A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about TCU...
11-2 (6-2 Mtn. West, 2nd)
Past Five Years
48-13 (30-10 Mtn. West/C-USA)
Returning Starters, Roughly
12 (5 Offense, 7 Defense)
Tommy Blake was an obscure sort of "above average" until his two-sack demolition of well-regarded Northern Illinois tackle Doug Free in the bowl game made him a very lucky sort of all-American. Had seven sacks, led the Mountain West in tackles for loss and is, in fact, quite fast when necessary.
A relative late-comer to ubiquitous hook-fingered Texas hand signs, TCU also puts in a fairly weak entry to the oeuvre: the index and forefingers extended and hooked, to form a "gig," as far as I can tell, which makes little sense for a team represented by the very animal most often gigged to embrace. Unless, that is, it’s a Superfrog, I guess.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
Of the many, many gibberish-laden chants nationwide, TCU employs a cheer with likely the highest nonsense-to-actual-word ratio anywhere:
Riff, Ram, Bah Zoo
Lickety, Lickety, Zoo, Zoo
Who, Wah, Wah, Who
Give 'em hell, TCU
By my count, that’s 15:2 in favor of made up monkey utterings, outpacing even Ole Miss’ blasted "Hotty Toddy," without – because it’s acoustically impossible – being nearly as irritating. I’m sure SMU partisans agree.
What's Changed: Unless the NCAA has a Dr. Frankenstein streak and elects to grant Robert Merrill an unnatural sixth year of eligibility for medical reasons, the two-headed tailback monster comprised of Merrill and Lonta Hobbs is no more. This is a kind of random obsession, since in reality, the two never played significantly as part of the same backfield or rotation after 2004 - Hobbs was hurt and gave way to Aaron Brown as the complement to Merrill in 2005, and Merrill sat out last season without a carry as Hobbs returned for a 665-yard swan song in the last ten games. From my Southern Miss perspective, though, the potential of these two as freshmen in consecutive, banner years for a conference rival (2002 and 2003) was ominous. Enough to maintain the same level of respect, at least, as they chugged along, hobbled, past the finish line, extending the race seemingly well beyond the bounds of typical career longevity, a repressed pet fear that never materialized (they changed conferences, after all) and never will. Unless they wind up on an Arena League team together...
Those uniforms are never coming off. Just in case.
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Anyway, leading rusher Brown is back, with a new quarterback (Marcus Jackson) athletic enough to improve on, ahem, gritty Jeff Ballard's typically good QB rushing numbers, even without the standout blocking of my favorite NCAA nickname, Herbert "Highway 78" Taylor. Who will be missed.
What's the Same: The Frogs have been generally good on defense for years, but this bunch was outstanding bordering on elite last year, even when adjusted for playing in the Mountain West, which TCU led in rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense, tackles for loss and sacks. The Frogs finished in the top ten nationally in every one of those categories except the last one, and that's only because Northern Illinois backup Dan Nicholson was so traumatized by the five sacks and 14 tackles for loss allowed by his offensive line in the Poinsettia Bowl, he was taking the liberty by the third quarter of instant throwaways and the occasional self-sack, which doesn't show up in the box score. That's not really hyperbole, if you click on the link - half of UNI's total yards came on one play, which didn't even lead to a score. The end of that game was like the tail end of a fight one guy has obviously won, and onlookers go "ooh" in equal parts awe and shocked revulsion as the pummeling escalates into the sickening thuds of elaborate, raw, one-sided cruelty. Not like Cool Hand Luke, when the pummeled keeps getting up, asking for more, but more like last night's Sopranos, when the kitchen staff watches Tony pistol whip and de-tooth a helpless rival in the restaurant. TCU beat Northern Illinois like the Huskies talked shit to its daughter, and it wasn't all that much more severe than what it did to offenses all season - Texas Tech, remember, scored three points on less than 250 total yards.
Actually, Chase Ortiz sack numbers plummeted from nine as a sophomore to two and a half last year, but it's a good visual anyway to imagine he and Tommy Blake, de rigeur draft sleeper on the other end, as a giant hinge coming around the outside, closing in and forcing the ball up into the waiting arms of linebackers Jason Phillips and Robert Henson in the middle of the rare 4-2-5 (i.e., a 4-4 with smaller "safeties" at outside linebacker). It's not that easy, obviously, but it does accurately describe offensive coordinators' nightmares. And Blake and Ortiz were still first and third in the MWC, respectively, in tackles for loss. The front as a whole was fairly awesome on third-and-short.
Missing You More Than I Thought I Would: The three serious losses are Taylor on the offensive line and leading tackler/workout freak Marvin White at safety/outside linebacker, both draft picks, and Ballard, an underrated quarterback who had this terrible game against New Mexico (6-16, 25 yards) and then ended the year on a tear. Look at this line against San Diego State: 20-23, 288 yards, 5 TD, an essentially perfect performance whose efficiency he very nearly approximated the rest of the way. My view of Ballard was always as a placeholder, a fundamentally "within-the-offense" guy, but those kinds of guys don't account for 15 total touchdowns in four games, as Ballard did to close his career.
Jackson was great (11-13, 2 TD) in leading the team from behind against Baylor's horrible defense in the opener and, again, will at least match Ballard's contribution to the running game, but he'll have to be very good as a passer very quickly - and without Quentily Harmon, the only receiver the last two years of any consequence - to initiate BCS talk that would already be buzzing if Ballard was back.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: Is this a little pie in the sky?:
The Sam Baugh Indoor Practice Facility was dedicated Thursday, the first piece in a facilities-upgrade puzzle that when completed could have the Horned Frogs closer to college football's ultimate prize: a national championship.
Gary Patterson appropriately pushes such an outsized "vision" off into the vague realm of "someday" and talks instead about conditioning and how to use the facility to control "the amount of heat we need to be the kind of team we need to be," but this is about players. He admits that, too, but the conference-hopping is not going to pay off in that kind of recruiting reward, no matter how good the record, until the hop is on up into the Big 12 or geographically confused/unscrupulous equivalent.
TCU on YouTube: Continuing that theme, after giving up 70 in Lubbock in 2004, the Frogs deliver one of the great defensive performances of last year against Texas Tech. One guy you'll see everywhere in this clip is #51, Robert Henson, who's only credited with four tackles the blocked kick. Marvin White delivers the KO at about the 7:00 mark:
Best-Case: Its conquering at the hands of BYU last year notwithstanding, the Frogs are arguably the belweather of the Mountain West in just two years. It goes without saying every conference game, and therefore the MWC championship, is eminently winnable, so the really big, Boise-esque, BCS-busting goal it almost reached in 2003 comes down to one game: at Texas on Sept. 8. The Frogs went into Oklahoma to open 2005 and stunned OU, so the upset is not out of the question. Even if that goes down, though, with a new quarterback and likely one-dimensional offense, I can't allow even my most violet-hued optimism to see this team running the table. If it can challenge for the BCS as a one-loss mid-major champion, more power to 'em.
Worst-Case: In addition to the obvious burnt orange boulder in the road to the bank, there's the state of Utah, whose rival flagship institutions dealt TCU its only MWC losses to date in back-to-back weeks last September. If Utah and BYU can repeat that unlikely double shanghai again, another possible upset - one of the reinvigorating new coaches at Stanford or Air Force, perhaps? - could have the Frogs in the vicinity of 8-4. A return to the Poinsettia Bowl is the worst postseason fate in realistic play.
Non-Binding Forecast: I'd call the Frogs the conference favorite, and if Ballard or maybe one of the cornerbacks returned, this would be a slam dunk entry to the bottom of your top 25. Which it may be, anyway. Still, it's perfectly reasonable to expect a stumble outside of the presumed - not at all automatic, but extremely likely - loss at Texas, and a 10-2 finish. That would be good for the sixth double-digit win season in eight years this decade, whatever satisfaction the Frogs are still getting from that without the corresponding rise in status or January bowl bucks.