TCU football came achingly short of capturing its second-ever Big 12 title last season. The Horned Frogs, after a 10-2 regular season, were dealt a 41-17 loss at the hands of Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game in Arlington, Texas.
The Horned Frogs are set to have a different look in 2018, having lost a large class of seniors after the 2017 campaign. Nonetheless, coach Gary Patterson will still expect his team to compete for the conference crown — even if there are some growing pains.
TCU, fortunately, isn’t the only team losing some of its top playmakers from 2017. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, like the Horned Frogs, will also have a new starting quarterback this fall. The changes on offense are bound to create a healthy dose of parity across the league, giving plenty of teams the hope of walking away with the Big 12 title in 2018.
So what exactly needs to happen for TCU to find itself back on the football field at AT&T Stadium on the first Saturday of December? Here are 5 things that likely need to occur for the Horned Frogs to win the Big 12 for the first time since 2014:
1. QB Shawn Robinson must show consistency
Shawn Robinson has what seems to be unlimited potential. The dual-threat Dallas-Fort Worth native won a state-title with DeSoto High School in 2016, in which he was responsible for 6 touchdowns during the championship contest at AT&T Stadium. Should he win the starting job this fall, those kind of sensational outings are what offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie will obviously be hoping for from Robinson.
The former 4-star prospect was far from perfect in his one start as a freshman at Texas Tech last fall, in which he was 6 of 17 in pass attempts, but showcased how dangerous he can be on the ground with 84 rushing yards. With an offseason to develop, he’ll need to display an improved passing game in 2018 and dictate the pace on offense if TCU intends to compete, which he is more than capable of doing. There may be a little bit more room for error across the league with other teams adjusting to new faces at quarterback. Regardless, TCU needs to see the version of Robinson that was advertised during his recruitment.
2. The backfield must remain healthy
TCU’s group of running backs, even with veteran Kyle Hicks missing two games because of an injury, flourished early in the 2017 season. That was in large part thanks to the emergence of Darius Anderson, who finished the season as the team’s leading rusher with 768 yards. Anderson, however, had his season end with a foot injury at Oklahoma on Nov 11. And it was after that injury, especially in the Big 12 Championship Game, where the depleted depth noticeably took a toll on TCU’s rushing performance.
With Hicks now graduated, the Horned Frogs will be relying on Anderson and Sewo Olonilua to carry the load in the backfield. The rising juniors are a two-headed monster when healthy, but TCU simply can’t afford to lose either of them in crucial moments of the season, as was the case last year. Had Anderson been healthy for the entirety of both contests vs. Oklahoma, the games could have looked entirely different. And TCU will be banking on both to have competitive, injury-free performances in 2018.
3. Set the Big 12 benchmark once again on defense
The Big 12 isn’t exactly known for its defense, but that hasn’t kept Patterson — in the words of ESPN’s David Pollock — from being a “defensive savant.” The TCU defense flourished in 2017, including a stretch of five straight second-half shutouts and seven straight games without a second-half touchdown allowed.
There will be hurdles this fall to replicate that success as the Horned Frogs will be without some of their top defensive playmakers from last year. Cornerback Ranthony Texada, defensive end Mat Boesen and safety Nick Orr are among those who graduated. As far as returners go, defensive end Ben Banogu will be back for his senior year after emerging as one of the most feared pass rushers in the Big 12 in 2017. As Patterson oh so often echos, it’s a “next man up” mentality for TCU on a 24/7 basis, and how the team lives up to that phrase on defense could impact its Big 12 title chances.
4. Exorcise the Oklahoma demons
There’s no way around it: Oklahoma has dominated TCU since the two became conference foes. The Sooners own a 6-1 lead in the Big 12 series between the two, and defeated the Horned Frogs by double digits not once but twice in 2017. Two of the losses, a 30-29 defeat in Norman in 2015 and the loss last December in the Big 12 Championship, would have seen the Horned Frogs win the conference title those seasons had they gone the other way.
The verdict is simple, and it’s that TCU’s performance vs. the Sooners can often be the difference in winning and losing the Big 12. The Horned Frogs’ lone Big 12 title came in 2014, and that just happened to be the same year that TCU posted its lone win over Oklahoma since joining the conference. The Horned Frogs get the Sooners in Fort Worth this fall, so it’s a prime chance to end the current four-game skid. The good news: Every Big 12 game between the two at Amon G. Carter Stadium has been decided by single digits, and Baker Mayfield won’t be under center for Oklahoma this time.
5. Win the home games
This is something that TCU knows how to do. The Horned Frogs have gone undefeated at home three of their last four seasons. The one season which they failed to do was 2016, when they only posted a mere two wins at Amon G. Carter Stadium. And that came in a year where TCU’s lone road loss was at West Virginia, so imagine what could have been had Patterson and Co. taken care of business in Fort Worth.
The Horned Frogs have the same home-away lineup within the Big 12 as they did in 2016, plus another non-conference Power 5 matchup in the metroplex, albeit this time in the form of Ohio State at AT&T Stadium. West Virginia is bound to be another challenging game as the Mountaineers return their top two offensive playmakers in the form of quarterback Will Grier and wide receiver David Sills V. TCU’s trip to Texas in Week 4 could also be a wild-card depending on how much the Longhorns improve. Regardless, we saw TCU make the Big 12 title game with two Big 12 road losses and a perfect mark at home last year. If they can do that again, expect the Horned Frogs to be in Arlington on Dec. 2.