How TCU Went From Possible Rebuild to Trendy Playoff Pick
Assessing a team’s potential in the preseason has long been fueled by a single ubiquitous statistic: returning starters. The metric dominates preview magazines and is a primary summer talking point for prognosticators of all stripes, from beat writers to Vegas handicappers.
Phil Steele and his annual publication is a primary source for much of the returning starter numbers. In reflecting on the importance of returning a critical mass of starters in 2015, Steele wrote, “there were 17 teams that returned 11 or fewer starters that did not have a returning starter at QB. Of those 17 teams, only two had a better record (Alabama was one of them). Of the 17 least experienced teams, 14 had a weaker record in 2015 than they did in 2014, and one had the same.”
In early 2016, Steele identified 16 of the FBS’ 128 teams that returned 10 or fewer starters. Some of them are brand names who are littered throughout the Associated Press’ preseason top 15, including Michigan State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Ole Miss, and TCU.
But only one of those schools returns three or fewer starters on offense and has to break in a new quarterback: TCU.
Athlon Sports 2016 College Football Preview Magazine, using its own criteria and assumptions, slotted TCU with just one starter on offense, tied for worst in the nation with Navy.
Yet, despite the exit of marquee talent such as Trevone Boykin, Josh Doctson, and Aaron Green, TCU – numberFire's 17th-ranked team in 2015 – has emerged as a trendy pick to unseat heavy favorite Oklahoma as the Big 12 champion and make the College Football Playoff.
Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports penned a love note to the Horned Frogs and its coach Gary Patterson last week. Mandel called for TCU to finish 11-1 and make college football’s Final Four, even as Patterson has stressed that both his offense and defense aren’t very good right now. Mandel wrote, “Well -- I don’t believe him,” concluding that Patterson “has a long history of A) operating under a constant state of nervousness over what could go wrong and B) defying expectations again and again.”
Others in the national media, as well as oddsmakers, have followed suit.
While we're projecting. I say 2 leagues will be left out of playoff this year. My CFP 4: Clemson, LSU, TCU and ND.
— Travis Haney (@TravHaneyESPN) August 21, 2016
At 5Dimes, TCU is currently the second most likely to win the Big 12 at +540. In Vegas, the Horned Frogs are between 30-1 and 40-1 to win the National Title.
For any other non-blue blood team, this would be unthinkable. But here’s how TCU made experts ignore the returning starters metric and thrust itself into the playoff picture.
It’s easy to trust Gary Patterson when you consider his teams’ run of recent success. TCU took a step backwards after joining the Big 12 in 2012, but in 2014, the Horned Frogs just missed out on the first ever playoff, going 12-1. And last year, TCU tallied an improbable 11-2 record in the face of crippling injuries.
Over the last five seasons, TCU’s average F/+ ranking (Football Outsiders’ combination of FEI and S&P+) is 23.6, third best in the conference, behind only Baylor and Oklahoma. Of the 10 teams in the Big 12 (goodness, is that bizarre to write), only Oklahoma has more seasons ranked in the F/+ top 20. Even when TCU sunk to 4-8 in 2013, numbers-based systems still considered the Horned Frogs a top-50 team.
Perhaps most significantly, TCU’s five-year F/+ ranking is also good for 18th in the nation. That suggests a perennial contender.
While Patterson regularly exceeds expectations, he isn’t doing so with a bare cupboard. That’s because Patterson and company spent their first two seasons in the Big 12 performing at top-20 efficiency level with top-40 grade talent.
The Horned Frogs’ on-the-field success begets more recruiting wins, and more talented players begets more success. It’s a cycle that the best coaches and programs figure out and exploit. Patterson has done just that after establishing TCU as a Power 5 force in essentially the length of a presidential term.
According to 247Sports Composite rankings, TCU’s talent base is only getting richer, especially compared to the average rankings of Big 12 teams. In 2016, TCU topped out with a 22nd-ranked class, while the Big 12 average was 42nd.
That should give TCU fans comfort. Such a highly rated class will usually produce a few freshmen who are prepared to join the rotation right away. Plus another year of experience for sophomores forced into action early in 2015, and suddenly this team could be deep, talented, and experienced.
The TCU faithful and bettors should also be prepared for TCU’s luck to improve, perhaps dramatically. Injuries decimated the Horned Frogs in 2015, and many of those players returning to full strength is a reason for optimism.
As TCU blog Frogs O’ War noted, only three Horned Frogs started every game at the same position. A total of 22 Horned Frogs missed time last year due to injury. But back are defensive end James McFarland, linebacker Sammie Douglas, free safety Kenny Iloka, and cornerback Ranthony Texada.
The Horned Frogs were also just plain unfortunate in the turnover department. TCU intercepted just 7 of its 63 passes defended, a miserable 11.1 percent rate. That was fifth worst in the nation, according to the SB Nation blog, Team Speed Kills. Bill Connelly calculated that TCU’s reversal in turnover luck in 2015 cost TCU about eight points per game compared to just one year prior.
The case for TCU as a Big 12 contender is strong, even with so many holes to fill. Yet, the metrics are fairly reserved on TCU going into the 2016. Of the four systems analyzed – FPI, FEI, S&P+, and Ed Feng’s The Power Rank – TCU projected between 21st and 31st.
It makes sense, given the lack of proven experience and production TCU will put on the field this season. According to Connelly, TCU returns just 48 percent of its production, including just 29 percent on offense. Phil Steele’s experience chart is equally as discouraging, with the Horned Frogs coming in at 113rd in the country.
But even Connelly takes his numbers with a heaping spoon of salt. Admittedly, they don’t take into account players returning from injury or transfers. In his preview article entitled “My numbers think TCU's a top-35 team in 2016. I disagree. They might be top-10,” Connelly points out that his projections have undersold how much talent TCU returns. “Iffy projection or not, this is a top-15 team,” Connelly wrote.
Understanding the impact of transfers on the metrics’ projections is particularly relevant here because TCU’s wildcard will likely be at quarterback, where former Texas A&M Aggie Kenny Hill is the presumptive favorite. He could be special.
In 2014, Hill broke onto the scene with an epic performance against South Carolina in the season opener. For the first few games, Hill looked like an All-American.
Pro Football Focus offered one of the boldest calls on Hill, naming him a dark horse Heisman candidate. Jeff Dooley wrote, “For starters, he earned the No. 21 passing grade in the country two seasons ago in just eight games, even out-ranking eventual No. 1 pick Jameis Winston, who played nearly twice as many snaps for Florida State. Hill was one of the most accurate QBs in the country that year, and he’ll be replacing a former Heisman contender in Trevone Boykin who excelled in TCU’s offense in 2015, ranking seventh in overall quarterback grades and fourth in adjusted completion percentage on deep balls.”
Hill will be guided by two geniuses in co-coordinators, Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, who turned Boykin from an afterthought into a fantasy player’s dream.
There’s also no guarantee that key defenders who missed all or part of last season will return to pre-injury form. Progression seems likely for freshmen turned sophomores, but is also not a certainty. And transfer talent doesn’t always translate into production, especially at the quarterback position (see: Everett Golson).
That said, TCU’s near-term future looks awfully bright, despite a superficial look of inexperience.
If the Horned Frogs are going to make a run at their first-ever playoffs, they will have to gel early in the season. The Horned Frogs will face tests against Arkansas and Oklahoma, albeit at home, by October 1.
|Date||Opponent||FPI Win Probability||F/+ Win Probability|
|Oct. 22||at West Virginia||42%||58%|
|Nov. 5||at Baylor||37%||20%|
|Nov. 19||Oklahoma State||39%||59%|
|Nov. 26||at Texas||38%||60%|
If you believe the metrics, TCU should lose to the Sooners. But then five other games are essentially tossups, if you assume the forecasts for Baylor need to be scaled back a bit. That is not an impossible road. Going 11-1 has gotten the Big 12 champion in the playoff before.
Yes, S&P+ projects just 7.1 wins. FPI 7.4 wins. But expect TCU to prove some of the metrics wrong.
With loads of talent coming in the form of transfers, freshmen, and players returning from injury, Patterson has all the ingredients for conference title concoction. If he and the Horned Frogs can pull it off, it might be time to retire the returning starters metric.