Four quarters and one harrowing victory into the season, No. 13 TCU can count on vacating its title as the top-ranked college football team in Texas when the new polls surface Tuesday.
That distinction soon will belong to No. 15 Houston based on the Cougars’ double-digit takedown of No. 3 Oklahoma on the same day the Horned Frogs struggled to outlast South Dakota State, an FCS opponent, by a 59-41 count in Saturday’s opener at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
But this much remains true for the Horned Frogs: The road to a Big 12 championship still runs through Fort Worth, where TCU (1-0) will face Oklahoma (0-1), the defending league champion, on Oct. 1 in a battle of teams projected to finish in the top two spots in the league standings.
Also true: Despite several glaring defensive issues that surfaced against SDSU, the No. 8 team in the preseason FCS rankings, TCU remains just as much in control of its College Football Playoff destiny as it did before Saturday’s kickoff. TCU still gets its shot at Oklahoma, which fell 33-23 to Houston in its opener, and will have a chance to trump the good vibes currently flowing in the Cougars’ direction by taking care of business against the Sooners.
Over time, the Frogs’ strength-of-schedule edge over Houston should swing the pendulum back in TCU’s direction among local playoff candidates if both schools remain undefeated when serious CFP deliberations begin in November. But that is tomorrow’s issue and we’re getting way ahead of ourselves to link the initials “TCU” and “CFP” in the same sentence today.
The takeaway, at this point, is that the Frogs have lots of room to improve heading into Saturday’s much-anticipated matchup in against Arkansas (1-0), a former Southwest Conference rival in bygone days. And the reality is that a victory over Arkansas (6 p.m., Fort Worth), a team with an SEC pedigree, would put TCU back on the fast track toward meeting lofty preseason expectations.
That will happen only if the defense, typically a strength under coach Gary Patterson, regains its swagger after surrendering 41 points and seven plays of 20 yards or long to South Dakota State. The TCU defense faced 14 drives and did not force its first three-and-out possession by the Jackrabbits until the 4:41 mark of the third quarter. The Frogs added two others on SDSU’s final two possessions but finished with only three for the contest after averaging 5.6 three-and-outs per game last season. And most of those stats were accumulated against explosive Big 12 offenses.
SDSU became the first FCS squad to reach the 40-point barrier against one of Patterson’s defenses in the coach’s 16 seasons at the school, an issue Patterson attributed to sloppy tackling, an inconsistent pass rush and a lack of precision from the safeties in his five-deep secondary.
“Generally, our safeties fix things. Their job is to fix things and we didn’t do a good job of fixing them,” Patterson said. “Obviously, there’s only one person I can blame and that’s me. I didn’t do a good enough job to help them get things fixed. The second half, we did a better job. But we’ve got to clean up our free safety position.”
Patterson also acknowledged a need for quarterback Kenny Hill to take better care of the ball after throwing a pair of first-half interceptions in his first start for TCU. Although Hill produced 484 yards of total offense and accounted for five touchdowns (two passing, three rushing), Patterson offered a word of caution and a long-term perspective.
“We’re going to play better athletic groups that are going to be on defense … and there were a couple of throws where guys who might have been more athletic might have picked them,” Patterson said. “So you’ve got to not try to make things happen that aren’t happening.”
In terms of making things happen at the national level, TCU’s opener will not curry much favor with poll voters or CFP committee members. But an 18-point win over an FCS opponent is way better than a loss, even if the defense underperforms. It will offer Patterson and his staff ample teaching points this week in efforts to start meeting this team’s lofty expectations, which the coach fully embraces.
“It’s a good thing. For recruiting purposes and everything, if you’re good at what you want to be and where you want to get to, you want high expectations,” Patterson said. “I’ve been on every level here since we’ve been here. When nobody thought about TCU to … (now). So I’ve learned some very valuable lessons though the years and what I’ve found out is to keep it just like this (on an even keel).
“Because success is more harmful than failure. All the good things people are saying sometimes harms you a lot more. Around here, we’ve become better teams when people tell us we’re not any good.”
TCU will hear plenty of that this week, starting with Tuesday’s release of the updated polls. The key is capitalizing on Saturday’s SEC-ond chance to prove that first impressions do not have to be lasting ones.