Preseason countdown: No. 15 TCU

No, TCU isn’t one of the little guys.

It was an easy storyline to help the narrative when the Horned Frogs were slipping by big, bad, bruising Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl — helped by the Badgers inexplicably going away from their power running game for long stretches.

But it’s time to acknowledge that TCU is a real, live, national-title-level superpower at a school with an enrollment of fewer than 10,000.

Unlike Boise State, which couldn’t get much respect or credit playing in the WAC, TCU was right there for the big crystal football in each of the last two seasons — and no, the Rose Bowl victory wasn’t the culmination of a great run. It might have been just the beginning.

Instead of looking at TCU as the small school that happened to make it big in the huge, nasty world of Texas football, it’s possible that this might be the new Miami — only without the ridiculous load of otherworldly talent.

Lost in the greatness of the dominant Hurricanes teams of the 1980s through the early 2000s is that all the success came at a relatively small private school in a land of giants.

Miami wasn’t supposed to be able to compete with Florida and Florida State, just like TCU isn’t supposed to be on the same playing field as Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and, regionally, Oklahoma.

But after going 25-1 over the last two seasons, and with seven 10-win seasons in the last 10, the program has proved it has the staying power and the ability to compete and thrive with the talent it’s able to bring in.

Over the last three years, TCU has had 13 players drafted by NFL teams. Over that same span, Texas has had 14, Texas Tech six and Texas A&M three.

The difference between TCU, the other major Texas football programs, and old school Miami is that the talent is developed more than brought in. The Horned Frogs don’t get the four- and five-star guys in bulk that Texas coach Mack Brown gets by turning on the fax machine, but that has turned out to be a plus for TCU.

Brown’s complaint last year, with his disaster of a team, was that it came to Austin with a sense of entitlement. Because the Longhorns were supposed to win simply by being Longhorns, they forgot to bust their tails along the way.

There’s no such problem at TCU, where head coach Gary Patterson takes players who were passed over by other top schools, instills in them an attitude that they can beat the big-name teams by working harder, and develops them into big-time producers.

Just as important, this is all happening without a whiff of trouble. TCU was the bright, shining, gleaming-clean star in the Sports Illustrated piece on the criminal element in college football, and there hasn’t been any sort of issues during Patterson’s tenure.

But something is starting to change at TCU, and it’ll be interesting to see if the program maintains the same attitude and success; the program really is starting to become big-time.

Now, TCU is starting to get more and more of the top-shelf recruits to go along with the normal array of three-star try-hards. Receivers Ladarius Brown, Brandon Carter, and Cameron White aren’t little-guy school recruits.

TCU has better, talented players than it has in the past, but it’s going to have to maintain the same walk-on type of attitude.

With the exposure, and with the respect, and with the upgrade in talent, now TCU will fall into that Miami-like syndrome of having to win every game for the season to be a success.

Now the hunted by everyone, and not just the Mountain West teams, TCU will get everyone’s biggest and toughest shots. However, unlike Miami, which got better and sharper and more confident by going anywhere to play anyone, TCU already has flinched a bit by not taking the offer to go play Wisconsin in the 2011 opener.

While athletic director Chris Del Conte turned down the game because the Badgers wouldn’t make a return trip down the road to TCU, he also said he would’ve taken up an offer to play Ohio State after school president E. Gordon Gee’s “Little Sisters of the Poor” comment.

Was this a case of TCU not wanting to ruin the memory of the potentially transcendent Rose Bowl win? Not necessarily. Big-time football programs can do what they want, and now, especially, with the move to the Big East coming next year, TCU gets to call its own shots.

That’s what college football superpowers do.

What to watch for on offense: Who’ll be the leader? Andy Dalton wasn’t just an ultra-accurate gamer of a quarterback; he was a consummate team leader as the main man for the program during a great four-year run. You don’t just become a leader by being a quarterback; you become a leader by being a great quarterback. That’s why all eyes will be on new starter Casey Pachall to produce immediately. While no one is expecting him to be Dalton right out of the box, he has to fill the void for a team that loses so many key offensive playmakers.

What to watch for on defense: The defensive line. All four starters on the line earned all-star honors last season, and while TCU is able to rebuild and reload as well as anyone, it has to hope that a few players can step up and take over for Cory Grant on the inside and Wayne Daniels on the outside. Stansly Maponga could be the new big name to come out of Fort Worth after dominating at times through the offseason, but tackle D.J. Yendrey could be the real star that everything works around. Even if the line isn’t up to typical snuff there’s always Tanner Brock and Tank Carder at linebacker to clean everything up.

The team will be far better if: The defense can get into the backfield more often. What? TCU struggles to hit the quarterback? Not really, but the pass rush and the plays behind the line weren’t there last season compared to previous years. Even with an all-star defensive front, the Horned Frogs finished 54th in the nation in sacks and 64th in tackles for loss. Two years ago, the defense was second in the nation in sacks and eighth in tackles for loss, helping a run defense that finished first in the nation and a pass defense that finished 12th. OK, fine, so TCU finished first in the country in pass defense, total defense, scoring defense, and pass efficiency defense, so not camping out in the backfield obviously wasn’t that big a deal, but this season with so much turnover and several new key parts, especially in the secondary, being a bit more disruptive would be a plus.

The schedule: Nov. 12 at Boise State. Oh sure, the opening day game at Baylor will be a challenge, and the BYU game will be tough, and going to Air Force and San Diego State won’t be easy, but for a team like TCU that has rolled at will through the Mountain West over the last several years, the schedule is good enough to get through clean. Of course, now the bull’s-eye is on the Horned Frogs’ back, and don’t dismiss the conference road dates at Air Force and San Diego State, but the key is the game against the Broncos. TCU will face BYU and go to Wyoming before making another long plane trip up to Boise, and they could be softened up just enough to have problems. However, it should be a shock if the record isn’t 9-0 before the Mountain West Game of the Year.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Ed Wesley — for now. Waymon James, Matthew Tucker, Aundre Dean and others will be in the running back mix, and the hope is for QB Pachall to be the star of the show, but Wesley is the veteran playmaker who dominated over the first half of last season in several key games. He wore down as the year went on, but that shouldn’t be an issue this season with so many other good backs to throw into the equation. A Doak Walker semifinalist — partially because the committee is based in Dallas — he had a terrific year and should be the focal point early on this season.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Tank Carder and junior LB Tanner Brock. Carder will be the team’s signature star. Forever known for batting down the two-point conversion attempt to seal the win over Wisconsin at the Rose Bowl, he’s an instinctive all-around playmaker who’s always in the right place at the right time. His stats might not show it, but he’s one of the nation’s top linebackers. His running mate, Brock, is the stat-sheet filler coming up with 106 stops. At 6-foot-3 and 246 pounds, Brock brings the right size to the linebacking corps, and combining with Carder, TCU has a pair of Velociraptors who hunt down and destroy ball carriers.

Key player to a successful season: Pachall. Dalton finished his career with 10,314 passing yards, 71 scores, 30 picks, 1,611 rushing yards, 22 touchdowns, and a Rose Bowl win. More than that, he made every play needed at the right time to turn games into ugly blowouts. Pachall has even more talent than the Cincinnati Bengals draft pick, but Pachall has to prove early on that he can be the same playmaker and the same leader.

The season will be a success if: TCU goes back to the BCS. A bunch of things have to happen for the Horned Frogs to play for the national title, but there isn’t anyone on the schedule other than BYU and Boise State who should stay within two touchdowns of them. Baylor is the only game against a BCS–league team, the Mountain West doesn’t have Utah around anymore, and if TCU really is worthy of playing for the whole ball of wax, then it should be good enough to handle.

Key game: Nov. 12 at Boise State. Sept. 8, 2001. That’s the last time anyone has beaten Boise State on the blue turf in a regular-season game, but if TCU wants to win the Mountain West title, and maybe be in the hunt for something far, far bigger, it might have to be the one to break the ridiculous 63-game run. It’ll be a one-and-done as far as the epic matchups for Mountain West supremacy and, with TCU bolting to the Big East next year, this one should be extra special.