Somehow, someway, we’re exactly one week away from the start of the college football season. One week!!! And after spending the past few months breaking down every angle in the sport, it’s finally time to talk about the most important aspect of the entire season: the national championship contenders. Therefore, go ahead and step aside, Purdue. Deuces, Iowa State. See ya later Clemso --- oh wait, Dabo Swinney’s club is actually really good. Still, over the next two weeks, FOXSports.com will break down all the true contenders for the National Championship and give you a couple reasons why, yes, they can win it all. And after starting with Ohio State on Monday, hitting the Washington Huskies on Tuesday discussing the Houston Cougars on Wednesday and the Tennessee Vols on Thursday, it’s time to head to the Big 12, and discuss arguably the most interesting team on this list, TCU. At first glance, the Horned Frogs don’t jump out as true title contenders, but when you start to peel back the layers and dig a little deeper, a compelling case could be made that Gary Patterson’s club is a legitimate contender. Here are five reasons the Horned Frogs can win it all.
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The defense will be back in business this year
Yes, the Horned Frogs trotted out a unit wearing purple, white and black last year, but while those 11 guys did their best to stop the opposing offense, that group didn’t exactly “feel” like a TCU defense. Between youth in some spots and injuries in others, the Horned Frogs finished an uncharacteristic 63rd nationally in total defense, and allowed 45 or more points in a third of their Big 12 games. Thank goodness Gary Patterson already has a bald spot atop his head. Otherwise, he would have spent the entire season pulling his hair out. But while the youth and injury attrition ended up hurting the 2015 Horned Frogs, it could be a blessing in disguise heading into 2016. They return 10 guys who have started at least five games in their career (a stat I stole from my colleague Stewart Mandel), including their leading returning tackler (linebacker Travin Howard), their leading sack guy (Josh Carraway) and one of the most underrated defensive backs in the conference, Denzel Johnson, who earned an honorable mention All-Big 12 nod last year. The Horned Frogs have difference-makers on every level of their defense and depth they didn’t have last year. Because of it, they might just have the best defense in the Big 12 in 2016.
Getty ImagesJustin K. Aller
Even without Trevone Boykin, their offense won’t dip as much as you think
Trevone Boykin was one of the most exciting players in college football over the past few years, a converted wide receiver with game-breaking speed and one of the biggest arms in the country. But let’s not forget that first part: He was a converted wide receiver. If co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham can do that with Boykin, what can they do with TCU’s new quarterback, Kenny “Trill” Hill, after he spent a full season sitting out and learning their system. Oh, you forgot about Trill Hill, didn’t you? It’d be easy to, with the unceremonious and quiet way he departed Texas A&M. But in his short time in the college football spotlight, Hill was one of the sport's most dynamic quarterbacks. Everyone remembers his 511-yard, three-touchdown debut against South Carolina in 2014, but he threw for at least two touchdowns in seven of eight games that season, including four games with four TDs. Hill eventually lost the job to Kyle Allen, but after everything that’s happened in College Station since then, maybe Hill isn’t to blame as much as we originally thought. If there’s one coaching staff that seems capable of getting the most out of Hill, it’s this one. Look for him to bounce back in a big way this season in the Big 12.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY SportsTroy Taormina
The pieces around Hill aren’t too shabby, either
Whether you’re Kenny Hill or Aaron Rodgers, you need help around you. Thankfully, there is more in the Horned Frog cupboard than people realize. It starts with the dynamic KaVontae Turpin, a speedster who can turn any touch into a big play; he averaged 14 yards per catch last season and scored eight touchdowns. To counter Turpin’s speed, TCU also has size on the edge, with Taj Williams (6-3) and Emmanuel Porter (6-4) competing to replace Josh Doctson as the team’s primary red zone threat. In addition to Turpin at running back, there’s Kyle Hicks, who showed flashes while backing up senior Aaron Green last year, scoring three touchdowns. The names might not be familiar, but with this coaching staff, playmakers will emerge and points will be scored.
Getty ImagesTom Pennington
The rest of the Big 12 is, umm, a little iffy
The simple truth is that the Big 12 is always tough. Take a bunch of teams that can score a lot of points and add a nine-game, round-robin schedule where you can’t avoid anyone, and it’s never easy to run through the gauntlet unblemished, or even with one loss. At the same time, doesn’t the Big 12 feel a little iffy this year? Oklahoma is obviously the favorite, but for all the talk about Baker Mayfield, Semaje Perine, Joe Mixon and the offense, the Sooners have major holes to fill on the defensive end. Baylor is going through a major transition and turmoil off the field post-Art Briles. Texas feels like it's still a year away, and the Horned Frogs get Texas Tech and Oklahoma State at home. No one is saying that TCU will be perfect in conference play. But there are enough concerns across the Big 12 that could allow the Horned Frogs to emerge as not only the champion but a college football playoff contender as well.
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TCU was closer last year than anyone realizes
After missing the playoff by the skin of their teeth in 2014, last year had a “playoff or bust” feel to it. Well, the Horned Frogs finished 11-2 and missed the playoff. So in some ways, the season must be considered a bust. However, doesn’t that say a lot about the insane standard that Patterson has set in Fort Worth? Especially when you remember that the team dealt with a slew of injuries all year, leading to attrition on the defense, their best offensive skill player (Doctson) missing the final few games with an injury, and Boykin being banged up the entire second half of the season? Remember, for as “disappointing” as that 11-2 finish was, TCU was literally one point way from beating Oklahoma (a 30-29 loss) in Norman and throwing a major wrinkle into the Big 12 title chase and playoff standings. While that loss was disappointing, it also shows how close the Horned Frogs really were. After a year when a ton of players gained experience, TCU could break out in a big way in 2016. No, the Horned Frogs don’t immediately jump out as true national championship contenders. But they very well could win the conference and throw themselves right into that championship mix.