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TCU Football and Close Games in the Big 12 Era

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Sometimes a bounce of the football or a late-game mishap can change the direction of the season.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Texas Christian
How much different would TCU’s 2016 season had been if not for a penalty on this celebration?
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Every football game involves controversy, be it referee shenanigans, clock mismanagement, or a turnover bouncing to the opposing team. Often, that controversy plays no greater role in the outcome of the game - an “aw shucks” missed opportunity, and nothing more. Many a time, though, that singular outcome contrives to alter the course of a game, and in doing so, drastically affects a team’s season. Think of the ship out at sea, turned two degrees off-course - that small misalignment results in a drastic alteration of course and a new, unintended direction. As much as rate stats, turnover margins, and isolated points per play can inform and predict the outcome of a college football game, there is a level of randomness outside the realm of quantifiable variation.

TCU in the Big XII era is no stranger to these fateful minutia. Were it not for a fourth quarter pass interference call in Waco, TCU’s resume would feature a playoff appearance in their third year of Power 5 status. On the other side of the coin, were it not for a busted coverage in Manhattan, TCU’s (First) Alamo Bowl would be wiped from memory; Bram Kohlhausen a name you might have recalled hearing once, and nothing more. In the interest in the continued cultivation of comprehensive understanding of TCU Football under Gary Patterson, what follows is an investigation of fortune’s treatment of the Frogs, answering the question: How has TCU fared in close games in their time in the Big XII, and how have those close games affected the greater course of TCU Football’s narrative?

2012: 7-6, 3-3 in One-Possession Games (OPG), 41st in S&P+

  • W at SMU 24-16
  • L Texas Tech 56-53 3OT
  • W at WVU 39-38 2OT
  • W at Texas 20-13
  • L Oklahoma 24-17
  • L Michigan State 17-16

Let’s start from the beginning. In 2012, TCU began in earnest the Boykin Era. Their first year in the Big XII featured a scrappy and expectedly bumpy campaign, given the enriched competition and the talent turnover. The Frogs went 7-6, losing to Michigan St. in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. 2012 featured a slew of one-possession games for TCU; three times the Frogs were a possession away (and overtime twice!) from an 8 win season their first year in the Big XII.

2013: 4-8, 1-5 in OPG, 50th

  • L WVU 30-27 2OT
  • W at Iowa St 30-27 OT
  • L at Kansas State 33-31
  • L Baylor 41-38

The next year is one to forget, certainly; 2013’s 4-8 is the ugliest record TCU’s had under Patterson, and the worst since 1997’s 1-10. As intelligent analysts have well-noted , perhaps this team wasn’t that bad (Note: I had hoped to smugly link to a post of mine from way back, but it appears lost in the annals of time). L at Oklahoma 20-17

Note that 3 of those are at home, and four of them are losses - this will be important later.

2014: 12-1, 3-1 in OPG, 7th

  • W Oklahoma 37-33
  • L at Baylor 61-58
  • W at WVU 31-30
  • W at Kansas 34-30

Ah, 2014: a year to be remembered fondly. Do not remember a fourth quarter collapse - instead, remember the 82 points the Frogs hung on Tech, the win over Oklahoma, the annual drubbing of SMU.

Remember especially the ritual sacrifice of Bo Wallace, and the forever end of the Landshark:

Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl - Mississippi v TCU Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

2014 is the epitome of the “I’d rather be lucky than good, but ideally I’d like to be lucky and good” season in college football, as far as the Frogs are concerned. 3-1, with two clutch road wins and a dubious yet fateful loss on the road.

2015: 11-2, 6-1 in OPG, 18th

  • W at Minnesota 23-17
  • W at Texas Tech 55-52
  • W at Kansas St. 52-45
  • W Kansas 23-17
  • L at Oklahoma 30-29
  • W Baylor 28-21 2OT
  • W Oregon 47-41 3OT

2015 may top 2014 in terms of the “Cardiac Frogs”. Scratch that; 2015 was bar-none the most anxiety-inducing season in rememberable TCU history. I still have a nervous tick in my eye from Josh Doctson’s tip. There are times in history when you have some inexplicable mojo, some invisible force preventing you from failure. 2015 was one of those times. The magical catch, the Boykin drive, the best pass of Foster Sawyer’s life and one that needed a couple more inches - all of these defining moments could’ve easily gone the other way. Here, as in 2014, a missed tipped pass or a caught 2 point attempt could’ve been the difference in a bland 10 win effort or a playoff berth.

2016: 6-7, 1-4 in OPG, 47th

  • L Arkansas 41-38 2OT
  • L Oklahoma 52-46
  • W at Kansas 24-23
  • L Texas Tech 27-24 2OT
  • L Georgia 31-23

Another forgettable campaign of the Patterson Era is more than meets the eye. Save a phantom “throat slash” against Arkansas and a couple missed field goals, TCU is in Orlando for the Camping World Bowl and a decent season. (And with one more defensive stop, maybe something even more.) On the flip side, save the Jayhawks’ ineptitude, TCU loses the most inexcusable game in its history, and the Frogs likely collapse down the stretch.

2017: 11-3, 2-1 in OPG, 14th

  • W WVU 31-24
  • L at Iowa State, 14-7
  • W Stanford 39-37

2017 involved more Alamo Bowl magic and the help of some calls against WVU to get TCU to 11 wins. The real sting this season is the Iowa State: A team with TCU’s stat profile is expected to win this game 65% of the time, and was the decisive line item that kept TCU out of the New Year’s Six games.

Conclusion

Since joining the Big XII, TCU is 16-14 in one-possession games, about a coin-flip. Depending on your normative commitments to optimism, you could say that a coin-flip here or there was the difference between a fun Peach Bowl and a Playoff bid, or a mediocre 7-5 season instead of an abysmal 4-8 campaign. The sequencing of those games lends credence to a two-fold hypothesis: First, success and luck are often correlated (when TCU has a winning record in OPGs in a season, they have won 10+ games). The Frogs’s low points have been consistent failures of execution in key moments, resulting in an optically “unlucky” season. Second, success in college football is often only a matter of time. The sequencing aspect to the somewhat spurious relationship between luck and success is tough to quantify, but clearly, much of a successful college football season, at least in TCU’s case, is a result of being in the right place at the right time. The Frogs featured losing OPG records in the years proceeding some of their greatest seasons; when personnel doesn’t change from year to year (2013 to 2014/2015, 2016 to 2017), that indicates some unfortunate timing might level out the next season. TCU’s 4-8 to 12-1 and 6-7 to 11-3 seem like wholesale flips, but in reality, are more a product of continued player development and some better luck.