USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
If you can't beat 'em then join 'em, or some such. After the worst season of the program's otherwise sterling run under Gary Patterson, TCU has stepped up the drawing board to remake its image – giving the offense a much-needed facelift in an effort to catch up with the Big 12.
The Horned Frogs have embraced the Air Raid: Patterson hired two new offensive coordinators, Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham, with the former once a record-setting quarterback under Mike Leach – not the father of the Air Raid, but perhaps the system's crazy uncle – and the latter fresh off a single stint at Houston, where the scheme took flight under Dana Holgorsen, Kliff Kingsbury and Kevin Sumlin.
It was time for an overhaul. Last season's offense finished second-to-last in the conference in total offense, ahead of just Kansas, and ranked ninth in interceptions, ahead of only Texas Tech. The latter is misleading: TCU tossed 17 interceptions – against 14 touchdowns, by the way – in 419 attempts, a woeful ratio; the Red Raiders tossed 18 picks in 714 attempts.
Onward and upward go the Horned Frogs – up, up and away, perhaps, behind an offense that fits snugly into the Big 12's trend toward high-flying offensive explosiveness.
"You work experience into a new offense," Patterson told USA TODAY Sports in July. "It's an offense that's simpler than what we ran before, so we're excited. I talked a lot to the (Texas A&M) coaches, because they went with the transition from a play-action, run team to throwing the football."
TCU, like West Virginia, will implement the new Air Raid, one that features a distinct twist on the time-honored tradition of pitch and catch. Holgorsen, for example, part of the new breed, began adding an up-tempo feel to the Air Raid in 2008; as we enter 2014, most Air Raid offenses value quantity on nearly an equal plane as quality.
To Patterson, the impact is felt on two fronts: TCU's offense joins the party, for starters, but the Horned Frogs' defense will also benefit from daily encounters with an up-tempo attack – giving the defense an added sense of familiarity with the Mountaineers, Texas Tech, Baylor and the majority of the Big 12.
"Helps us in practice, in ball games now, because to be good at it you have to practice it," Patterson said. "That's what people don't understand: It's not just about Saturdays. It's about how you practice, your mentality.
"I'm excited. It'll be interesting in two-a-days. Now they know it all."
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Consider how TCU might develop during the next 13 games, as young linemen, young receivers, young backs, young specialists and others grow into their full potential – when everything clicks, and it could click this season, the Frogs will be a handful. I'm just a little pessimistic on TCU, which is a new feeling.
In a nutshell: Perhaps the most frustrating season in program history. Eight losses, true, and that total stands out among Patterson's otherwise laudable turn with the Horned Frogs – a run of near-unparalleled excellence, with three notable exceptions. Yet consider what was left on the field: TCU lost by 10 points to LSU, 10 points to Texas Tech, a field goal to Oklahoma, in overtime to West Virginia, by two points to Kansas State and field goal to Baylor. In terms of the résumé – and this is a strange compliment, I know – TCU might have been the most impressive eight-loss team in Big 12 history. Compliments, when they come, are often of the backhanded variety. The greatest frustration amid the general frustration was the up-and-down nature of the offense, the byproduct of which was Patterson's decision to shift the program in an entirely new direction. Though the bottom line suggests otherwise – the Frogs allowed 303 points, a program-high since 2004 – the defense was solid: TCU led the Big 12 in rush defense and finished second in interceptions and opposing completion percentage.
High point: Nearly not applicable. I suppose SMU, a bit of a regional rival in name only.
Low point: November. TCU beat Iowa State, true, but losses to West Virginia, Kansas State and Baylor came by a combined eight points.
Tidbit: TCU lost seven conference games last fall, by far the highest total of Patterson's tenure. Think of this way, actually: TCU lost a grand total of seven league games as a member of the Mountain West Conference from 2005-11.
Tidbit (Texas edition): Despite last year's slide, TCU remains the most successful Football Bowl Subdivision program in Texas since the start of the 2005 season. The Horned Frogs' 88-27 record during the last nine years is the tops in the state, ahead of Texas (88-29), Texas Tech (75-40), Houston (73-44) and Texas A&M (67-47).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
2. Poison Dart
4. Panamanian Golden
5. Vietnamese Mossy
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: TCU coaches continue to rave about Trevone Boykin, a sterling athletic talent perhaps pigeonholed into the quarterback position out of mere necessity during his first two seasons on campus. It's probably not his spot: Boykin's a wonderful athlete, as noted, but his skill set doesn't necessarily translate into the Air Raid system. He's still in the mix, however, with the staff content in the realization that Boykin would still be a vital cog in the machine – perhaps an even more useful tool, in fact – if used primarily at receiver. Boykin has become available for the shift due to an arrival: Matt Joeckel, formerly of Texas A&M, once the backup to Johnny Manziel, once a single-starter for the Aggies, owner of an in-depth knowledge of the Air Raid system, joins TCU for fall camp and, most assume, will take firm control of the quarterback position before the end of the month.
It's probably a safe assumption. There's his experience in this sort of system, albeit the Texas A&M version – born from the Texas Tech branch, though with enough slight tweaks and adjustments to differ in comparison: Joeckel spent four years with the Aggies, the last two under Sumlin, and brings the sort of veteran mentality this program has missed under center since Andy Dalton's departure. There's also his physical skill set: TCU adores Boykin, of course, but Joeckel's pocket-based talents make him a better for the Cumbie-Meacham scheme. More than anything, Joeckel's ability to step into the fold and quickly grab hold of the system, the huddle and the locker room grants him the potential to be an immediate-impact addition – essentially taking firm control of the offense, which in turn gives TCU a trustworthy quarterbacking option, which in turn shifts Boykin into a do-everything role, which in turn has a profoundly positive effect on the entire offense.
The joke is funny, sort of, and meant with no disrespect whatsoever: Boykin would've been a solid quarterback if he could've thrown to himself. Alas, Joeckel – and not Boykin himself – will have the benefit of relying on Boykin's wide-ranging offensive ability. Down about 20 pounds from last season, I see Boykin as one of the Horned Frogs' top receivers; he's still learning the position, but Cumbie and Meacham are wise enough to get the junior into can't-miss situations and scenarios while he learns the route-running, pass-catching nuances. For now, seeing that upwards of eight or nine receivers will play, here's the basic top six: Boykin, senior David Porter (26 receptions for 435 yards), junior Josh Doctson (36 for 440), junior Ju'Juan Story, sophomore Ty Slanina (19 for 184) and junior Deante' Gray. A second skill player undergoing a position change, junior Jordan Moore, has the size and elusiveness to be a weapon in space. The basic theme: TCU might have the receiving tools it needs to run this offensive effectively. At the same time, this group has been underwhelming since the move to the Big 12 – so I'm a little skeptical, if aware of the talent at the position.
Speaking of a degree of skepticism: TCU's offensive line doesn't necessarily inspire confidence. As the Horned Frogs roll into fall camp, it seems as if only one position, center, is truly locked into place – junior Joey Hunt is back in the middle, ready to challenge for all-league honors. TCU is also leaning heavily toward junior Halapoulivaati Vaitai at left tackle, but I imagine he'll need another few weeks of strong play in August to truly secure the spot. It's muddled elsewhere, notably at right tackle, where Tayo Fabuluje's return to the program could jar redshirt freshman Joseph Noteboom's tenuous grab on the starting job – and there's always the chance Fabuluje takes control of the blind side, shifting Vaitai back to right tackle. It's confusing, basically. The two guard spots will eventually fall to two of three options: Brady Foltz, Jamelle Naff and JUCO transfer Frank Kee. Foltz's ability to slide in at all three interior spots might make him more valuable as a reserve, in my opinion.
Defense: The Horned Frogs' defensive front will be very good – just not as good as it would be had Devonte Fields remained in the mix. With Fields off to Stephen F. Austin after an investigation into allegations of assault, the Horned Frogs' line will essentially stand pat with its post-spring makeup: James McFarland and Terrell Lathan (25 tackles, 5.0 sacks), both juniors, will start at end, with senior Chucky Hunter (43 tackles) and junior Davion Pierson inside. Little has changed, I'd say, with three returning starters back from a group that led the Big 12 in rush defense; with Lathan and McFarland certainly serviceable, if neither up to Fields' game-changing standard; with Hunter perhaps the league's top interior lineman, right alongside Texas' Malcom Brown; and, by and large, an adequate level of depth in reserve. When it comes to depth, perhaps the worst on-field byproduct of Fields' suspension is that it'll require junior Mike Tuauato spend more time on the outside, robbing the Frogs of a top interior reserve. Perhaps sophomore Josh Carraway and redshirt freshman Bryson Henderson step forward on the outside, allowing Tuaua to spend more time as TCU's third tackle.
It's crowded at linebacker, true, but this is a great thing: TCU has three seniors jostling for two spots and perhaps as many as five linebackers ready to roll altogether, giving Patterson and coordinator Dick Bumpas a wealth of options on the second level. The only defender assured of a starting role is senior Jonathan Anderson (66 tackles), who returns to his spot in the middle hoping to ratchet up his level of explosive plays – sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions, passes defended. It'll again be a two-horse race on the strong side, with seniors Paul Dawson (91 tackles, 10.0 for loss) and Marcus Mallet (70 tackles, 8.5 for loss) jostling for snaps; calling one the starter and the second the backup is useless, in a sense, because both are irreplaceable cogs in the entire scheme – and both play at an extremely high level. At some point during the season, TCU will also call on reserves Sammy Douglas and Paul Whitmill. As a whole, this linebacker corps is terrific.
So the stopper's gone at cornerback – an issue, obviously. Let's begin with good news: TCU is positively loaded at safety in this 4-2-5 scheme, with a pair of reigning all-conference picks, Sam Carter (49 tackles, 5 interceptions) and Chris Hackett (88 tackles, 3 interceptions), joining Derrick Kindred, who broke into the starting lineup for the final third of last season. Put simply, in my opinion, the safety combination of Carter and Hackett is as good as you'll find in college football. Now, the bad news – or not-good news, rather: TCU loves senior Kevin White, and deservedly so, but I'd be worried about the Frogs' ability to corral the opposite side with some combination of redshirt freshman Ranthony Texada, junior Travoskey Garrett, fellow redshirt freshman Cyd Calvin and incoming JUCO transfer Corry O'Meally. Texada looks to be the starter for the opener – and the future at the position – but O'Meally could work his way into the lineup once he grasps the system.
Special teams: Amid the disappointment of an otherwise wince-inducing season stood the strong play of TCU's special teams, which remains intact heading into 2014 and serves as one of the Frogs' greatest asset. Kicker Jared Oberkrom is nearly automatic on makeable tries – say, from 35 yards and in – and productive on kicks outside his comfort room. Punter Ethan Perry excels at directional kicking, pinning opponents inside their own territory and effectively negating the return game. The Frogs' own return game is also steady with the potential for more if the staff gives Boykin a shot on punts.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Running back: It takes an entire hand to count up TCU's backfield options – five backs, to be exact, with one slightly ahead of the pack but the entire group in position to contribute in some capacity in the offense. The leader is junior B.J. Catalon (569 yards), last year's top rusher, but the Frogs' range of options virtually ensure a by-committee approach. There's even a wildcard: TCU remains hopeful that junior Aaron Green, a former Nebraska transfer, can eventually match the expectations that accompanied his four-star recruiting turn – he always has flashes of stardom, but Green remains far too inconsistent to be viewed as more than Catalon's primary backup. As is, Green could be pushed out of a heightened rule by three unknowns. Two are redshirt freshmen: Trevorris Johnson – a bigger back who should replace Moore in the rotation – and Kyle Hicks. The Frogs also add incoming freshman Shaun Nixon, a big-play prospect who could be the explosive, change-of-pace runner this backfield needs to complement Catalon.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Oklahoma: September won't teach us anything: TCU's going to sweep through the opening month, topping Samford, Minnesota and SMU while making the most of the two bye weeks in advance of conference play – and those extra practices will be hugely beneficial to the offense. But we will have a great idea of where TCU stands by the third Saturday of October, after the Horned Frogs host Oklahoma and travel to Baylor. The schedule clearly lessens after that point – how could it not, after all – but TCU could quickly find itself playing for third place with back-to-back defeats.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: It's all about the offense. It's an intriguing situation, to put it lightly: TCU has tossed away the past and embraced the future, this pass-happy, up-tempo scheme, and if the future looks brighter – this offense plays very well with the program's recruiting base; it fits wonderfully with the history of defensive excellence – I wonder just how ably the Horned Frogs will grasp what Cumbie and Meacham are pitching in 2014. The personnel is fine, if questionable in spots, but it's more about the mental side of the equation: TCU has those added bye weeks in September to work out the kinks, but I'm of mind to believe this entire offense will need one full season before finding a groove in the Air Raid scheme.
In the interim, Cumbie and Meacham will need to cobble together production from a group with some weak links. One is the offensive line, which is a tough queasy on the edges and still unsettled inside. The backfield has options, true, but the rotation remains a work in progress – TCU needs a burner and a big body to team with Catalon, with help potentially coming from the three freshmen. The receiver corps might have the bodies, technically, but the group as a whole played at a subpar level a season ago; they'll put numbers, but will they put up the explosive plays needed in this offense? In a sense, the quarterback position seems the firmest of all – and that's a bit ironic, because Joeckel is the newest member of the party.
This is still a supremely improved team from last year's four-win version. The offense will be better, if not quite to TCU's future standard. The defense is anywhere from good to terrific, depending on how you view the two major issues: defensive line depth and cornerback. The latter situation – still a worry, mind you – is ameliorated somewhat by White and the trio of safeties, two of whom are simply outstanding. In total, however, TCU isn't quite up to the task of taking down Oklahoma, Baylor and the top third of the Big 12. The Frogs could surprise – and Patterson seems to think this team can go places, which counts – but this seems more like a team that wins seven or eight games during the regular season.
Dream season: TCU loses to Oklahoma but rolls through the rest of the Big 12, ending the year atop the conference thanks to the Sooners' late swoon.
Nightmare season: The Frogs' offense never clicks, leading to another season spent lingering on the fringes of bowl eligibility.
Who's No. 36? This team's coach has lost only one conference game in his head-coaching career.