If you told an Oregon or a TCU fan in September that they'd meet in the Alamo Bowl, and that they'd be more than pleased with it, you'd probably get laughed out of your Fort Worth smokehouse or your Eugene brewery tour. It's as closfair to say that given the injuries on both sides–namely Vernon Adams and Josh Doctson –that both the Frogs and Ducks would be in the playoff conversation. That's, however, and to paraphrase Ron Washington, the way football goes.
Mark Bellotti, not unlike Gary Patterson in Fort Worth, propelled Oregon to the National spotlight beginning in the early 2000s. He took over in 1995, promoted from offensive coordinator, and during his tenure, gave us the gift of college-Joey Harrington and his 10 story in Times Square. The Harrington-era is also where Bellotti found his groove, and the 2000 and 2001 seasons, where arguably his best years; finishing 21-3 in that time before reverting back to more modest 7-6 and 8-4 seasons in 2002 and 2003. A year before Harrington finished fourth in the Heisman voting, TCU's own LaDainian Tomlinson also finished fourth. In a lot of ways, that was the beginning of the Gary Patterson era and the TCU football renaissance, for lack of a better word.
There are plenty of parallels you can make with Oregon and TCU, right down the uniforms. Of course, Oregon and their connection to Phil Knight will always be at the forefront of new-age uniforms, but the Horned Frogs aren't far behind-serving as a pseudo petri dish since the Utah game in 2009 for college football haberdashery. Not only will the uniforms be on display Saturday night, but easily the best endzones of the 2015 bowl season will be as well. Sure, it's Nike screaming in your face-but no one's really complaining.
Ancillary Arsenals, Wounded Secondaries
While the quarterbacks may be the core of Saturday's matchup, players like Royce Freeman, Aaron Green, Bralon Addison, Kolby Listenbee, among others, will make this game truly electric.
Freeman, unquestionably the second best do-it-all running back behind Christian McCaffrey, brings over 2,000 (1,706 rushing, 325 receiving) yards and 16 total touchdowns to San Antonio. Freeman, perhaps the most underappreciated player in college football this year, took a backseat to Leonard Fournette in the first half of the season, only to take a backseat to McCaffrey and Heisman winner, Derrick Henry, in the season's second leg.
Aaron Green isn't quite as versatile as Freeman, but his tendency for a big play is something Frog fans are quite familiar with. Even with star center Joey Hunt out, Oregon's defensive line, not to mention their secondary, should be more than permeable for Green to slice through. And don't discount what The Next Great American Hero, Kyle Hicks can do. Trevorris Johnson has more yards than Hicks and hybrid Shaun Nixon, but most of those yards have come in garbage time, and if anyone's getting carries that's not Aaron Green, it'll be Hicks.
Given that Nixon has been used more so as a sort of slotback in 2015, it isn't crazy to assume that Hicks is being groomed as the starter for 2016. What that means for Nixon in 2016 remains to seen, as he's one of the Frogs' most dangerous weapons. We have an entire summer to debate that. For Alamo Bowl purposes, Nixon will remain in that slotback position; at 11.3 YPC, he's clearly trusted by Doug Meacham to versatile enough to turn a dump pass or an in route into something bigger. We've said throughout the year these those types of passes to Nixon are essentially TCU's run up the middle, further proven by TCU's 2-1 pass-run ratio. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a lot of Nixon and a 2014-esque hurry up offense at some point in the game.
For deeper passes, look no further than Kolby Listenbee and Oregon's Darren Carrington (20.1 YPC) and Charles Nelson (17.2 YPC). It's probably for not great for a weakened Oregon secondary to have to play Kolby Listenbee in his final game. Mostly because of injury, the track wunderkind has been in cooling in the shade of Doctson's shadow for the majority of 2015. Even though Listenbee is at his most dangerous when Doctson is also on the field, his unmatchable speed, and 20.6 YPC, will be more than enough for the Ducks to handle. The transformation to shorter, more concise passes in 2015, and thus straying away from the high number of killshots like they threw in 2014, should spread the Ducks out enough to make Listenbee the threat he should be, but at the same time, and without Doctson, display glimpses of 2014.
Without Doctson, the Ducks have the upper hand at receiver, and that's because of Braylon Addison. Doctson, who caught just above 38% of TCU's touchdowns in 2015, also contributed significantly to the Frogs' much improved, and Top 25 (22nd) 3rd down conversion rate. However, without Doctson–and obviously TCU is much better with him–but perhaps without relying on him for the endzone fade, the Frogs can actually capitalize in the redzone, and do more than their 102nd ranked redzone offense suggestions. (Paging Kyle Hicks). Because for all the praise TCU gets, and should get on offense, being ranked in the 100s in any category is borderline inexcusable.
The Ducks aren't too shabby, but far from dynamite, in the redzone themselves. And to be fair, this arguably should be graded on a curve, as run-heavy or teams with power-run quarterbacks like Navy, Kansas State, and BYU thrive on. Then again, a team that nearly literally, only passes, pirate-led, Washington State, has a 95% redzone efficiency and ranks second in the Nation.
This is where Addison comes in. Not really your typical outside receiver, and at 5'10, Addison gets the kind of passes that Turpin and Nixon, and more so the latter, are used to getting. Perhaps even more than Freeman, Addison's big play ability–like turning a sub-10 yard reception into a touchdown, is always a possibility and will be a big test for Patterson's defense. The silver lining is that perhaps the bread and butter for the TCU defense in 2015, is their redzone defense, which ranks 25th Nationally at 77.5%.
While the Frogs' secondary hasn't been able to match the near perfect secondaries the previous two seasons, 2014 has survived-aside from the Oklahoma game-on a bend not break montra. Derrick Kindred, a San Antonio native, is undoubtedly the bright spot– Denzel Johnson, has also been fantastic. The cornerbacks, however, have been a problem. I said at the beginning of the year, when all of the injuries seemed to have happened, that R'anthony Texada would be the biggest loss–I still stand by that. Nick Orr, who's been playing safety and corner in 2015, is a very good No. 2, and would've been a perfect compliment to Texada.
Reddit user hythloday1 does a pretty great job with it, though I wouldn't exactly call the unit a mess beyond the second corner. But after the Oklahoma State game, it'd be hard to fight someone on that.
To be honest, this unit is a mess. After losing two starters to injury, #26 S Kindred is the only grown-up of the group, and he can only do so much (he's also not a great tackler, kind of hilariously whiffing a few times a game). I thought they found a decent replacement for the SS/OLB spot in #30 S Johnson, who's got good instincts and the strength to bring down ballcarriers on his own, but is a step slow in pass coverage (he's used as an outside blitzer quite a bit, my tally sheet shows about half successfully but half just too slow to be effective). #16 S Downing and #18 S Orr switched back and forth between cornerback and safety a lot, then #31 S Issahaku seemed to win the starting free safety job and relegated Downing to the bench, with Orr moving over to man CB coverage. Then a kind of manufactured crisis hit: #3 CB O'Meally and #2 CB Mosley (both similar builds and undersized) swapped numbers midseason, apparently because they felt O'Meally had developed a "reputation" for pass interference that was undeserved. It wasn't. Both of them would get simply beat a whole lot, and every DPI or holding flag I saw was proper, indeed I thought the refs missed a few. So Orr and Downing were back at safety for a while, and by the final couple of games they were starting with two new corners, #17 CB Raymond and #24 CB Lewis, neither of which seemed much of an improvement. I have no idea what the starting lineup is going to be for the bowl game.
While some of the players listed above leave big holes, teams like Oregon and TCU, playing in pass-heavy leagues, should be examined on a curve. Even when not graded on this imaginary curve, the Frogs still have the 18th ranked pass defense efficiency in the country, and second to only Oklahoma (12th Nationally) in the conference.
Boykin v. Adams
Adams' numbers, in the immediate games post his injury, were just above modest. 10 touchdowns and 4 interceptions deserves a tip of the hat, but a completion percentage under 60% in his first three games back-Washington, Arizona State, and Cal-raised a few red flags. However, like Boykin, Adams had a knack for winning close games in 2015. Thus, it's hard to call what he accomplished post injury a slump; instead a crawl. He beat a feisty Washington on the road, by 6, and while it may have taken 3 overtimes to beat a ho-hum Arizona State, it too, was on the road. He capped off his first leg back by demolishing California 44-28, and despite throwing two interceptions, it was his best game since thumping his former team, Eastern Washington, to open 2015.
Then came the Stanford game. The Cardinal came into that game, white hot, with a Heisman contender, and despite an early season loss to Northwestern, high off playoff momentum.
It's another indication of where both TCU and Oregon are. If either of these teams come to your place, and if they're not already you're rival, you want to beat them nearly as much if you were. Both of these teams have been knocking the giants in the teeth for nearly a decade now. Oregon, with a Heisman winner (Mariota) and two National Championship appearances, albeit no wins, have established themselves as an elite team.
As for Bram Kohlhausen, there's not a whole lot to say; other than by late Saturday night, he could be a TCU cult hero the rest of his life. Bram was only 5 of 11 and 122 yards against Oklahoma, but his two touchdowns, and taking over for the freshman, Foster Sawyer, nearly mounted a comeback against the Sooners. If you're divided on Bram and Sawyer, I'd like to politely tell you that you're wrong. I do however, don't think it's as divided as when the same discussion arose after it was announced Boykin wouldn't play in Norman a month and a half ago.
Coordinating Rumors Sponsored by the letter "T":
While Oregon will be without their coordinator Scott Frost, who accepted the head coaching gig at UCF, the Horned Frogs, will, somehow, be with both of theirs.
The forces at be kept Sonny Cumbie from taking the offensive coordinator gig, and over three million dollars, in Austin. The same day that Cumbie announced that he'd be staying in Fort Worth, rumors began to fly around that Doug Meacham would be leaving to accept the head coaching job at Tulane or pretty much every school that began with the letter "T"; Tulane, Toledo, Tulsa, etc. Whatever, and wherever the rumor started, that simply wasn't the case as Meacham was out on a recruiting trip with Patterson and Curtis Luper.
A Farewell to Arms (Legs and Hands)
We had the stingy defenses of the early to mid 2000s; then the Dalton era; the uncompromising and at times, frustrating Pachall era; and if only Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson could walk out of the tunnel just one more time together, draped in purple as Horned Frogs, we'd have a more appropriate farewell to TCU's greatest teams era. Sorry, 2009 and 2010. I don't think they'll take offense to that either. Just like this era won't take offense if the next era becomes greater than them. After all, a legacy isn't just what you did, it's what you leave.
Personally, and this is where bias comes in, I think TCU's been good for long enough, and producing names like Andy Dalton, Jason Verrett, Jeremy Kerley, Jerry Hughes, and Marshall Newhouse, to be considered in the elite tier. On the other hand. I also understand that TCU's really had just one quarterback since joining the Big 12. But should TCU produce similar, if not better results, with (presumably) Kenny Hill and without a threat like Josh Doctson, the Horned Frogs will be unimpeachably an elite program. An elite program, like Oregon and Michigan State, that's a National Championship away from being considered canon as one the of the all-time great programs.
Losing Boykin, Listenbee, Doctson, Aaron Green, Derrick Kindred, among others, isn't only discouraging because they're some of the best talent the Frogs have ever had-and like Boykin and Doctson, the best to ever player their respective positions in Fort Worth-but next 2016 now becomes both intriguing and frightening.
The wise guess would be that likely successful future of TCU will be, above all things, validated in 2016. Should Kenny Hill be able to not only be great himself, on the football field–never mind penetrating or even circumventing the Playoff Committee politics or having the good fortune of a healthy team–it will ease and keep the TCU fansphere confident that with Gary Patterson, and a new age offensive coordinator, or coordinators, this school will be good at football for a long time.
Next year, next chapter, begins Sunday