TCU spent years trying like crazy to get into a BCS conference, ideally the Big 12.
Now head coach Gary Patterson is making his best effort to downplay what joining the league means to his program.
"This is not going to be our first rodeo," Patterson said in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "It's not like we haven't played in big ball games before."
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TCU has, indeed, played in plenty of big games in recent years and won many of them. But now all eyes are on them to see if the critics of non-BCS programs are right when they says schools like TCU and Boise State had inflated win totals over the past decade because they weren't having to compete week in and week out.
Despite the huge step up in competition, not many are giving Patterson a break, and lowering expectations for the Horned Frogs. The Oklahoma Sooners may be everyone's preseason favorite to win the league, but TCU is in a bunch of five schools many onlookers believe can all make a run at a league title themselves, including West Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
And why wouldn't TCU be in that group? With junior quarterback Casey Pachall leading the offense along with several returning skill position stars, the Horned Frogs can hold their own in any shootout. And defense, lest college football fans forget, is actually the calling card of the program after leading the nation for three consecutive years in total defense before last year's slipup (a slipup that still had the team ranked a respectable No. 32 in total defense).
"I've told [fans] that everyone needs to calm down," Patterson said in the Star-Telegram. "One thing our group has to understand is you have not arrived just because we got to the Big 12. You have to win in the Big 12. Just because you're in a conference doesn't make you a good football team. You make yourself a good football team."
Expectations are high for the Horned Frogs and so are the games. Sure they've played in big games before, but as much as Patterson wants to downplay it, the season ahead is bigger than anything the Horned Frogs have ever seen before.
HEAD COACH: Gary Patterson, 12th year at TCU, 109-30 record at TCU and as a head coach
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: DE Stansly Maponga -- Sure a case can easily be made that QB Casey Pachall is the most important, but the reality is TCU isn't itself when its defense struggles and everything on the defense falls into place when Maponga is on his game. He demands a double team and opens up things for the rest of the unit. Maponga is a future NFL talent who had a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss last year and 9.0 sacks. He'll become a national star this fall playing in a BCS conference if he can play to his potential. If he can't, TCU may stumble in its debut season in the Big 12.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Brandon Carter -- His 75-yard touchdown grab vs. Boise State proved to be the longest play from scrimmage in 2011 for TCU and the true freshman had 23 receptions on the season for 352 yards and three receiving touchdowns. He also led the team with 137 punt return yards. Carter had good numbers in 2011, but he'll be a featured part of the offense this fall and with defenses likely focusing their secondary attention on WR Josh Boyce, Carter could push his way into a starring role both on offense and special teams.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE Devonte Fields -- True freshmen don't play much for head coach Gary Patterson. That may not change any time in the near future, but if there is a guy capable of breaking the trend it's Fields. He's a 6-foot-4, 240-pound versatile defender who can do much more than just add depth at the DE spot. He'll be an instant impact special teams contributor and could even fill a couple of other positions on defense in a pinch. He's a future star for the Horned Frogs.
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KEYS TO SUCCESS: TCU loves what it has in QB Casey Pachall. They know he can air it out and has some great playmakers at wide receiver, but the Horned Frogs offense is at its best when it has a run game that grinds out yards. RBs Waymon James and Matthew Tucker will be relied on even more after the May departure of projected starter Ed Wesley. The TCU defense took a step back overall in 2011 compared to the national-leading unit of the prior three seasons, but was improving week by week as the season went on. Even against the much tougher competition the Big 12 will present, the defense should be better, even if the stats don't always reflect it. If the defense can again generate a pass rush on a consistent basis without blitzing linebackers, head coach Gary Patterson's defense should be just fine.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The secondary got torched last season, primarily in the two biggest games of the year when Baylor's Robert Griffin III led the Bears to 414 passing yards and six passing TDs and against Boise State when Kellen Moore had 320 passing yards and a pair of TD tosses. The secondary now has four of five starters to replace and that scares some as the move to the Big 12 means seeing some top-notch passing teams. Special teams is a unit with a lot of inexperience, too. The Horned Frogs lose four-year starters at placekicker and punter and will be breaking in first-time players at those positions, but the return game should still be strong.
-- Citing personal reasons, projected starting RB Ed Wesley left the TCU program in May, entered but went undrafted in the NFL Supplemental Draft and then was signed July 26 by the Dallas Cowboys. Wesley had 726 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns and added 120 punt return yards in 2011.
-- Former University of Miami (Fla.) head coach Randy Shannon was named TCU's linebackers coach on July 26.
-- Former players DT David Yendrey, LB Tanner Brock and OG Tyler Horn each pleaded guilty to marijuana-related charges in June and were sentenced to probation in July. All were kicked off the team after being among 17 TCU students arrested during a February drug sting.