Saturday, January 9, 2010

TCU wraps up, upset, but set up.

So the Frogs didn't turn into princes upon invitation to a BCS bowl, and indeed the Wimple's forecast that any one loss in 2010 would feel like a letdown proved true. But good news accompanies even the truth of this prediction. How far fell the Frogs after that loss? TCU went to Glendale ranked #3 by the press, and #4 by the BCS. AP and the coaches put TCU in their final ballots at #6 (there is no final BCS poll).

How did the Frogs get to so high a ranking? By spreading the ball around. It began in Virginia, where TCU's three-headed backfield and utterly dominant o-line tallied 154 yards, keeping TCU in possession of the ball almost 35 minutes. They tallied 212 a week later against Texas State, and Dalton joined the fun against Clemson a week later. When the trio only managed 128 yards in the face of Clemson's impressive d-line, the junior signal-caller galloped for 100 himself, 68 of those in the second half. Still working with a partially concealed playbook against SMU, Dalton rode the SMU pony to a conference-high 160 efficiency rating. Turner, Wesley, and Tucker tallied 196 yards. Following a bitter-cold close call at Air Force, TCU upped the intensity of its ground game against Colorado State. Against the Rams, 14 Frogs toted the rock, for 278 yards and three touchdowns.

Those six games clearly were tune-ups for TCU, which blew the dust off of long-unused pages of its playbook for the tilt in Provo, where the Frogs dominated BYU in all three phases, for all sixty minutes. The steam-roll had only begun: Colorado State was the first of six conference opponents to give up more than 40 points to TCU; the other five came in a row: UNLV, San Diego State, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Of those five, only Utah scored more than 12, and only New Mexico held the Frogs to less than 326 rushing yards. TCU sold out its first conference game since its Southwest Conference days, (breaking its home record) when Utah and ESPN Gameday came to town. The Frogs rode the Mountain West all the way to 3rd in both human polls, and 4th in the BCS, and a record-setting bowl bid. Never before had a BCS bowl chosen a non-cartel team over a cartel-team; Boise State matched that record with a remarkable one of its own: never before had a second non-cartel team secured a BCS berth in one season. Their excitement about that unprecedented chance to bowl for big money carried into their outstanding Fiesta Bowl win over the Frogs.

TCU's 2009 senior class is small, but talented. Four of them (Washington, Hughes, Newhouse, and Gresham) are invited to the NFL Combine, and three will play in senior all-star games. Probably six or seven will be on NFL rosters next season (Washinigton and Hughes will be TCU's highest-picked draftees in years). It was the Frogs' juniors that carried the greatest load this year. Dalton, Cannon, Kirkpatrick, Vernon, Kerley, Young, Clay, Johnson on offense; Griffin, Grant, Daniels, Luttrell, Johnson, Ibiloye, Teague, and Jones on defense. Next season these juniors (then seniors) will cap the most talented team to wear purple in decades, perhaps ever.

TCU has finished seven of the last ten seasons ranked, but never maintained anything close to that strength in the polls across an offseason. After finishing 21/18th in 2000, TCU debuted 2001 unranked. After finished 23/22nd in 2002, TCU began the next year at 25th. After a 25/23rd finish in '03, TCU began 2004 unranked. After finished 2005 ranked 11/9th, TCU began the next season ranked 22nd. The exception is that TCU took a 22/21st finish in 2006 to a 22nd ranked beginning to 2007. The Frogs began 2008 --/44th, and finished 7/7th, only to debut 2009 ten spots lower at 17/17th. 2009 concluded with TCU 6/6th.

Incredibly, early-preseason polls rank TCU the same: sixth. A similar ranking in August would herald a new paradigm in college football. Boise and TCU likely will begin the 2010 season ranked in the top ten-- the first two non-cartel teams to achieve that kind of confidence and recognition among voters. While several non-cartel teams have clawed their way into the national title discussion by year-end, none have ever begun the year in that conversation. Boise certainly will do so in 2010, and TCU might.

The 2010 seniors clearly will be the most talented class to graduate from TCU since the 1950s, if not longer. They will be just the first such class, however. In a few weeks Gary Patterson's crew will close the second jaw-dropping class of recruits in as many years. The remarkable truth is that Patterson has created much more than a flash in the pan success in Fort Worth. He has set up the Frogs to succeed repeatedly on a once-unthinkably-high level. That players like Tanner Brock, Jason Teague, Greg McCoy, Blaize Foltz, Matt Tucker, Curtis Clay, Zach Roth, D.J. Yendry, Braylon Broughton, Andre Dean, Waymon James, and Casey Pachall didn't start this season is a revealing tribute to the quality of TCU's upperclassmen.

In sum, with the talent returning and enrolling (including early-enrolled Dwight Smith, called the best runningback to come from east Texas in a generation), a top-ten pre-season rank, and continuity on the staff, TCU is set up perfectly for a run at the sport's holy grail. It'll be decided in Glendale in 2010, and for the first time since our grandparents were young, it is not unreasonable to consider the Frogs in the running for it. It's crystal, football-shaped, and until 2010, had been reserved only for the privileged few. Next year, that club may have to expand like nobody could have imagined just a year or two ago.