What can one say? Is there an appropriate segue, some witty quote that might somehow cleverly obscure the reality of last weekend? What else is there to say but this: TCU came out flat, didn’t take an opponent seriously, and dug themselves into a hole they had no hope of escaping. Saturday’s game involved as much systematic failure as you’ll see from a TCU team -sloppy play, uninspired play-calling, defensive miscues. And the Frogs still had the ball, in a scoring opportunity, down three, with two minutes left.
Of course they didn’t pull it out, and so here we sit, confused, frustrated, and perhaps a little angry, headed into the unfortunate Kansas grudge match. Kansas has been a shocking thorn in TCU’s side since the Frogs joined the Big 12 - only three games have been decided by more than one score - although the Frogs have won 6 of 7 matchups. There’s something about Lawrence for TCU: on the road vs Kansas, the Frogs average 26 points a game and a winning margin of 5 points, but at home, the Frogs average 31 points and a 19.67 point winning margin.
Looking at the SP+ program tracker (thanks to my friend @CFB_Data), we see a gulf between TCU and Kansas since the two teams became conference mates: Kansas has yet to finish a season ranked positively in net efficiency, while TCU has only once finished below +10. The Jayhawks have made some strides, recently, climbing in the late teens from “buried at the bottom of the ocean” to “merely being in the cellar”.
Kansas comes to TCU after one of the weirdest 4 game stretches to begin a season - after stealing victory from the jaws of defeat against FCS Indiana State, Kansas then did the unthinkable and lost at home to recent-FBS-joiner Coastal Carolina. The Jayhawks proceeded to visit Boston College and drop the hammer, posting 48 points on an historically defensive program, making them look silly in the process. In Kansas’s fourth game, they lost on the back of a couple brutal turnovers - the Jayhawks had a 91% postgame win expectancy in that game, and aside from a paltry 10% success rate in the first quarter (more on that below), they looked like a living, breathing, competent football team, and probably should’ve come away with a win.
Which Jayhawks team will show up - the team held to 7 points by the 91st best team in the country, or the scrappy team who can put up points if you let them? Below, I’ll profile both sides of the ball and lay out exactly what TCU needs to do to get back on the winning path.
Kansas Jayhawks (77th ovr, 89th off, 64th def)
@ TCU Horned Frogs ( 28th, 50th, 25th)
SP+ Prediction: TCU 35, Kansas 16 (86%)
FEI Prediction: TCU by 22.6 (87.2%)
When Kansas has the ball:
The Kansas Jayhawks don’t have what you’d call a “good” offense - they tend towards defense this season. On offense, Kansas leans towards balance, even run-heavy, which has been Les Miles’s modus operandi in college football. He’s a big “establish the run” guy. Against WVU and BC, when Kansas has looked their best, their rush rates were 53.1% and 53.4%, suggesting that Les has trended more towards balance as the team has moved into more serious competition.
You could plausibly construct a narrative where Les stuck to the rush early on to give his team a game plan advantage early on, and the commitment to the rush came back to bite them in the FCS opener and against Coastal. The Jayhawks have been fairly successful in the run, while TCU for the most part has been effective in stopping it: they Jayhawks average 5.6 yards per rush and a 42% success rate to TCU’s stingy allowance of 2.7 on 31% success.
Given TCU’s struggles with the pass against SMU, Kansas might try to take advantage - Senior Carter Stanley has a passer rating of 162.7, and his QBR vs WVU and BC is 81.05, well above average, and the Jayhawks were successful on 47% of their passing attempts so far this season. Despite some pass success, Stanley has thrown 4 interceptions this season, a couple at big moments.
Those success rates obscure a reality of the Kansas offense - when they are forced into a bad situation, they struggle mightily. The Jayhawks have a 53% success rate on standard downs, but in passing situations, that falls to 30%. Additionally, when the Jayhawks get into a scoring opportunity, they slow down - their SO success rate is 4 percentage points below their average. TCU has struggled with bend-don’t-break defense, with a SO success rate 13 percentage points higher than their average.
Kansas faces an average third down distance of about 7 yards, but are above the national average on third down success. TCU has been susceptible on third downs, and that will be a matchup to watch. Kansas has been explosive - they are 35th in the nation in Big Play rate, as 16% of their plays go for chunk yardage. TCU’s average there is deflated by some terrible offenses, but in the SMU game, TCU gave up 9 plays of at least 15 yards, which allowed the Mustangs to sustain drives and keep the Frog defense on the field.
1. Force Kansas into Passing Downs (Pass Downs Success)
3. Limit Explosiveness (Big Play Rate)
4. Bend-Don’t-Break (RZ Success)
When TCU has the ball:
TCU’s longest pass play of the day was a two yard dump-off pass to DA, who turned and ran for 28 yards. The frogs gotta get downfield.— parker fleming (@statsowar) September 22, 2019
I don’t know what else to say about TCU’s offense. They drop passes, they slow down in the red zone (6 percentage points below their average), and they’re not explosive, which is entirely driven by the passing game - the Frogs are 120th in the nation in explosive passing plays. The Kansas defense, though, seems particularly vulnerable on Standard Downs, when they aren’t sure if passing or running is called for; perhaps that built-in weakness will force TCU’s hand into getting downfield on passes and finding an offensive identity beyond running on first and long.
The TCU rushing attack is great, but it’s employed so erratically it’s almost a net neutral, on early downs, rushing success rate plummets. TCU will have to employ the rush wisely to capitalize on Kansas’s defensive indecision, but if the Frogs can’t find a passing game, they’ll find themselves in passing downs often, with the Kansas secondary primed to take care of business. We saw what a non-garbage secondary can do when they know you have to pass last week with SMU, and to avoid those situations, TCU will have to gain yards early in down sequences.
1. Establish the pass, early and often.
2. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with turnovers.
3. Stay out of passing downs.