TCU Horned Frogs (28th ovr SP+, 37th off, 28th def)
@ Kansas State Wildcats (37th, 61st, 35th)
SP+ Prediction: TCU 27-24, 57% win probability
FEI Prediction: TCU +7.2, 64.9% win probability
Beta Rank Prediction: TCU +9.6, 83% win probability
On Saturday in Manhattan, Kansas, the TCU Horned Frogs find themselves lining up against a Kansas State Wildcats team that is in many ways a mirror image of the Frogs. Offensive struggles, run-emphasis, defense-first - sound familiar? TCU and Kansas State are separated on offense by a negligible .032 points added on offense and a mere .053 on defense. Whereas Kansas State’s passing game has a bit of life, a slightly positive .032 EPA on passes, and averaging just under six yards per attempt, TCU’s rush game has been their staple - second in the conference to only the otherworldly Sooners, TCU averages 0.139 EPA per rush this season. The Wildcats and Frogs both employ similar strategies in terms of run-pass mix: both teams pass under 40% of the time on early downs. Yes, folks, you heard that right, we’re going to have to endure plenty of “establishing the run” this weekend.
In terms of pace - seconds per play - Kansas State is exceptional: the Wildcats are the third slowest team in the nation (behind only Wisconsin and Utah), and have a clear focus in controlling the ball, limiting possessions, and, yes, establishing the run. In some ways, the rhetoric you hear coming out of the TCU camp indicates an admiration for what Kansas State historically has done and continues to do - TCU would evidently prefer ground n’pound to more sophisticated offensive attacks, and I expect this weekend to see more of the same - run heavy, low tempo. This game has potential to be an extremely ground and pound affair.
On the defensive side of the ball, Kansas State’s pass defense has been particularly potent. Again, this is not adjusted for opponent, but KSU is holding opponents to -.28 EPA per pass, best in the Big 12, and rank in the top 40 nationally in yards per pass. That’s particularly inconvenient for TCU - the Frogs are averaging -.383 EPA on early down passes this year. The Frogs are going to have to do something they haven’t done all year - pass on a good defense. You can imagine a reality where Gary Patterson and Sonny Cumbie are aware of this and instead opt for a strong run game. I’ve made my thoughts well-known on this line of thinking.
Kansas State will certainly opt for a robust rushing attack, and TCU is well-poised to respond; the Frogs are limiting opponents to a negative EPA on rushes this season. Kansas State rushes over 63% of the time on early downs, and TCU can do themselves a huge favor by stifling the early down runs. TCU this season ranks 18th in the nation, stuffing runs at a 25% clip, and 35th in havoc rate, whereas the Wildcats have limited themselves to stuffs on only 17% of runs, 55th in the nation. Whoever wins that battle - TCU DL vs the KSU Rush - will ultimately have the upper hand in this matchup, as Kansas State’s offensive game plan rests on ball control and steady, successful runs (45% rushing success rate, 49 rushing first downs). Disrupting the Wildcats and keeping them off schedule in the run game will be the key to TCU’s defensive success; with the rush neutralized, the Frogs can key in on preventing Kansas State’s unidimensional pass game from pulling more than its weight.
A final note in this matchup: turnovers. TCU has only given up one interception this season, although PFF has graded Max Duggan for five “interception-quality” balls this season. More alarmingly, TCU has put the ball on the ground SIXTEEN TIMES, fortunately only losing seven of those. On the defensive side, TCU has yet to recover a fumble, and intercepted only 5 passes of the 28 recorded as defended. Kansas State has thrown only one interception and lost six of the ten balls they’ve fumbled. TCU must clean up their turnover issues and figure out how to get more aggressive in forcing turnovers to clear up that time of possession approach of Kansas State.
If it sounds like I’m in the 1950s, saying that the team who wins the turnover battle and controls the line of scrimmage will win the game, it’s because both teams this season have played like they’re in the 1950s, so we have to work with what we’ve got.
I think SP+ is far too ambitious here; I’m predicting the under, by a hefty score. Give me TCU 17-16, in a game almost the exact same as last year, but a little less sloppy for both sides.