The TCU football team is in Memphis preparing to play Georgia in Friday morning’s Liberty Bowl, eager to define 2016 as a winning season.
That will happen if the Horned Frogs can get their seventh win, and at the same time improve to 16-15-1 all-time in bowl games.
But more is at stake.
After a disappointing year in which they went winless against the top four teams in the Big 12, the Frogs want to get a running start on next season. They figure to return the bulk of their offense in 2017 to go with a more experienced defense and solid special teams — punter Adam Nunez was a highlight of the season, and returner KaVontae Turpin should be at full health again.
But to get there, some areas need to be shored up. Friday’s matchup against the Bulldogs is the first chance for the Frogs to get some of these things right, or at least pointed in the right direction:
1. Regain confidence in Kenny Hill. The Frogs want to get back that feeling they had when the season began — that they were about to begin a new chapter with the former Southlake Carroll star and blue-chip quarterback recruit. The optimism faded steadily throughout Hill’s 13-interception season, which he finished with an ailing foot. If he is healthy for the Liberty Bowl and performs well, confidence can be restored on both sides.
TCU is 15-15-1 all-time in bowl games, including 9-5 with Gary Patterson as head coach. TCU is 8-2 in its past 10 bowl games.
2. Become tougher on offense. Patterson hammered that theme following the 30-6 loss to Kansas State that finished the regular season. The zero-touchdown performance convinced Patterson that the Frogs were outmuscled by a more physical defense, and the coach promised a tough set of bowl practices. Georgia may be expecting an uptempo aerial attack, but it might be time to lay down a bet on a grittier, heavy-pounding look from the TCU offense.
3. Re-establish the run defense. TCU finished the season by allowing 330-plus yards rushing to Oklahoma State and Kansas State, while also holding Baylor and Texas under 190. So which is it? The Frogs were fourth in the Big 12 in rushing defense, but their 180.7 yards allowed on the ground per game was the second-highest of the Patterson era, right behind 2015’s 182.9.
TCU is playing in the Liberty Bowl for the second time, having defeated Colorado State in 2002. TCU is playing an SEC team in a bowl game for the second time in three seasons, having defeated Ole Miss in the 2014 Peach Bowl.
4. Get back that turnover feeling. The Frogs head into the Liberty Bowl with 15 takeaways. That’s not many. In fact, if they don’t get two on Friday, it will be the fewest takeaways at TCU since 2004. Only one other year since 2001 has been comparable: last year, when the takeaway total was 19. Junior safety Nick Orr leads TCU with four interceptions. Junior linebacker Travin Howard has two fumble recoveries, and junior defensive end Mat Boesen has two forced fumbles.
5. Find some hands. The leading pass-catcher on the team was Kyle Hicks, which sounds fine until you consider he’s a running back — justifying his 9.4-yard average on 42 catches. The top wide receiver was Taj Williams, who had 39 catches for 702 yards. That’s it. The top three receivers in the Big 12 had 70-plus catches, and three others had 69. TCU receivers recorded only 13 touchdowns in 12 games. That’s not the way an Air Raid works.