The Frogs open 2011 with a pair of very similar road games. Both come against familiar foes—Baylor has played TCU three times since 2006, including last year's "game" in Fort Worth. Air Force has been a conference opponent for seven years running. Both opponents feature senior quarterbacks, experienced skill players, and aggressive defenses, and both teams need to recover some dignity after suffering thorough beatdowns in Fort Worth last season.
TCU cannot afford a loss at either opponent if it wishes to play in a meaningful bowl, and needs to settle a lot of first-time starting jitters—without the benefit of a cupcake opponent at home.
The Frogs' success in Waco and in Colorado Springs, perhaps more than its other opponents in the first half of the season, will hinge on how successfully Casey Pachall can leverage success on the ground into success in the air. This was the formula by which Andy Dalton led TCU to the fore of the Mountain West, and will be the key to Pachall continuing the Frogs' dominance in that conference for a final year. So the question on this first pair of road games is going to be, after the threshold questions of basic competence about which Frogs fans have every reason to be confident, how well will the offensive line keep Baylor's and Air Force's pass-rush out of the pocket, and how well will the line blow open holes for TCU's parade of talented tailbacks?
Because four out of the five positions on the line appear to be solidly staffed and settled, the real question centers on one position: left tackle. Phil Bennett (Baylor's new DC) and Matt Wallerstead (AFA's DC) will focus first on running around TCU's left tackle. If they succeed, thereby shortening the time Pachall will have to read the defenses and get the ball to his playmakers, or take it himself, these games may be low scoring affairs.
Looking specifically at the opener, in Waco, Baylor may be building a reputation for high pressure up front, but Gary Patterson has long thrived in Fort Worth as the architect of relentless, fast, offense-stymieing, rushing defenses. No team knows better its horrors than Baylor, who is only playing the respect card in the press this offseason. It appears any progression the Bear o-line has made this offseason will be offset by the speed TCU's defensive line added in that same span. Look for Robert Griffin to have just as little time to find open receivers in 2011 as he had in 2010; and for the yet unproven Baylor go-to back to have just as little success in the face of TCU's 2011 defense as Jay Finley had against TCU's 2010 defense.
If there is to be a bright spot for Baylor fans looking for offense, it will be occasional success in the passing game. Baylor may have the best receiving corps in the Big12-minus-2 this year, and some of those veteran receivers are going to catch a break against TCU's very young secondary some of the time, and Griffin is going to be able to exploit some of those opportunities. That's some of some of some—not good enough odds on which to build the case for a lot of points. But some points will come.
Will they be enough to top the Frogs? That will depend on TCU's left tackle; if history proves any guide, the answer will be no. Fall camp likely holds the answer, and so for now the prognosis is cautious, but optimistic.
Next comes the conference opener in Colorado Springs. Ask BYU about how difficult Air Force can be early in the season; better yet, ask TCU. The Frogs won a squeaker there in 2009, admittedly facing more than just the Falcons. TCU lost in Colorado Springs, two times ago, in 2007, when Andy Dalton was a very new starter and the defense was unexpectedly weak up front. Thankfully TCU won't be coming off as emotional a game as the Texas game was in 2007, nor as short a week as it did that year, playing on a Thursday following the match in Austin. In fact, this young TCU team will have an extra day to prepare for the Falcons' atypical (and now highly veteran-driven) attack. So, of the elements that contributed to TCU's recent loss, and more-recent near-loss in Colorado Springs, only youth at quarterback reappears in 2011.
If unresolved by September 10, TCU's potential issues at left tackle again will significantly dampen the Frogs' chances for victory against the Falcons. Air Force is a much more experienced squad in 2011 than the Frogs are, and if able to limit TCU's offense, may be able to wear out the defense as well and, much like 2007 or '09, be within a score in the final minutes. Young offenses press too much in that circumstance, and by failing to take what the defense gives them, squander opportunities. In no other game do the Frogs face this danger than this early trip to Colorado Springs.
And yet, the defense likely will keep this game within reach; Pachall is more experienced than Dalton was in '07, and his supporting offensive cast considerably more talented. The elements will be vastly better to the Frogs than they were in '09. If the Frogs are merely decent at tackle, the odds favor TCU, if only modestly.
The schedule eases up for a couple weeks, as the Frogs open their home season in a diminished Amon Carter stadium. A deeper look at week three's opponent, Louisiana Monroe, shows a spunkier-than-advertized team. The Frogs will have good film on the Warhawks, who will already have played Arkansas before their trek to Fort Worth. ULM's blitz-based defense will cut a few TCU drives short; but the Frogs will return the favor and then some. TCU's defense will overpower ULM's offense, and by the fourth quarter, will make a decent game look like a blow-out.
Portland State makes their longest roadie in week four, filling the 2A cupcake role in TCU's schedule this year. Recently the Frogs have taken 2A opponents lightly, but Portland State is probably the least successful 2A team in three years to play in Fort Worth. If Frog fans haven't seen a solid offensive performance yet in 2011, they'll get their first one here, boosting confidence for the most difficult pair of games on the Frogs' 2011 schedule.
The first part of that hardest-pair is SMU's biannual trip to Fort Worth. Because ULM and Portland State lack respect among pollsters (ULM perhaps unjustly) TCU only will be favored in this game if the rebuilding on offense has visibly succeeded from the get-go. If the Frogs have any losses in September, the Mustangs will bring expectations of a win with them, and such a victory may not require an upset.
SMU's strengths have begun to outnumber its weaknesses. Kyle Padron is not only experienced, but is seeped in June Jones's run-n-shoot, as are his receivers and runningbacks. SMU—especially its defense—has played TCU very heatedly since Jones arrived on the Hilltop, and if TCU has vulnerabilities on offense, expect SMU to exploit them. Its lines are deeper than any to play in the red and blue in many years; its skill players are only slightly less talented than TCU's. Probably parity is a couple years away in this rivalry, but certainly the competitive distance between the two squads is as narrow as any fan as seen since the bad old days.
Key matchups in this game will be in the contest between the second level of the Mustang defense Casey Pachall's ability to read and react to what they give him. SMU got a couple of interceptions out of Andy Dalton last year, and will be looking to get more out of the less experienced Pachall. This will be particularly painful for the Frogs if the Mustangs can get pressure on Pachall, which, if the TCU o-line hasn't stepped up at tackle, may be a possession-shortener for the Frogs. Fortunately for TCU, its potential worries on the line probably will have eased by this point in the season, especially at home. In football, depth is beauty.
Unlike Baylor and Air Force, SMU has a pretty well balanced offense in its pass attack and Zach Line at runningback. Line may have been the most underestimated runningback in college football last season. His crew will test TCU's defense like no other in September, because of its potential to strike at any level of the defense. Fortunately for TCU, the Frog linebackers are very experienced (and all-American caliber) and will be very hard to fool. Even if TCU's offensive line did not play very well early in the year, by this fifth game, it will have improved, and probably will be able to power TCU's offense well enough to put up points on the hard-charging Mustang defense.
The second half of TCU season-defining two-step is also the Frogs' second conference game-- the road trip to San Diego State. Likely 2011 will see the most balanced and dangerous Aztec team ever to play in the Mountain West. Lucky for TCU, it again has an extra day to prepare for this difficult roady. SDSU will, if its young receiver corps and new play calling by Andy Ludwig is on par with last season's, be a good rehearsal for BYU and Boise State. Most of SDSU's o-line and its quarterback are seniors and very good; its runningback, Ronnie Hillman, is probably the finest TCU will see in 2011; defense is Rocky Long's calling card, and Pachall will be facing it for the first time. If Long's inaugural year at the helm of the program is not a step-down from the short but brilliant Hoke era, the Aztecs will have decent fan support, which will be a new experience for the Frogs in California. There is every reason to expect TCU's defense to be able to quell the Aztecs most of the time, and the TCU offense to score intermittently, at least; reasonable expectations increase in tandem with the performance of Pachall and his line.
The Frogs' first bye week follows the SDSU tilt, and gives TCU a week to recover before facing New Mexico, the first of a two-game Metroplex "home" stand. Because it appears the implosion in Albuquerque is not abating, TCU should roll the Lobos with typical ease. New Mexico's best hope to win this game is for it to be playing for a new coach, and for TCU to be worrying about a surging BYU, which arrives less than a week.
Six days after New Mexico, on the Frogs' third Friday night game, TCU and BYU face off on ESPN, in a quasi-neutral sited game at JerryWorld in Arlington. BYU will attract a relatively large crowd, and with ticket prices lower than last season's JerryWorld opener, expect a large Frog following. Perhaps this will be the largest crowd ever to witness a TCU game in the Metroplex. And what a game it may be—BYU expects to return to something like the offensive potency to which it became accustomed with Max Hall, and its defense will be very good. TCU will have to be playing very well to best the rebounding Cougars. And with a bye week to heal and prepare for BYU, TCU should be playing very well. This matchup has acquired a rivalry-like feel, and given the unusually large crowd for the visitors, expect a very spirited effort from the Frogs.
Game nine, falling on week ten, is the Frogs last trip to Wyoming. Wyoming certainly will not be the pushover it has been recently, but several factors make this game a gimme. The biggest, perhaps, is that the Cowboy quarterback, whoever it is, will be facing the Frog defense for the first time. Granted, the game will have slowed down for him in a general sense, but expect him to say, after the game, the same thing that every team says after a first encounter with the Frogs: that they are the fastest team he's ever played. Pachall, on the other hand, has played Wyoming, and by this point in the season, will be emerged from any sophomore slump he encounters in 2011. The Cowboys just don't have the horses to beat a healthy TCU this year.
But Boise State does. The Mountain West gambled with this one, specially changing the site of this game to favor Boise, which is expected to be undefeated entering Week eleven. If Boise finishes the season undefeated, it will win a third consecutive BCS berth for the Mountain West. Of course the Frogs will wish to be a fly in that ointment, especially considering how rudely the conference treated TCU in moving this match to the mountains. But if Kellen Moore is at the helm, no oddsmaker will give TCU any chance on the blue turf. The Frogs beat Boise State only if a few stars align just so: the defense will have to play brilliantly, forcing turnovers, and the offense will have to be able to maintain long possessions and leave no scoring opportunities unmet. All this while on a blue field, against players in blue uniforms, amid a very hostile crowd. This is unlikely with as young a team as TCU fields in 2011.
Boise State is the single most difficult opponent TCU faces in 2011. The Frogs close out the season in Fort Worth, with Colorado State, an easier opponent, and, after a bye, UNLV, a much easier opponent. The Rams may be a complete team in 2011, with a very good quarterback, a very experienced offensive line and talented runningbacks, and a veteran defense. This probably is not a trap game, because what success CSU will have made out of 2011 will be well documented by mid-November; there's no sneaking up on an opponent so late. If the Frogs overspend emotionally in Boise, perhaps Colorado State can upset the Frogs; but because this is a home game for TCU, consider that unlikely.
After a bye for Thanksgiving, the Frogs face the youngest team on their schedule. By December, UNLV will have succombed to its lack of depth and experience. Only with a monumental upset does TCU not finish its sojourn in the Mountain West with a win. UNLV's quarterback will be seeing the Frogs for the first time, and a season's sum of injuries will have taken its toll on the young team's two-deep. TCU has depth where UNLV won't for years to come, even if Bobby Hauck is successful rebuilding that program.
So what's the sum total for TCU this season? Despite the cheery news out of spring drills, 2011 is a rebuilding year for the Frogs, on offense especially. Matching that bad news is the fact that four of TCU's five or six toughest games (Boise State, Air Force, San Diego State, and maybe Baylor) come on the road (SMU and CSU come to Fort Worth, and it's not clear CSU is going to be any good). TCU simply isn't going win all of those roadies with so much green on offense. Frogs fans probably do not need to brace themselves for a repeat 2007-- TCU's last rebuilding year. This time around the defensive line is deeper, more experienced, more talented, and less prone to nervous breakdown; the backfield is better by an order of magnitude; the new starter at QB more experienced and (dare we say it?) more talented; the coaches are more experienced, too. And there's not a date with Colt McCoy lurking in week 2, followed by a trip to Air Force on a sort week. So those landmines remain history.
But 12-0 also will remain history, because this is, still, a rebuilding year. Call the tilt in Boise a loss, and probably one or two more. At home, SMU and BYU are going to give the Frogs all they can handle; in fact, it's very possible one or both of those teams could give TCU more than it can handle, especially if the Frogs get turnover happy. So success in 2011 is winning all five of the "easy" games: Louisiana-Monroe, Portland State, New Mexico, at Wyoming, and UNLV, and then at least four of the harder ones: at Baylor, at Air Force, SMU, at SDSU, BYU, at Boise, and CSU. That would mean a 9-3 regular season, and a lot of reasons to expect a barnstorming Year One in the Big East.
Any better than that is gravy.