Will 2012 look more like 2001 or 2005?
That's what TCU fans are wondering as the Horned Frogs enter the Big 12 Conference.
TCU finished 6-6 in 2001 after moving from the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA. In 2005, the Frogs went 11-1 and won the Mountain West Conference in their first year in the league.
TCU coach Gary Patterson usually has a firm grasp on how a season is going to play out. Whether he confides in the media is something else, but over the past few years he's hinted during the off-season which direction he thought his team was headed.
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Over the past three seasons, the Horned Frogs are 36-3, with two BCS bowl berths, giving Patterson plenty of chances to look like a soothsayer
But 2012 is different. The Frogs are moving into the Big 12 where defeat is always lurking if your team is not firing on all cylinders each week.
So Patterson has played it closer to the vest this August, choosing to stay positive about his team where it's warranted, but clearly pointing out the deficiencies, and the steep climb the Frogs face.
For starters, Patterson points out, this is the youngest team he has coached in his TCU tenure. Freshmen will play valuable roles on both sides of the ball.
"If they don't grow up then we'll probably not have the season we need to," Patterson said. "If you don't grow some guys up, then you don't have enough depth and you don't win as many games as we're used to here. You win championships with 2s and 3s."
But Patterson is pleased with the young talent he has to work with. In fact, there's a good reason why he's touting playing more than 10 true freshmen. They're great athletes and potentially one of the best freshman classes in TCU history. True, key losses have opened up depth chart holes, especially at offensive line and linebacker, but several freshmen have taken advantage of the void and are pushing for starting spots.
"When I have younger football teams, I have more knuckleheads," Patterson said when camp began Aug. 5. "I have 12 seniors, 11 juniors and 80 to 85 percent of the rest of my team is sophomores and freshmen. I probably have more knuckleheads."
But he has been impressed with the newcomers' work ethic and willingness to jump right into the fray. Still, Patterson is cautious about freshmen, especially in his defense, having the experience to play smart under pressure in the Big 12.
"That's the problem with young players. If you're not accountable, you don't win close games," he said. "This is the youngest team I've coached in 15 years. It's not even close."
It's also hard to gauge TCU's chances this year in the Big 12 because, like the Frogs, the rest of the teams have glaring issues and major unknowns. Patterson wondered aloud during his August pre-camp press conference what exactly it took to succeed in the new league.
"What plan do you have in place to beat the top three teams and how do we do that?" he asked. "I don't know what that is right now. Do we already have it in place? I don't know. If we don't have it in place then we have to find those answers. As a staff, we've been together so long and we've done a pretty good job of evaluating and recruiting."
"I don't know what reality is," he added. "One of the things we do have in our favor is we do know how to win."
The Frogs caught a break with a first-week bye and have the toughest stretch of their schedule in the final month of the season.
Patterson hopes the extra week allows his younger players to acclimate themselves with balancing practice and campus life before the Sept. 8 opener against Grambling State.
"Three weeks probably let's you get your first test out of the way," he said. "And that allows a younger team to actually grow up academically a lot quicker before you start the season. So hopefully we'll do that."
His 2009 team had a first-week bye and they turned out all right, going 12-0 and earning a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, the school's first BCS bowl.
"But that was an older team," Patterson said. "We'll have to see how this younger team works with this."