TCU’s 2015 season was a remarkable ride of ups and downs that did not stop until a 31-point comeback ended in a shower of balloons and confetti at the Alamo Bowl.
But what about next season?
The Horned Frogs have lost the heart and soul of their offense from the past two years, quarterback Trevone Boykin and receiver Josh Doctson. But the defense should come back far better equipped for success than it was this season.
Is it enough to make a run at the College Football Playoff? Who knows. The Horned Frogs have a chance to debut in the top 10 or close to it. They will have the advantage of a more favorable schedule — bowl teams Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Kansas State all come to Fort Worth in 2016. And the fluky run of injuries that hit the Frogs in 2015 was like a 100-year flood; it couldn’t possibly happen again for generations, could it?
That all works in the Frogs’ favor. Plus, there is what 247Sports rates as the second-best recruiting class in the Big 12, along with the coaching reputation of Gary Patterson and his staff, which retained Air Raid architects Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie.
The Frogs ought to look like contenders again. Here are six factors to think about for 2016:
1. It all starts up front, doesn’t it?
The offensive line needs to replace four starters, including the two most important parts — center and left tackle. At least the Frogs got a jump on it. Center Austin Schlottman and guard Matt Pryor started the Oklahoma, Baylor and Oregon games. That’s a lot of snaps against quality competition already. Joseph Noteboom started 11 games at right tackle and two at left tackle. Among the newcomers, junior-college signee Chris Gaynor offers versatility, having started at guard last season at Dodge County (Kan.) Community College and tackle the year before.
2. The new quarterback
It’s probably going to be Kenny Hill. He has the best credentials — state champion at a big-school power in Texas, top-rated recruit, started games in the SEC, set school passing records in his first college start at Texas A&M, groomed by a former professional athlete parent. His competition is Foster Sawyer, who played in two games in relief while Boykin was hurt; Grayson Muehlstein, who redshirted in 2014 and did not see action in 2015; and 2016 commit Brennen Wooten. Getting this position right is critical.
3. No one will be Josh Doctson
2015 leading receivers: J. Doctson 79, S. Nixon 47, K. Turpin 45, K. Listenbee 30, J. Stewart 21, D. White 19
There will, however, be a lot of options at receiver for the next quarterback. Jaelan Austin and Jarrison Stewart had 31 catches and three touchdowns between them as true freshmen. Austin caught a deep ball for a touchdown on fourth down in the Alamo Bowl. Emanuel Porter had only 14 catches, but he averaged 26.6 yards per catch and had three touchdowns. Throw in KaVontae Turpin, Desmon White and Ty Slanina as veteran hands, along with four-star JUCO signee Taj Williams, and TCU could have one of the top playmaking units in the Big 12, even if Shaun Nixon moves back to running back.
4. Experience is on the way
If the medical redshirt route works out, the Frogs could get as many as four defensive starters and two offensive starters back. They would be significant adds on their own. Defensive end James McFarland led the team in sacks in 2014. Slot receiver Deante’ Gray was second on the team in touchdown catches in 2014. Safety Kenny Iloka, linebacker Sammy Douglas and cornerback Ranthony Texada were all Week 1 starters last year. And Slanina was second on the team in catches when he went out in Week 4. But four of those players — Iloka, Douglas, Texada and Gray — had knee injuries, and those recoveries can be tricky.
5. Defense will need to find a lead dog
2015 leading tacklers: T. Howard 105, D. Kindred 87, T. Summers 86, D. Johnson 79, M. Wilson 61, N. Orr 50
Two years ago, it was Sam Carter. Last year, it was Derrick Kindred. Both seniors, both safeties, both multi-year starters, both well-versed in the defense. Who emerges in that role in 2016 might have a lot to say about how well the Frogs take advantage of the more experienced group they hope to have. The leading tackler in 2015 was a sophomore, linebacker Travin Howard, who began the year as a backup at another position.
6. Don’t forget about special teams
More accurately, don’t forget about the impact a kicker can have. Jaden Oberkrom leaves as the Big 12’s career leader in field goals, with 79. He was 21-for-25 in 2015. Without his 46-yard kick, there would have been no third overtime in the Alamo Bowl, and TCU would have lost. His 57-yarder against West Virginia tied the longest in TCU history. Five times, he kicked the tying, go-ahead or winning field goal in the last 2:42 at TCU. When is the next clutch kick, and who is taking it?