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Liberty Bowl Preview: Keys to Victory

What will the Frogs need to do to ensure a winning season with a victory over Georgia?

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Are there too many bowl games? Maybe. Possibly. Probably. But for TCU fans, we should be glad there is one more game this season, regardless of the tier it falls in. It’s been a disappointing 2016 around the football program, as the Frogs fell well short of the lofty expectations placed on them from both within and outside a program that has achieved such great heights the last two seasons.

But that’s all in the rearview mirror now, and we have but one game remaining before we put the 2016 football season behind us. And it’s one that both teams will use as a stepping off point for what they hope will be far better 2017s. How can the Frogs beat the Dawgs and lock up another winning campaign? Let’s take a look.

Hill Hath No Fury Like a QB Scorned:

I have yet to read a Liberty Bowl preview that didn’t mention in some form or fashion that the UGA defense would force a couple turnovers from ‘interception machine’ Kenny Hill. The much-maligned quarterback has yet to officially be named the starter for Friday’s game after suffering an injury in the final game of the regular season - one in which he neither started or finished - but it’s widely expected that he will be the guy on Friday as he tries to reclaim the magic of the early season before heading into spring drills. While fans clamor for true freshman Shawn Robinson to hurry to campus, coaches and teammates stand fast in their belief of Hill, at least publicly, who is vying to keep his job in his senior season. For Hill, Friday’s game is much more than an opportunity to finish his first season at the helm of the TCU offense with a winning record, it’s a chance to earn the trust of his teammates and coaches and to prove that he is the right man for the job in 2017. One good game would not a season of inconsistency erase, but it will go a long way towards building hope for the future.

What does Kenny need to do Friday to ensure comes out of top? It’s simple really: don’t turn the ball over, make the easy plays, and use his legs as a weapon. In the games the Frogs have won, that’s been the formula. It can work Friday, too.

Catch Me If You Can:

TCU wide receivers have had a rough go of things this past year, never developing a number one option and struggling with a serious case of the dropsies. Kyle Hicks was the leading receiver for the Frogs this year, which is all well and good, except he’s a running back. His 42 catches led the team, but his 396 yards was the third highest total. Taj Williams looked like a star at times, but struggled to shake loose on the intermediate routes and never really matched his breakout performance against SDSU. His 702 yards led the group, and his five touchdowns tied Jaelan Austin for most on the team. In all, six players hauled in 20 or more passes, and ten had double digit catches. But no one player established themselves as the go to guy when the Frogs had to have a catch on third down or showed they could consistently go up and get the ball through contact. And it was never more evident than late in the year, when the Frogs couldn’t get in the end zone against Oklahoma State and Kansas State at home.

Against a Georgia defense that has been good to very good, it will be crucial that Kenny Hill gets some help from the guys on the outside. Taj is the best deep threat option, and he has to stretch the defense to open things up for the inside guys - Des White and hopefully a healthy KaVontae Turpin come to mind - while Austin and Jarrison Stewart focus on running crisp routes and getting separation at the line of scrimmage. Ty Slanina and Deante Gray have been the forgotten men after suffering significant injuries over the last year plus, but the extra practice time should help to knock off the rust and get them in sync with Hill. I can see a big game from John Diarse, who was the most reliable target through the first month of the season, but has been quiet since. And of course Emanuel Porter, who might have the best tools of anyone on the field but hasn’t quiet pulled them all together. Frankly, there is too much talent in this unit for them to be as inconsistent as they have been, and a solid game from the group as a whole could go a long way to build confidence for 2017.

Don’t Let the Big Dawgs Run:

Georgia has not one, but two NFL-caliber running backs. I wrote a pretty comprehensive preview of the duo already, so you can check that out if you want. But the gist of it is this: Chubb and Michel are really, really good. And TCU has been really, really bad against the run lately. So, for the Frogs to get things done Friday, it will come down to what Gary Patterson has long called his pride and joy - his run defense. You aren’t going to stop these two, but if you can contain them, especially on first down, and force the Dawgs into second and third and long, it will put a lot on the shoulders of the true freshman QB in front of them. Wrap up, limit yards after contact, and mind the gaps. Put the game in Eason’s hands and see if the kid can get it done.

Be Aggressive, B - E - Agressive:

Jacob Eason has all the makings of being an exceptional QB for years to come, but for one more game, he’s a true freshman taking snaps. And if the Frogs aim to take away the run first, as I expect they will, the game will come down to his decision making and accuracy. The best way to make both things difficult for a young quarterback? Pressure. Lots and lots of pressure. The Frogs have been as good as anyone in the country in getting to the QB, racking up the nation’s seventh best total with 40 on the year. Josh Carraway leads the team with eight, and 13 total players have at least one. The most dangerous aspect of the TCU defense is that you’re never quite sure where the pressure will come from - defensive ends, defensive tackles, linebackers, corners, and safeties are among the positions to get in on the action in 2016, and I imagine we will see some creative delayed blitzing against UGA to account for the run-heavy offense they subscribe to. With the extra time for the young players to get in the playbook and get comfortable with GP’s scheme, I think he will let them loose tomorrow. The defense has long been a work in progress this year, but Friday’s game should be a chance to showcase the best of what they have to offer.

Can We Kick It:

The Liberty Bowl spread is a scant 1.5 points, rendering it a near toss-up. And in a close game, field position and the kicking game come into play in a big way. TCU has one of the better young punters in the country in Adam Nunez, but the kicking game has been heart-palpitation inducing, and at times heart-breaking, all season long. Brandon Hatfield won the job, and had some exceptional moments - nailing the game winner at Kansas and hitting on his last five attempts over three games. But in the most recent close game they played, against Texas Tech at home, he was just one for four as the Frogs fell in an overtime contest they should have won. Hatfield was better on the road than at home, hitting on all but one of his attempts. All four of his misses on the season came from 30-39 yards, so if the game comes down to a mid-range kick, expect fans to clench a little tighter. On the other side, Georgia’s hipster-glasses and defensive lineman number wearing Rodrigo Blankenship was a freshman All-American after making 13/16 attempts and 4/6 from 40+. It’s not all good news for the cult hero - a walk-on, his dad has threatened to pull him out of school if he’s not given a scholarship after Friday’s game. So, he could be available next season, for the right price, that is.

Ultimately, most seem to believe this will be an ugly defensive contest between two inconsistent units that won’t be able to rely on their quarterbacks to be accurate when it counts. That of course means it will be a shootout.

My pick: TCU 34, Georgia 30, with KaVontae Turpin’s big punt return late enabling the Frogs to salt it away.