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What Held TCU Football Back? Here’s what the stats say.

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TCU’s season hasn’t met expectations; what struggles contributed to that letdown?

TCU Football vs Iowa State | September 29, 2018 | Amon G. Carter Stadium
TCU Football vs Iowa State | September 29, 2018 | Amon G. Carter Stadium
Melissa Triebwasser

Author’s note: I saw this post from the estimable Nunes Magician blog, commenting on Syracuse’s fun season from a stats angle, pretty simply, and it inspired me to do something similar. So, I want to thank by name Andrew Pregler and Nunes Magician for a burst of inspiration. The stats from this article (and from most of the season) are sourced from Bill C’s college football stat profiles, linked here.

Hello, friends, and welcome to Bowl Season. Last week we closed the book on a definitive ranking of the Big 12 teams, and this week, I’d like to conduct a post-mortem on the Frogs’ regular season. TCU finished a disappointing season on a bright note, winning two games in a row to finish fifth in the Big 12 and secure bowl eligibility. For their troubles this season, the Horned Frogs will be participating in something called “The Cheez-it Bowl”. The Bowl is a fine silver lining, and the Frogs overcame injuries unlike anyone else, but it’s hard to feel good overall about a season with no marquee wins and a strong candidate for the most embarrassing loss in the nation, not to mention school history.

TCU ranked 57th in overall S&P+; a spectacular 23rd ranked defensive effort washed out by a 99th ranked offense (and a 121st Special teams unit). TCU’s strength of schedule ranked 30th in the nation, and that in itself goes a long way towards explaining the 6-6 record, but we can go deeper. Before we break down TCU’s bowl game opponent, let’s answer the question: Why was TCU so bad this year?

Offense

First, I could talk about injuries until I’m blue in the face. That’s true. Injuries happened, and they had a big impact. I’m going to suspend the reality of that fact and constrain my discussion to on-field product only.

Let’s talk about offense, friends. TCU’s offense performed in the 33rd percentile or worse in 8 games, all coming in conference play. TCU’s rushing game ranked 92nd nationally in S&P+, and their 111th ranked marginal explosiveness illustrates how flat their ground game was, aside from one glorious moment. The passing game fared little better - 98th in S&P+, and a promising 66th ranked marginal explosiveness (thank you, Jalen Reagor), hampered though by a measly 84th ranked marginal efficiency. The offense ranked 119th in Big Play rate (5.5%), and aside from a precious few, but nonetheless spectacular, highlights, couldn’t move the ball, couldn’t convert on opportunities, and gave out turnovers with an ardent fervor.

The Frogs were 70th in success rate, a little worse than your average D1 team this season. In fact, at times, TCU moved the ball from 20 to 20 decently well, but that equation changed on opponents’ side of the field. TCU was successful on 25% of their first-and-goal opportunities (127th), and averaged barely more than field goal per trip inside the forty: 3.78 points per scoring opportunity, 122nd in the nation. As for turnovers? TCU’s actual turnover margin was -6, 106th in the country, but they had 1.2 points per game of turnover luck in their favor. In terms of expected TO margin, the Frogs ranked in the gutter again, 126th at an expected turnover margin of -8.9.

Third down, a hallmark of the 2017 Frogs’ success, was thorn in the side of 2018 TCU. TCU found itself in third down situations often - only 67.4% of their first downs came on first or second downs, and considering their average distance faced (third and 6.6, 15th shortest in the country), a 41.3% success rate is less than ideal. But, TCU was in third and long 47.2% of the time, and ranked 118th in third and long success rate - 19.3%.

The blitz, and pressure in general, threw a big wrench in TCU’s ball movement. TCU ranked 121st in success rate facing the blitz, down from 42% overall to 22.2% in pressure situations, and big play rate ranked 128th, down from 5.5% to 3.4%. The situational struggle with pressure embodies the season-long struggle with line play; facing Big 12 defenses emphasizing speed and confusion, the offense line was especially vulnerable to secondary blitzes and outside pressure. The offensive line performed admirably in pass protection, 12th in the nation in sack rate (3.2%), but struggled to sustain the run game 104th in stuff rate. We saw many a drive stall with a couple of runs crushed at the line.

Defense

The defense? Well, their problem was more situational.

Conclusion

The TCU Horned Frogs played one of the nation’s most difficult schedules, returned only 52% (114th nationally) of the production from last year’s 11-win team, and lost more starters to injury than anyone in the Big 12 this season. In spite of that, they are going bowling after finishing fifth in the Big 12, and they kept the win streak over Baylor alive. We can appreciate those accomplishments while acknowledging the clear hurdles to success the on-field product displayed. TCU has their work cut out for them in the offseason, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

The good news is this: the Frogs bring in a core of high ceiling recruits for 2019 (currently ranked 29th at 247 for the 2019 class ahead of early signing day). A quick look at the roster shows TCU bringing back an entire arsenal of young dynamic receivers, not to mention the influx of talent on the DL - plenty of guys who got playing time this year will vie for starting roles next fall. With changes, there is always uncertainty, but given Gary Patterson’s record in regards to down years, next year should see these offensive issues smoothed over and the Frogs much more competitive.