TCU’s first ever Big 12 Conference game didn’t exactly come with a ton of excitement. The Horned Frogs played at Kansas in the second week of the 2012 season and won easily, if sloppily, in Lawrence. The Jayhawks struggled and finished last in the league.
It was the first of four road conference wins for the Frogs, but it came with an 11 a.m. start and was broadcast on FX, a network known more for Louis CK than college football.
The atmosphere surrounding No. 24 TCU’s 2013 league opener couldn’t be more different.
The opponent is Texas Tech (2-0), an in-state rival who probably feels TCU (1-1) doesn’t deserve the respect it has received despite being a newbie to the conference. The setting is AT&T Jones Stadium in Lubbock, often a tough place to play for an opponent with unpredictable wind and the West Texas heat. Texas Tech is hoping to have a packed stadium and is encouraging Red Raider fans to dress in black for a Blackout. The country music act Josh Abbott Band is playing at halftime.
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And it comes with a national television audience on ESPN.
Yes, this is going to be much different than last year’s conference opener. I discussed the game with longtime Tech beat writer for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal Don Williams, who has covered the team since 1986. He was kind enough to answer five questions on the Red Raiders and what he has seen through two games.
Stefan Stevenson: How much is quarterback Baker Mayfield’s success through two games due to his talent and how much is it the opponent? Do you care to put a percentage on it? And is it his job to lose now?
Don Williams: Some of both, but I think it has more to do with his talent and, nearly as important, how fearless he seems to be. He just doesn’t carry himself, or play like, a freshman. If you want a percentage, I’d say it’s 70-30 his talent more than quality of the opposition. With that said, SMU and SFA don’t present nearly the challenges — talent-wise and tactically — that he’ll see from the TCU defense. Mayfield was lucky to have no turnovers at SMU, considering the handful of times he lost the handle and had tipped passes. The narrative would have been a lot different if SMU had turned those into two or three takeaways. He was better with ball security Saturday against SFA, and he’ll have to be against TCU.
Still, I think his moxie and his success have blown away Tech fans who’d never heard of him six weeks ago. I do believe it’s his job to lose, for a few reasons. He has a really strong arm, and he shows good judgment for when to run. Against SFA, he ran for 12 yards on a third-and-8 and for 11 yards on a third-and-10 from his own 4-yard line. Those are the kind of plays that just kill defensive coordinators and can demoralize defensive players. Another thing you have to take into account: Michael Brewer hasn’t practiced in a month. Even if he gets cleared this week, he’ll need some time to get back into the groove, especially as conference play starts. If Mayfield somehow keeps playing the way he has, though, I don’t see how you can take him out.
SS: Tight end Jace Amaro is a big part of the Red Raider offense, which was evident when he finally got in the game against SMU in Week 1. Is he the obvious first option for Mayfield?
DW: I think the primary option for Mayfield is still Eric Ward. He’s a senior, a team leader and he has back-to-back seasons with 80-plus catches. In the fourth quarter at SMU, after the Mustangs cut it to 20-16, Ward caught seven passes for 100 yards in the last 13 minutes. That included a stretch where Mayfield threw him the ball four plays in a row and another in which Mayfield threw him the ball three plays in a row, all completions, by the way. However, Amaro’s value and his presence when he’s in the game can’t be understated. The last few years, the Tech offense could get really horizontal with a lot of throws to the perimeter. With Amaro, that changes completely. I’m sure Kliff Kingsbury and Baker Mayfield love having a 6-5, 270-pound guy posting up in the middle with some ability to run after the catch. He’s a load for linebackers and safeties and he opens up the field for the outside receivers.
SS: This is a big game for both teams, especially TCU, which expected to challenge for the Big 12 title this season. How big is it for Tech, considering it’s Kingsbury’s first league game as head coach and how good the team has looked the first two games?
DW: It’s big for Tech, I’d say, for different reasons than TCU’s. Tech’s less of a slam dunk to break .500 and go to a bowl game, so the Red Raiders need to win all the “winnable” games. The schedule’s tough on the back end with three road games in October and both Oklahoma and Texas on the road this year. However, each of the first seven opponents is beatable — TCU easily looks the toughest — so the Red Raiders need to make hay right now.
And since they’ve won the first two and this storyline of the out-of-nowhere quarterback is growing, there’s been nothing to diminish the excitement Tech fans have felt since Kingsbury was hired in December. They kind of need a good showing — at home, on national television, in the conference opener — to hold on to that feeling.
SS: Entering the season and after two games, do you expect Tech’s defense, which ranked 2nd in the Big 12 a year ago, to be better or worse than in 2012?
DW: Can I answer that question both ways? I think they’ll be better, but I can’t predict a Tech defense to finish second in the conference. If nothing else, Tech fans are going to get what they’ve craved for a decade or more: defensive coaches who are really committed to calling an aggressive game and bringing the heat. I know co-defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who came from the Rex Ryan Jets’ staff, hates the safe bend-but-don’t-break stuff. Defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt told me “the scheme will be aggressive enough and confusing enough to make the quarterback earn his scholarship and keep the offensive linemen guessing.”
And then they came out and got five sacks — most in a game since 2010 — in the season opener. So they’ll blitz a lot and disguise looks and so forth, but they’ll need to. They’re small in the front seven for a 3-4. Wallerstedt admits that. And they lost four starters in the secondary, so whatever you can do to shorten the time those guys have to cover is going to help. The tackling has been pretty good in the first two games. Can they keep that up when they’re chasing Big 12 skill players? As Kingsbury says, “We’ll see.”
SS: For TCU fans traveling to Lubbock for the first time, what will the atmosphere be like at AT&T Jones Stadium on a Thursday night? Any good local restaurant suggestions where fans could grab a good pregame meal?
DW: I think you’ve stumped me with this question. I know, I know. I should be able to tell you exactly what type of atmosphere to expect at Jones AT&T Stadium, as many times as I’ve been there. But Tech hasn’t hosted a Thursday night game since 1994. And over the last three years, Lubbock stopped being a place opponents dreaded. Jones Stadium used to be an intimidating environment, but Tech went 3-8 in conference home games during the Tommy Tuberville years. You don’t get that back overnight. Proof? As fired up as fans are for Kingsbury, there were 11,000 tickets available the day before the home opener last week. So the environment might be what the Horned Frogs make of it. Fall behind early, and Tech fans still remember how to make Jones Stadium a snakepit. Play well early, and a visiting team can win here. Heck, even Kansas nearly pulled it off last year.
Good place to eat? I like all sorts of barbecue and Tex-Mex places in Lubbock, but for proximity’s sake, how about Spanky’s? They make a good burger and it’s right across the street from the stadium. In my college days, I used to love that Spanky’s staple, The He-Man Woman Hater. And they’re still making it nearly 30 years later.
Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760