How many people would have said that this summer?
When the Horned Frogs opened practice July 30, they were a 6-7 team with questions at quarterback, receiver, defensive line and kicker.
They lost three of four to finish the 2016 season, overpowered — frankly — by the running games of Oklahoma State and Kansas State to close out the home season and Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. Their quarterback led the league in interceptions. Their kickers missed seven field goals.
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This summer, they were picked fifth in the media poll, behind Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas.
Four months later, the Frogs have beaten all but one of those teams and will get another shot at the fourth in the conference title game if they can defeat Baylor on Friday at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
How did the Frogs get from 6-7 to 9-2? Here are five of the top reasons:
1. Quarterback play. Give a ton of credit to Kenny Hill. He ended last season playing on a bad ankle. He wasn’t 100 percent in the Liberty Bowl, either, but he was playing a good game until he took a sack that forced a long missed field goal and opened the door for Georgia’s comeback. It was that kind of season for him — three of the top nine passing games in TCU history, but also 13 interceptions. This year, he reduced the interceptions by more than half. His offense dominated time of possession and third downs in a 7-0 start. Only against Iowa State did any mistakes hurt. Hill’s experience has helped. Without him, it’s a fair question if TCU would be this close to the league championship game.
2. Stopping the run. Helpful in any league, the Frogs have made it their calling card on defense in the Big 12. Bigger, more athletic defensive tackles and an experienced set of linebackers have allowed the Frogs to play the run with three or four defenders. That has allowed them to use seven or eight men in coverage, joining a trend in the Big 12 that proved effective against offenses such as SMU, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The Frogs enter Friday against Baylor allowing 91.0 yards on the ground per game, third best in the country. That’s almost 100 yards better than a year ago.
3. Kicking it straight. Only once have the Horned Frogs missed a field goal this year, and that was when their No. 1 kicker was sidelined in the Oklahoma game. Outside of that, Jonathan Song is 8-for-8, and Cole Bunce is 2-for-2 after taking over duties for the game at Texas Tech. Last season, faulty field goal kicking cost TCU three games. This year, the kicking shoe is on the other foot — TCU opponents have missed eight times. Punter Adam Nunez deserves a hat tip, as well. He has downed almost half of his punts (26 of 54) inside the 20 and only eight others have been returned.
4. Seeing red. In the red zone, only one team in the country is stingier than TCU. The Frogs have allowed points on only 16 of 26 trips inside the 20, and touchdowns only 10 times. That’s a points-allowed rate of 61.5 percent and a touchdown rate of 38.5. To compare, last year those figures were 90.7 and 55.6. This is one of coach Gary Patterson’s favorite stats. You can see why he tracks it.
5. Third-down defense. Another Patterson favorite. The Frogs haven’t allowed an opponent to convert better than 50 percent this year. Only Oklahoma State (7-for-14) got close. TCU is second-best in the Big 12 in third-down defense and 10th in the nation. In the last six games, the Frogs have allowed only a 26.6 percent conversion rate. It’s no coincidence the last six opponents have scored only three points combined in the second half.
1. The pass rush of ULM transfer Ben Banogu and second-year junior college transfer Mat Boesen. They lead the team in sacks at 6.5 and 6.0 respectively.
2. An experienced offensive line that had the luxury of replacing an injured center midseason with a former center, Austin Schlottmann.
3. Healthy bodies. Until two weeks ago, the Frogs’ most notable injuries were to center Patrick Morris and cornerback Julius Lewis.
4. Offensive analyst Sonny Dykes. He and co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie overlapped at Texas Tech during the Mike Leach years. They know some offense.
5. The impact of Waxahachie’s Jalen Reagor and Kenedy Snell. The freshmen have accounted for eight touchdowns, including a Hail Mary catch.
No. 12 TCU vs. Baylor
11 a.m. Friday, FS1
Head to head
TCU (9-2, 6-2)
Baylor (1-10, 1-7)