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TCU Football is near the bottom of returning production. Does it matter?

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The Frogs are in the triple digits when it comes to experience rankings. We look back over the last few years to see how that should make us feel.

Valero Alamo Bowl - Stanford v TCU Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Two years ago, the Frogs had just a handful of seniors on the team that played meaningful snaps. Last year, that number quadrupled. And now, heading into 2018, we are faced with a lot of new faces who look to replace players that weren’t only good, but often good enough to now have moved on to the ranks of professional football.

TCU fans don’t need to look back too far to see how what it looks like when a team is senior-heavy - in 2015, the Frogs brought back a ton of big names, and fresh off of a season that saw them pull off a surprising run to the Peach Bowl (and almost the College Football Playoffs), were the country’s #2 ranked team heading into the season. But injuries and bad luck derailed a season that was supposed to end with a championship race, and the Frogs took a step back a season later as new players took the leadership reigns and a young team took the field.

Last month, Phil Steele released his returning production rankings for the 2018 season, and TCU was near the bottom of the list - #120 out of 130 eligible teams, to be exact. Steele also ranked the Frogs 20th in his preseason poll, so take that for what you will, but, it’s less than encouraging heading into a season where the Frogs are expected to compete for a Big 12 title in a window that falls between OU runs and before Texas and Iowa State develop into potential powers. The window isn’t small for a TCU program that has proven it can consistently win in this conference, but the competition is just getting tougher as the coaching in the conference gets better.T

Taking a look back at the last three years to see what TCU came in ranked as, experience-wise, compared to where they finished, as well as how teams in a comparable range to the 2018 ranking finished in previous seasons reveals some interesting date. Using two metrics - Steele’s Experience Rankings as well as Bill Connelly’s Returning Production (from 2016 on). In the interest of relevancy, I am using 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, we will look primarily at TCU, but factor in several other Big 12 teams to help set a baseline.

Starting with 2015, when these rankings were pretty simplistic in their infancy:

2015 Returning Experience

Team Steele Ranking Connelly Season Record CFP Final Ranking
Team Steele Ranking Connelly Season Record CFP Final Ranking
TCU #42 (9 Offense, 5 Defense) 87% Offense, 50% Defense 11-2 (7-2) 11
Oklahoma #58 (7 Offense, 6 Defense) 73% Offense, 61% Defense 11-2 (8-1) 4
Oklahoma State #17 (8 Offense, 8 Defense) 40% Offense, 40% Defense 10-3 (7-2) 16
Texas #58 (8 Offense, 5 Defense) 56% Offense, 46% Defense 5-7 (4-5) NR
West Virginia #42 (6 Offense, 8 Defense) 79% Offense, 68% Defense 8-5 (4-5) NR

Oklahoma was a middle of the pack team when it comes to returning experience, but under the guidance of a transcendent player at QB, made a run to the College Football Playoffs and finished the year ranked 4th.

In 2016, the metrics became a little more advanced, and a little more specific.

Phil Steele’s 2016 Returning Experience

Team Rank Total Experience Points % Lettermen Return % Yards Return % Tackles Return OL Career Starts Season Record Final Rank
Team Rank Total Experience Points % Lettermen Return % Yards Return % Tackles Return OL Career Starts Season Record Final Rank
TCU 113 49.3 68% 33.10% 72.80% 46 6-7 (4-5) NR
Oklahoma 99 54 73.10% 78.10% 57.00% 32 11-2 (9-0) 7
Oklahoma State 6 75.4 66.70% 74.30% 70.50% 101 10-3 (7-3) 12
Texas 55 55 74.30% 81.20% 73.10% 49 5-7 (3-6) NR
West Virginia 54 63 61.10% 76.30% 40.30% 84 7-2 (10-3) 16

Bill Connelly’s 2016 Returning Experience Rankings

Team OFF % RET Rk Proj. PPG change (Off) DEF % RET Rk Proj. PPG change (Def) % RET Rk Season Record Final Rank
Team OFF % RET Rk Proj. PPG change (Off) DEF % RET Rk Proj. PPG change (Def) % RET Rk Season Record Final Rank
TCU 47% 103 -1.8 71.00% 42 -1.3 59% 86 6-7 (4-5) NR
Oklahoma 71% 54 1.5 60.00% 82 0.6 65% 61 11-2 (9-0) 7
Oklahoma State 78% 35 2.5 62.00% 72 0.2 70% 42 10-3 (7-3) 12
Texas 79% 33 2.6 79.00% 13 -2.8 79% 15 5-7 (3-6) NR
West Virginia 85% 21 3.5 34.00% 128 5.2 60% 84 7-2 (10-3) 16

The Frogs fell way off in production - losing guys like Trevone Boykin, Josh Doctson, Aaron Green, Joey Hunt, Derrick Kindred, and Jaden Oberkrom was too much to overcome, and despite an experienced quarterback in Kenny Hill, TCU was a sub-.500 team. Meanwhile, Oklahoma once again overcame being one of the country’s youngest teams to finish in the top ten, while Oklahoma State squandered a golden opportunity to pounce within the conference by losing Bedlam and falling out of the Big 12 Championship race. That will haunt the Cowboys for quite some time - just look at the offensive line experience!

In 2017, the most interesting team was Texas, who skyrocketed up the experience chart to tenth by Phil Steele’s metrics and 15th by Bill C’s - but didn’t do much with it. I guess, to quote Coach Patterson before the season, “the good news is everybody is back, the bad news is that everybody’s back from a team that went 7-6.” (well, in Texas’ case, 5-7). Oklahoma, on the other hand, only brought back about half their offensive experience (mostly Baker) and just over half the defense, but were able to make it back to the playoffs under the leadership of Lincoln Riley and the rare air of Baker Mayfield. They also benefited from nearly 100 returning starts on the offensive line, one of the top units in the country.

Phil Steele’s 2017 Returning Experience

Team Rank Total Experience Points % Lettermen Return % Yards Return % Tackles Return OL Career Starts Season Record Final Rank
Team Rank Total Experience Points % Lettermen Return % Yards Return % Tackles Return OL Career Starts Season Record Final Rank
TCU 3 76.9 73.30% 91.30% 75.90% 75 6-7 (4-5) NR
Oklahoma 29 67.5 71% 55%% 62.60% 97 12-2 (8-1) 3
Oklahoma State 25 68.5 62.90% 78.5%% 53.40% 95 10-3 (7-3) 12
Texas 10 72.70% 65.70% 65.70% 82.90% 75 7-6 (5-4) NR
West Virginia 125 42.30% 61.40% 34.40% 38.90% 58 7-6 (5-4)

Bill Connelly’s 2017 Returning Experience Rankings

Team OFF % RET Rk Proj. PPG change (Off) DEF % RET Rk Proj. PPG change (Def) % RET Rk Season Record Final Rank
Team OFF % RET Rk Proj. PPG change (Off) DEF % RET Rk Proj. PPG change (Def) % RET Rk Season Record Final Rank
TCU 92% 5 3.3 77%% 42 -2.2 85% 2 11-3 (7-2) 9
Oklahoma 60% 77 0.4 73.00% 40 -1.6 67% 54 12-2 (8-1) 3
Oklahoma State 78% 30 2.5 56.00% 97 1.5 67% 49 10-3 (6-3) 14
Texas 84% 15 2.9 80.00% 12 -2.8 82% 6 7-6 (5-4) NR
West Virginia 30% 123 -5.3 25.00% 127 7.2 28% 128 7-6 (5-4) NR

So, now we dive into the coming season, and before we get too deep into the numbers, I think it’s important to have some perspective. The #1 ranked team as far as returning experience in the country is...

... none other than...

Kansas.

So.

Yeah.

The other thing that jumps off the page as far as the Big 12 Conference goes is how inexperienced the league is as a whole, which comes as no surprise to anyone that has followed it. Only Texas is in the top 30, while three of the projected top four teams in the Big 12 are hovering around 100 in the rankings.

But, unlike the last three years, no one team has that one transcendent player - and Will Grier is no Baker Mayfield. If you take Mayfield off of the Sooners’ squad for the last (what was it, like 36 years?) run, would OU have three straight Big 12 titles? Based on experience, probably not.

Phil Steele’s 2018 Returning Experience

Team Rank Total Experience Points % Lettermen Return % Yards Return % Tackles Return OL Career Starts
Team Rank Total Experience Points % Lettermen Return % Yards Return % Tackles Return OL Career Starts
TCU 120 45.3 60.30% 37.70% 61.70% 26
Oklahoma 98 54.7 68% 49% 57.40% 103
Oklahoma State 119 45.6 61.90% 35.70% 55.10% 47
Texas 27 70.3 56.10% 84.80% 57.20% 102
West Virginia 72 59.2 63.90% 73.20% 45.80% 65

Bill Connelly’s 2018 Returning Experience Rankings

Team OFF % RET Rk DEF % RET Rk Total Return Rk
Team OFF % RET Rk DEF % RET Rk Total Return Rk
TCU 44% 116 61% 78 52% 114
Oklahoma 55% 97 52% 106 53% 111
Oklahoma State 44% 115 54% 98 49% 120
Texas 79% 27 57% 91 68% 55
West Virginia 72% 46 57% 89 65% 69

Based off of this year’s numbers, we know two things:

  1. West Virginia is nice.
  2. Texas might *** actually *** be back in 2018, being as though they are the most experienced-non Kansas team in the conference.

How does this relate to TCU? Just one other time have the Frogs been ranked so low going into a season, in 2016, which also happens to be the only year they had a losing record. Then, as now, Gary Patterson’s team was replacing a QB (from Trevone Boykin to Kenny Hill then, from Hill to Shawn Robinson now) and had a very inexperienced offensive line - 46 career starts in 2016 compared to just 26 in 2018. The offenses returned about the same amount of yardage both years - in the mid-30s, while the defensive brought back the majority of their tackles.

Frankly, the similarities are galling, and might have you pressing pause on the excitement for the season.

But... there is one other factor that should be factored in.

The recruiting class for 2015 was ranked 39th in the country and 6th in the Big 12. In 2016, 21st and 3rd. The juniors and seniors on that squad had come in as 43rd and 7th and 35th and 6th (2013), respectively.

Meanwhile, the class of 2018 was a top 25 class nationally and the third best in the conference, while 2017 was 28th and 3rd. The caliber of player replacing the seniors that have graduated is much higher, and while their lack of meaningful snaps does play a part, the learning curve is much easier for a group that Gary Patterson has noted has made his team much bigger and longer. The talent is there, and if they can get up to speed quickly, there’s no reason to think they can’t have a better season than their experience rankings would suggest.

At the end of the day, these numbers give us a good frame of reference for what we might expect come September, but they certainly don’t determine how the season plays out. The Frogs will open their 2018 campaign with just three players with 20+ career starts, and feature 30 athletes on the three deep with one year or less experience in the program. It’s a young group, but a talented one, that will need to grow up quickly if they want to be another GP ten win team. I wouldn’t count them out.