College football fans should brace for Round 2 of the great TCU-Baylor debate.
Both of last year’s Big 12 co-champions project to be back in this year’s national championship race because they return several starters and established stars. Both the Horned Frogs and Bears received top-five rankings in the preseason polls and placed second (TCU) and fourth (Baylor) in a consensus survey of seven national magazines that identified the nation’s top 25 teams.
TCU earned the nod as this year’s Big 12 favorite by a 32-10 vote of media members who regularly cover the league. But Baylor received a higher-percentage chance to win the Big 12 in the formula used by ESPN’s Football Power Index: 37.4 percent to 36.9 percent for the Frogs.
So there is sentiment on both sides of this issue, which will not be addressed on the field until the teams meet Nov. 27 in Fort Worth. That contest, played the Friday after Thanksgiving, marks the regular-season finale for TCU and the final road game for Baylor. The Bears close their campaign Dec. 5 in Waco against Texas.
That makes the meeting at Amon G. Carter Stadium a potential winner-take-all matchup for the Big 12 championship and, presumably, gives the winner the inside track toward a spot in the College Football Playoff.
TCU, which finished sixth in last year’s final CFP rankings, returns 15 starters from a 12-1 team. The list of established stars is led by quarterback Trevone Boykin, the Heisman Trophy favorite based on preseason odds posted by Bovada Sports Book (6-1).
Baylor, which finished fifth in last year’s final CFP rankings, returns 17 starters from an 11-2 team that features three All-America candidates in the trenches (DE Shawn Oakman, DT Andrew Billings, OT Spencer Drango). But quarterback Seth Russell, a fourth-year junior, will be new to the lineup after two seasons as the backup to Bryce Petty.
Recent history has favored the Bears. They have won the last two games, as well as three of the past four, in a series that includes 110 meetings since 1899 with no clear-cut favorite. Last year’s 61-58 victory gave Baylor a scant 52-51-7 edge in series history.
But fans of both teams are kidding themselves if they believe history or home-field advantage makes much difference in these outcomes. Football is a game of matchups and intangibles.
Until the teams meet, one burning question will linger in the minds of college football fans: TCU or Baylor? There is compelling evidence in support of both teams, as well as reasons for concern.
The case for Baylor
Numbers game: Baylor returns more starters, 17-15, among the 22 position players in last year’s lineups. The Bears also have better balance among their returnees (eight on offense, nine on defense) than TCU (10 on offense, five on defense), which lost more than half of its starting defenders to graduation. That gives Baylor established continuity on both sides of the ball heading into its opener. TCU, on the other hand, must develop defensive continuity in its early games before the unit plays to its maximum potential.
Strength in the trenches: Baylor welcomes back all five starting offensive linemen, the only school among the projected CFP frontrunners that can make that claim (Ohio State, TCU and Michigan State return four each). The edge in the trenches gets even bigger when applied to the defensive line, where the successful rehabilitation of DE Jamal Palmer from October knee surgery means Baylor returns its top four defensive linemen from last season, too. All nine of the Bears’ projected returnees in the trenches are juniors (two) or seniors (seven).
Skill-position depth: Baylor will have a new starting quarterback, but he’ll be backed by a 1,000-yard rusher (RB Shock Linwood) and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Corey Coleman, KD Cannon) who return. Plenty of talented role players return as well. Among the Bears’ primary skill players on offense, six scored at least six touchdowns last season (Linwood, Coleman, Cannon, RB Johnny Jefferson, RB Devin Chafin, WR Jay Lee). And QB Seth Russell, in his backup role, threw for 804 yards and eight TDs, with only one interception, last season.
QB development history: Baylor coach Art Briles has a well-deserved reputation as college football’s top “quarterback whisperer,” minimizing concerns about the adjustment to Russell as a first-year starter. Briles’ last three starters at Baylor have been prolific producers (Robert Griffin III, Nick Florence, Bryce Petty). During his seasons at Houston (2003-07), Briles also developed NFL-bound quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and Case Keenum. In the estimation of Baylor coaches, Russell compares favorably to Petty heading into Petty’s first season as a college starter, 2013, when Petty led the Bears to their first of two consecutive Big 12 titles. Gil Brandt, senior draft analyst for NFL.com and former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel, said Briles’ system leads to easy transitions for quarterbacks.
“Their system is really simple. It’s a great system, but it’s simple,” Brandt said. “And it helps plugging in when you have a running back like they have and you have wide receivers like they have.”
Belief system: After two consecutive seasons that ended with the Bears holding Big 12 championship trophies, players have reached the point that they expect to add another in 2015. Defensive end Shawn Oakman said: “We know what it takes to win. And it’s hard to win when you don’t have guys who have won before. We all know what it takes to get to that next level and win again.”
The case for TCU
The quarterback: TCU has the edge on Baylor here, but not only Baylor — shoot, most of the country. Trevone Boykin enters the season as a top Heisman Trophy candidate, a senior “brimming with confidence” born of a total grasp of the Air Raid offense that maximizes his arm, athleticism and playmaking. Indeed, it maximizes the abilities of the entire TCU offense, experienced across the board and boasting the ball-in-the-air skills of Josh Doctson, the sprinter speed of Kolby Listenbee and the electric running ability of Aaron Green. Boykin is in command of these weapons and more, with an inside-out, backward-and-forward knowledge of how to use them.
The speed: It’s no mystery to coach Gary Patterson what it takes to run with the Baylor speed boats on offense. Your own speed boats on defense. Patterson has traditionally built his defenses on speed, but this year he believes his defense will be faster and more athletic than last year. Players like safeties Denzel Johnson, Travin Howard, Nick Orr and Kenny Iloka and cornerbacks Ranthony Texada and Torrance Mosley are at TCU because they can run. Linebackers Mike Freeze, Ty Summers, Alec Dunham and Montrel Wilson will play as freshmen because they can run. Patterson has options. And all of those options can run.
All lined up: The Horned Frogs return four offensive line starters — yes, Baylor returns five — and three defensive line starters — yes, Baylor returns four. But the new starter on the offensive line, Joseph Noteboom, played in all 13 games last season. And the new starter on the defensive line, Chris Bradley, also played in all 13 games last season. The offensive line has 73 starts combined — a massive number in college football — and is led by a center, Joey Hunt, whom Patterson says is hard to fool. The defensive line also has 73 starts returning, including now-eligible Aaron Curry, a Nebraska transfer. The Frogs go eight deep on the D-line, and the strong fall camp of freshman Tipa Galea’i might make it nine deep.
Special specialists: Nobody thinks about kickers in college football until they’re needed. But the Horned Frogs have peace of mind with Jaden Oberkrom, the nation’s active leader in field goals (58). He’s third in Big 12 history in percentage made on 40-yard-plus kicks (67.7 percent) and he’s made five in the last 2:42 to win, go ahead or force overtime — including last year’s 37-yard do-or-die field goal at West Virginia on the last play of the game. At punter, Ethan Perry was eighth in the nation last year with 45.3 percent of his punts downed inside the 20. The Frogs allowed minus-9 return yards on nine punt returns.
No place like home: Home field hasn’t mattered much in the short Big 12 series between these teams. TCU put up 49 points in Waco in 2012 and 58 last year. Baylor won in Fort Worth two years ago. But still, on a short week, with the conference championship and more — perhaps way more — on the line, one team is going to get to sleep in its own beds all week.
The case against Baylor
Curse of Stillwater: Baylor has lost to Oklahoma State in its last 11 trips to Stillwater, Okla. The last victory in that venue came in 1939 and the Bears must play in Stillwater the Saturday before their high-profile showdown against TCU. OSU is 10-0 against Baylor in Boone Pickens Stadium during the Big 12 era, including a 49-17 triumph in 2013 that gave the Bears their lone regular-season loss that season.
Defensive deficiencies: Despite the return of nine defensive starters from last season, the Bears often struggled to stop opposing offenses in the season’s biggest games. Baylor surrendered more than 40 points in four games last season, including losses to West Virginia (41-27) and Michigan State (42-41) in the Cotton Bowl. TCU (58) and Texas Tech (46) also scored big in games that Baylor won. If the offense struggles while adjusting to a new starting quarterback (possible), Baylor cannot afford similar defensive lapses this season and remain in the CFP title chase.
Personnel shortfalls: Injuries, attrition and lack of off-season development by players at key positions impact all college football teams. Baylor is putting a lot of trust in QB Seth Russell, a fourth-year junior, to keep its prolific offense humming at a high level. If Russell cannot meet expectations, the job likely falls to Jarrett Stidham, an incoming freshman from Stephenville who took part in spring drills. Although Stidham is a heralded prospect, few teams play for national titles that start freshmen quarterbacks in their first season out of high school. Baylor also lost two of its three starting linebackers to graduation, creating its most critical defensive position in regard to personnel turnover.
The case against TCU
How deep is your depth: From the first day in the Big 12, Gary Patterson has talked about how important it would be to replace a Big 12-quality starter with a Big 12-quality player, if necessary. The Horned Frogs can feel good about their numbers at receiver, running back and the defensive line. They are working to find cornerbacks and safeties. But in the offensive line? Unproven behind the starters. Linebacker? They only had five to begin with, and they converted a safety to help. Quarterback? Well, let’s just say Kenny Hill isn’t walking through that door until next year.
Learning curve: An important part of the defense is going to be in the hands of freshmen. Linebackers Mike Freeze, Ty Summers, Alec Dunham and Montrel Wilson are talented athletes, and Patterson loves their speed — he says it will allow the Frogs to play more coverages, like in the Darryl Washington days. But they are still freshmen, and they have yet to perform under the lights. “We’ve got a long way to go at the linebacker position to play it exactly the way we play it,” Patterson said. “Every day we get better. Some days we take steps back. Some days we go forward.”
Law of averages: The Horned Frogs enjoyed a bounty of turnovers last season — 40. That’s more than every year except one under Patterson. They had 42 takeaways in 2002 and 40 also in 2005. Outside those three years, the average per season is around 26. It would be difficult to expect 40 turnovers again, or to be a Big 12-best plus-18 again, as the Frogs were last year. Consider, the 26 interceptions last season were a school record. The four interception returns for a touchdown were also a school record. The 16 fumbles forced rank fourth all-time at TCU, and the 14 fumble recoveries rank fifth. That’s all going to be hard to do again.