On Thursday night when Stanford and TCU take the field in San Antonio, both teams fall into the category of what could have been. Both teams lost in their respective conference championship games, and had they won, would be sitting squarely in a New Years Six game. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to play for. For Stanford, they have the chance to get to ten wins this season, and to help build the reputation of the often overlooked Pac-12. For TCU, they have a chance to win eleven games for the third time in four years. Few teams would be able to boast that kind of consistency over the past four years. Both teams enter the game ranked in the top 15, and it should make for one of the top games in all of bowl season.
DATE & TIME: Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, 8:00 PM CST
LOCATION: Alamodome (San Antonio, TX)
FORECAST: Mostly Cloudy and 45 degrees
BETTING LINE: TCU -3
Stanford’s 2017 season didn’t have a bad loss on the season. For Stanford, their four losses came against Washington State, San Diego State, and USC twice. Part of the problem early on for Stanford was the uneven play of quarterback Keller Chryst. Chryst featured in seven games for the Cardinal this year, and in those games threw for eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Chryst gave way to sophomore K.J. Costello, who has provided a much more stable presence at quarterback for Stanford. Costello has thrown for eleven touchdowns to only two interceptions.
As much as quarterback often gets the focus for every team on offense, you can’t talk about the Stanford offense without talking about Bryce Love. Love, the junior running back out of North Carolina, is one of the best running backs in the entire country. On the season Love has rushed for 1,973 yards and 17 touchdowns. Only one team all season was able to hold him to under 100 yards rushing.
Perhaps most impressive though is that Love averaged over eight yards per carry, while having carried the ball over 230 times. Among running backs with over 200 carries on the season Love ranks first in yards per carry nationally. The TCU defense is going to have an incredibly difficult task in slowing down Love. Even if he is bottled up for long stretches of the game, all he needs is one play to take it to the house.
Defensively, this is not your typical Stanford defense. Over the years Stanford has gained a reputation as one of the top defensive teams in the country, particularly the play of their defensive line. This year however, Stanford’s defense can be best described as middle of the road. Stanford’s defense ranks 75th in total defense, but are ranked 29th in points allowed per game. Head coach David Shaw has seemingly decided on a bend, but don’t break approach for this season on defense.
A key stat to watch in this game for the Stanford defense is getting off the field on third down. Opponents are converting 44% of their third down attempts against Stanford, one of the worst marks in the entire country. TCU is one of the best third down teams in the country, and could see that success continue on Thursday.
TCU is back in the Alamo Bowl after having played one of the most memorable bowl games in recent history there after the 2015 season against Oregon. In that game, TCU overcame a 31-0 halftime deficit to win the game in triple overtime 47-41.
Like Stanford, TCU doesn’t have a bad loss on the season. TCU lost to Iowa State, and Oklahoma twice. While this TCU team has had success on offense this year, its their defense that has separated them from the pack.
This TCU defense is one of the best in country by almost every metric. The Horned Frogs have playmakers at all three levels, and will present a bevy of challenges to this Stanford offense. The one area that TCU struggles with though is one of Stanford’s biggest strengths: explosive plays. According to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings, TCU has the fourteenth best overall defense in the country, but ranks 126th in allowing explosive plays. On the flip side Stanford’s offense is the eight most explosive offense in college football according to those same rankings.
If TCU can’t keep Bryce Love from breaking big plays, then it could become a very long day for TCU.
Offensively for TCU, look for Kyle Hicks to have a big day with leading rusher Darius Anderson likely out for this game. There was some talk that Anderson would be a game-time decision for TCU, but its looks less and less likely that he will be able to give it a go. Hicks will be playing in his final game for TCU, and will be determined to carry the workload for the Horned Frogs.
TCU KEYS TO THE GAME
Slow Down Love – Notice I didn’t say “Stop Love,” because honestly I don’t think its possible to fully stop Bryce Love. He is that good. The TCU defense is going to have to do everything in its power to keep Love from making big plays. If the TCU defense can limit Love’s explosive plays then they will be prime position to win this game.
Get Kenny Hill In Rhythm – When Kenny Hill is locked in, he is one of the top quarterbacks in the Big 12. For much of the second half of the season though, Hill hasn’t been locked in. Against Iowa State, and both games against Oklahoma, Hill has struggled to find consistency. Offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie needs to get Hill in rhythm early to give the TCU offense the best chance to win this game.
Win Field Position – Stanford is not the most efficient offense. They have relied on a lot of big plays this year to move the ball. If TCU can consistently give Stanford a longer field to drive, then it should play into their hands. Look for TCU punter Adam Nunez to have a big impact on this game. If he is on his game he can be deadly at pinning teams deep in their own territory.
Without being too reductive, I honestly believe this game comes down to the TCU defense vs. Bryce Love. Love wasn’t the Heisman runner-up for no reason. He truly is one of the most dominant players in college football.
You also have to factor in that this could be Love’s last game. There has been much speculation about his declaring for the NFL draft, but there is nothing official at this point. You have to wonder how much extra motivation that is for Love if he knows this will be his last game for Stanford.
With that being said though, this TCU run defense is for real. TCU is currently ranked fourth in the country for rushing yards allowed per game, behind only Washington, Wisconsin, and Alabama. When you factor in the talent of running back in the Big 12, guys like Justice Hill, David Montgomery, Justin Crawford, and Rodney Anderson, then it becomes even more impressive.
Ultimately, I’m a believer in Gary Patterson’s ability to plan for a dynamic offensive player like Love. While I truly believe that Love will be the best player on the field on Thursday night, I think that TCU is the more complete team, and will come away with a victory over Stanford in San Antonio. Give me TCU outright to win the game, and cover the spread.