Hoo boy it feels good to be writing about an actual game again! I mean, the 50,000 words or so invested in countdown pieces were fun and all, but I am ready to start talking actual on field football again. As, I am sure, are Coach Patterson and the rest of the TCU Football coaches and players. But it will be no small task for the #2 team in the nation - let's say it again THE NUMBER TWO TEAM IN THE NATION - to travel up to one half of the beautiful twin cities and take care of business against a solid Golden Gopher team that has revenge on their minds. And, when you add in that the eyes of the college football world will be upon them as they help kick off the FBS season, there will be a lot of pressure on two teams that feel they have something to prove.
For Minnesota and Coach Jerry Kill, the mantra remains Prove Them Wrong - as in this can be more than an eight or nine win team and a good story, but one that can compete for a division championship and a Big Ten title. Is this the Gopher team that lost to Illinois or the one that played Ohio State within one score? They have a chance to show they are the latter against the Frogs. And for TCU, as we all know, the slogan is Prove Them Right; show the world that you deserved that playoff spot and that you won't be denied this year from taking what is yours. So how can the Frogs leave Minneapolis still square on the path to eternal glory? Let's take a look.
ROADS SCHOLARS: The TCU offense occasionally struggled on the road last season, being held well under their season average at West Virginia and Kansas, and struggling at times against Texas and in the fourth quarter of that other game (still can't say it, sorry). An aggressive defense forced turnovers regularly for the Frogs in three of those scenarios, and Boykin and co were able to take advantage of short fields to put points on the board in bunches against the Longhorns and SMU. With no warmup game against a lower level opponent to work out the kinks, it will be up to the veteran guys on that side of the ball to be efficient and effective in a hostile environment. Fortunately, weather doesn't appear to be an issue (unlike the two low scoring games for TCU a year ago), and Trevone Boykin has had a whole off-season to study film and refine his technique. Unfortunately, he has had to operate much of the spring and fall without two of his favorite targets, with Josh Doctson and Deante' Gray still battling injuries - the latter having been all but ruled out for the opener. On the off chance the passing game isn't clicking right off the bat, the running game should be an effective weapon - with one of the best offensive lines in the Patterson era to run behind, and the escapability of the guys looking to bust through it, the opportunity to exploit a Gopher's D that allowed 175 yards per game on a 4.8 ypc average is certainly there as well.
DO YOU TRUST THE NEW GUY(S)?: Mike Freeze. Sammy Douglas. Alec Dunham. Whoever starts at corner opposite Texada - which appears to be Nick Orr based on this morning's depth chart. There are a lot of new faces littered up and down the defense, with a lot of returning guys filling bigger roles as well. For those picking against the Frogs, it's the main cause of contention; for those picking them to win the Big 12, it's the main cause of concern. While the Frogs will field an outstanding (and I feel criminally underrated) defensive line, and while Patterson will have possibly his fastest group behind them, the fact is, they haven't played meaningful snaps, if any at all. Shoot, at linebacker, you are looking at starting a true freshman who missed his senior year of high school to injury, and OH HAS NEVER PLAYED THE POSITION BEFORE. Mike Freeze may end up being the next great LB in a long line of guys that have had incredible success at the collegiate level and beyond coming from GP's system, and he certainly has the tools to do it. But, that being said, we just plain haven't seen him play. In fact, when the Frogs take the field for the first time on defense tomorrow, they will be the only school in the country to play two LBs who have never started a game. But, I digress: the question is, do you trust the new guys? The long answer - which is of course the one you're getting from me - is no. I don't. How could I? they are all unknowns. But you know who I do trust? Gary Patterson, who thinks those guys are good enough to start. Derrick Kindred and Ranthony Texada, who believe in the rest of the backfield and seem legitimately excited about what they will be able to accomplish as a group - and who trust Patterson's vision completely. And Mike Tuaua, Josh Carraway, and the rest of the defensive line, who are committed to being nasty enough to not give QBs much of a chance to test the guys behind them. Oh, and one more new guy: with Cameron Echols-Luper out of the picture and Gray unlikely to be ready, who the heck is going to return punts? I have my eye on Kavontae Turpin, and I am predicting a Deante' like debut for him tomorrow night.
KNOW YOURSELF KNOW YOUR WORTH: In addition to the concerns over the new faces on defense, one of the biggest talking points surrounding TCU in the off season has been how they would handle having a target on their back from day one. Well, if history has any indication, the past is firmly on the side of TCU: the last two times they were picked to finish first in the conference in preseason polls, they went undefeated in the regular season and went to a BCS Bowl (losing the Fiesta and winning the Rose). The Frogs are 30-3 when ranked as a top ten team, and 19-1 with a top five ranking under Coach P. Now, pundits will point to the fact that many of those wins came as members of lesser regarded conferences, but I would argue that they also came against BYU and Utah, Wisconsin, and Boise State. It is certainly harder to do against the week to week grind a team faces in a P5 conference like the Big 12, but the Frogs acquitted themselves quite well in that scenario a year ago. All that to say, while it is important to not spend the off season reading their press clippings and believing the hype, there is absolutely no reason for TCU to take the field not feeling confident and prepared. They have earned this distinction, meaningless as it may be in September, and should expect to play at a high level. What I have liked most as camp has wound down, is that you get the impression that this is a confident team - so confident in fact, they don't feel the need to tell you that they are.
GREENER PASTURES: Aaron Green is the X-Factor. With so much focus on the passing game (rightfully so), the wide receivers (as deep and talented group as there is in the country), and the questions marks on defense (already discussed above), #22 seems to have slid under the radar this off season. It's easy to forget just how good he was - despite not starting until the final five games, he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and scored 11 touchdowns - showing the skills that made him a four star recruit out of San Antonio. Though listed alongside Kyle Hicks and Trevorris Johnson as co co starters, it's clear Green is the bell cow; while four backs will get considerable touches, he is THE guy when you need either a tough four yards or a big time play. And, if the defense isn't getting it done, and Patterson needs to buy some time to make adjustments, Cumbie/Meach may be asked to run it a little more to slow things down just a hair. If that does become the case, expect the ball to be in Green's hands - a lot.
JUST WIN, BABY: Ultimately, this is just a game TCU needs to win. All the praise, all the attention, all the articles... they don't mean anything if the Frogs don't win football games. As good as this team is capable of being, the talk stops tomorrow night and it's time to get down to brass tacks. If the Frogs play up to or near their potential, they should win, and win with a little breathing room - the fact is they are a better football team than Minnesota, pure and simple. But, if they don't believe they will have to fight for that victory, it could be a long, disappointing evening in MSP. With a two touchdown line, most national pundits and fans will be looking for a blowout; but with the injuries mounting and the new faces littering the starting lineup on D, I am sticking to Gary's favorite line: a one point win is still a win. This doesn't need to be a night for style points, just a night to celebrate 1-0. Let's do it. Go Frogs!