Can TCU “Catch” A Ride Up The Big 12 Standings?
We are taking a look at the Horned Frogs, and what they need to answer in order to climb the next rung of the Big 12 ladder.
The “prognostication period,” otherwise known as May through August of each year, is upon us. College football fans yearn for information and analysis that bolsters and shapes their expectations for the upcoming season. No one is looking for reasons that their team will be worse, instead, everyone is looking to justify weaknesses and to turn silver linings into gold.
For most of college football, when looking to move up the conference rankings, the schedule can hand you a gift and by providing a clear path for more potential wins. That is not the case in the Big 12.
The round robin schedule means that the only way teams are going to move up the ladder is if they get better. They have to improve play more than the teams ahead of them in the rankings and stave off challengers from below. It is the ultimate challenge for a coaching staff, and I suspect it consumes their thoughts in the summer months. Better players through recruiting and development are a huge part of the equation, but equal in my mind are scheme adjustments and improvements in efficiency.
With that backdrop, I wanted to take a look at the Big 12 and attempt to identify a path for moving up a tier in the conference standings for each team.
First, he is how everyone finished last season.
The Horned Frogs were in what I’m going to call the 2nd tier of the conference last season, along with, K-State and Texas. The top tier, or 1st tier, is obviously made up of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and West Virginia, while the bottom tier, or 3rd tier, consists of Texas Tech, Baylor, Iowa State, and Kansas.
Tier 2 teams believe they belong in tier 1, while tier 3 teams are hoping for entry into tier 2, but tier 2 may be their ceiling. And, Tier I teams are hoping to maintain their status and fend off all challengers from below. For a Tier II team to move up to Tier I, they will have to beat all other Tier II and Tier III teams, and pull off a win or two against a Tier I team. That can be a daunting task.
TCU finished in the dead middle of the conference which is a regression from their standing after the 2015 season. So let’s look at what TCU has to do to get back into contention.
Where They Are
The Horned Frogs established themselves as a tier 1 team in 2014 and 2015 with solid defense along with the Boykin, Doctson and Green trio moving the ball forward. However, 2016 saw inconsistent play from key contributors, which led to inconsistent results. The most telling statistic in this regard is points scored in their wins and losses. In 4 wins, TCU scored 158 points (39.5/gm). In 5 losses, TCU scored 92 points (18.4/gm), and half of those points were scored in one game.
After a promising start to the season, TCU lost four of their final six league games. That stretch included a bad loss to Texas Tech and three beat downs at the hands of West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State, all of whom finished above TCU in the conference standings.
TCU fielded a squad with experience, but had to replace quarterback Trevone Boykin. New quarterback Kenny Hill had experience and, importantly, success in games at Texas A&M. With a year to exorcise the demons that cost him his starting job at Texas A&M, expectations were high. Unfortunately, Hill presented the same conundrum he had as an Aggie, and the team suffered for it.
As we enter 2017, TCU returns Kenny Hill at quarterback and Kyle Hicks at running back. KaVontae Turpin will return to full strength as well. Defensively, the loss of playmakers along the line is a red flag, but there is capable depth. From an overall talent perspective, TCU fields a team that is very similar to the 2016 squad.
Win More Games
Score more than the opponent, amiright? The question is how?
The analysis with TCU is fairly easy. There were glaring holes in their game in 2016 that led to the up and down season. However, there are not easy solutions, nor an easy path to fix those holes. I have identified three primary areas that need to improve in order for TCU to move up a tier in the conference standings.
1. CATCH THE FOOTBALL
Kenny Hill suffered the most dropped passes in the country with 38. Let me say that again. TCU dropped 38 passes in 2016. That is more than three per game. A dropped pass is a missed opportunity to sustain drives, to dominate time of possession, and to dictate down and distance. In other words, they kill scoring opportunities.
In addition, dropped passes kill the confidence of the quarterback. This can lead to misreads, poor timing, and forced throws. That leads to interceptions and incompletions. Hill led the conference in interceptions with 13 and had a sub-par completion percentage. Hill’s struggles cannot be blamed completely on unreliable receivers, but he faced an obstacle to success that was more momentous than any other quarterback in the Big 12.
The disturbing trend continued in spring football. Coach Patterson noted the number of drops in the spring game which suggests it is a front line problem for this team in 2017. It is self-inflicted adversity that divides players and diminishes confidence. If a team desires to win games against favored opponents, then confidence and execution are key elements.
The first “fix” is hard work by the receiving corp. But, some guys can catch, and others can’t. If the current receiving corp is playing at its peak development, then the trend is likely to continue.
The second “fix” is to position the QB and the receiver for “easy” catches. TCU attempted this in 2016 as evidenced by their diminished yards per attempt. TCU averaged 7.3 yards per pass attempt in 2016, which is low. By comparison, in 2015 the yards per attempt for Boykin was 9.5 yards. Of course, he was throwing to NFL talent Josh Doctson. But, it was clear that TCU attempted to create short, easy throws to increase the efficiency of their passing game.
The problem is that the completion percentage must be extremely high on the shorter, easier throws in order to make up for the lost yardage. If the completion percentage remains the same as on deeper throws, the offense risks bogging down, and that is exactly what happened.
2. RUN THE ROCK
An interesting note. Four teams finished ahead of TCU in the conference standings. Each team ran the ball more than they passed the ball.
|SCHOOL||RUSH ATT||PASS ATT|
TCU was close to a 50/50 split between run and pass. The teams they seek to pass displayed significant trends toward a more run-oriented offenses. It would be correct to point out that the disparity can be correlated to playing from behind versus playing with a lead. However, it indicates a formula for winning in the Big 12 conference.
Defenses in the Big 12 are geared to cover space due to the spread formations that are heavily deployed. This creates “light” packages and mismatches in the running game. The tier I teams in the conference exploited this advantage to their benefit.
I am not offering this note to say that a run heavy offense is the only way to win, or even that it explains the difference between the Tier I teams and TCU. I am offering it in the context that TCU is well positioned to adjust its offensive focus and benefit from that adjustment.
Hicks is a capable runner and a threat in the passing game as well. Turpin is a threat to gain big yardage any time the ball is in his hands. And, Hill is a talented runner and amassed over 600 yards on the ground in 2016. That is three versatile weapons providing run/pass stress on an opposing defense. It is my position that TCU needs to utilize the running skills of these three performers more than their skills in the passing game. Each has limitations in the passing game, but, outside of Turpin’s size, the limitations are removed in the running game.
If TCU runs 75 offensive plays in a game, I believe 45 to 50 of those plays need to be called run plays. Boring, yes. Is that the preference of the offensive coordinator, no. But, there is success to be had in a creative running game with three home run threats on the field.
Most importantly, a shift to a run-oriented attack aids the play of Kenny Hill. Hill has hit his developmental ceiling. He is a marginally accurate quarterback that struggles to make consistent decisions and consistently solid throws when slotted as the focal point of the offense. However, when he runs the ball on designed runs, or scrambles, he exhibits a trend towards an overall elevation in his play. He is not a Baker Mayfield who is accurate throwing on the run and uses the run threat to move the defense. Hill must be limited to either pass from the pocket or decisively run.
A switch to a run first offensive mentality will put Kenny Hill in the best position to effectively run the offense. There is no doubt that Shawn Robinson will bring this element to the offense when he ascends to the starting position. Hill is not the runner Robinson is, but he is a top 3 runner from the quarterback position in the Big 12. To win more games in the conference TCU must run the ball with purpose from all positions.
3. STOP THE RUN
Gary Patterson is one of the most creative defensive minds in college football. He must have been miserable last year given the defensive performance of his team. Patterson’s emphasis is in stopping the run. In fact, TCU finished 4th in the conference in rushing defense. However, that average is deceiving.
TCU dropped three of their last four games, including their bowl game. In all three of those losses, they were gashed by the run. Kansas State and Georgia are no surprise, but Oklahoma State absolutely dominated TCU in the run game. Further, TCU allowed Oklahoma to build an ultimately insurmountable lead based on their success in the running game. The Texas Tech game offered a defensive game plan designed to stop the pass and made vulnerable to the running game. Tech ran the ball effectively against the scheme to fuel their comeback and ultimate overtime victory.
Year after year TCU is very difficult to run the ball on. Even teams with strong running games typically underperform against TCU. This was not the case in 2017 and run oriented teams tagged TCU for more than 5 yards per carry in a majority of their losses.
To move up a tier, TCU must return to their roots as a run stuffing defense. It may be a talent issue or there may have been a slight scheme switch that did not pan out. The likely explanation is a combination of both.
In 2017, TCU returns an experienced secondary with potential to be very good. This creates an opportunity to dedicate an extra man to the box in order to put more pressure on the run game. Patterson should have more flexibility to scheme against the run oriented offenses in the Big 12. TCU will need to dedicate that extra player to the run game in order to make the improvement they hope to make in their run defense.
If TCU would have been more consistent against the run, I believe they could have won as many as three additional games in 2016. Those wins would have vaulted them to a borderline Tier I team. If they can become more effective against the run in 2017, they can again appear in the top tier of the Big 12.
Catch, run, and stop the run. A tried and true formula for success in football if there ever was one. It is a broad stroke analysis, but TCU, more than other conference teams, presents broad stroke issues in their path to improved results.
The formula is critical for TCU because it is a departure from their chosen path in 2016 and a return to Patterson led teams of the past. To maximize their talent pool, they must purposefully run the ball. Hill’s play requires it. It will reduce the opportunities for dropped passes and create easier throws and catches.
A dedication to stopping the run will force opponents to throw more than they are comfortable. When that scenario is presented, TCU will have an experienced secondary and talented pass rushers to create turnovers in the passing game.
The suggested adjustments play to the strengths of the team. If TCU exploits the talent they have, then it is not unreasonable to expect some upsets and a return to Tier I status.