, how about getting both the league’s top 2 teams on the road? Not tough enough? Fine, let’s make you go to Lubbock, Manhattan, and Stillwater so some of those winnable games are less winnable. Oh, playing in Lubbock doesn’t bother you? Fine – we’ll put the Tech game in between games against Texas and Oklahoma, so it’s a textbook trap game. The more I look at this schedule, the more I wonder what TCU did to anger the gods. At least the Frogs avoid a trip to Morgantown.
2. The O-line – TCU’s offensive line was bad at times last season and barely passing at others. Some have made much of TCU leading the league in rushing last season, but that stat comes with a caveat: TCU’s leading rusher was Duggan, and much of the rushing Duggan did was not by design but purely self-preservation. On its way to finishing 99th in the nation in passing offense, TCU allowed 23 sacks last season, and it would’ve been much worse if not for the escape artistry of Duggan. TCU lost and gained offensive linemen via transfer portal and expects Wes Harris, arguably TCU’s best lineman, to return from injury at right (or left) guard; however, due to injuries, Harris has not been available for a full season since 2018.
3. Offensive scheme/play-calling – TCU fans have lamented the offensive play-calling over the last few seasons as inconsistent and anemic. TCU’s offense was certainly anemic for long stretches during several games last season. While offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie left TCU to take over the same spot at Texas Tech, don’t expect wholesale changes anytime soon. Doug Meachum was promoted from tight end/inside receivers coach to take over as TCU’s offensive coordinator. Jerry Kill was added to the staff in February as special assistant to the head coach, or as Patterson put it, “head coach of the offense,” but again, it seems unlikely that TCU will do things much differently in 2021 than in 2020. While TCU averaged 30.8 points per game last season, that number was inflated by a combined 111 points against KU and LA Tech, and the Frogs did not surpass 14 points in 3 of their 4 losses. Against Big 12 teams not named KU, TCU averaged just under 24.4 points per game in 2020. That must improve by about a TD per game if TCU wants to crash the party in Arlington.
Obviously, much of how TCU fairs in the Big 12 race has to with everyone else in the league. TCU should be an improved team, but so should just about every other team with the possible exceptions of Oklahoma State and Texas.
Max Duggan is an absolute stud at quarterback, the epitome of talent meets toughness, but unless the o-line improves drastically this season, I’m frankly concerned for Duggan’s health. And an injury to Duggan would be devastating to TCU’s season.
The defense should be good enough to keep TCU in most games this season, but it does not appear to be good enough to carry the team. Last season, TCU was 0-3 when scoring less than 29 points and 5-1 when scoring 29 or more. Even if the defense improves considerably, it seems unlikely that TCU can contend for the league title without scoring about 30 points per game against Big 12 foes not named the Jayhawks.
The potential is there for a bounce-back season in Fort Worth, but it seems unlikely that the Frogs bounce all the way back to legitimately contending for the Big 12 title. However, there is one Tarot card yet to be turned over:
TCU historically lives and dies by turnover margin, and this season may be no different. If TCU can consistently win the turnover battle and have a turnover margin of +10 or better in league play, the Frogs can and likely will make a push for the Big 12 championship game.