Preseason countdown: No. 28 TCU

All it took was nine double digit-win seasons since 2000, two BCS appearances and a recent Rose Bowl win to finally show the world that TCU might be ready to show what it could do in a bigger and better conference. For those who think that the step up in weight class will expose a program that spent years fattening up on teams from the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference, the surprise might be that TCU will be more than fine.

But don’t judge the Horned Frogs over the next several seasons on how many Big 12 titles they win or how many BCS appearances they make. It’s hard to win a Big 12 championship if you’re not Oklahoma or Texas, but TCU has exactly what it takes to give it a run.

In the Big 12, everything starts with the offense. Texas has had one of the best defenses in the country over the last few seasons and it hasn’t meant squat thanks to its offensive struggles. In this league, forget about being competitive on a regular basis if the offense isn’t built to hang up 450 yards and 40 points. TCU’s can do that.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to play a little D to do just enough to break serve to let the offense do its thing. The TCU defense might have been down a bit last year, but it was No. 1 overall from 2008 to 2010 and expects nothing less than the same sort of success.

But TCU was No. 1 during that time because it was in the MWC, right?

Yes, but over those three years, the Horned Frogs faced Stanford, Oklahoma, Clemson, Baylor, Oregon State, Virginia and Wisconsin along with Boise State twice and BYU, Utah and Air Force three times. The defense really was that good, and it could be close to that level again in the near future.

Then there’s the coaching staff. Gary Patterson could’ve taken over just about any job opening over the last five years, but turned them all down time and again. He has built a system that works and he’s about to reap the rewards of all the years of high-level success without always bringing in the high-level talent.

How good is Patterson? Forget about the consistency on the field; he has done everything possible to make things right in a bad situation with the marijuana controversy that rocked the program this offseason. He never ducked from it and never tried to make excuses. In this day and age of issues and scandals across the college football landscape, trying to right the wrong and not trying to sweep things under the rug goes a long way. Fortunately for the Horned Frogs and Patterson, the Big 12 season will be all anyone talks about throughout the summer.

The offense is loaded, led Casey Pachall, who’s as good as passer as any quarterback in the conference. The running backs are deep, experienced and quick, while the receiving corps could be the Big 12’s best if everyone plays up to their potential.

The defense won’t be No. 1 in the nation, and it’s gutted a bit in certain spots, but it’ll be good enough to get by. The aggressiveness will be there as always, but the pass rush has to be ramped up a bit and the consistency has to be there against all the big-time Big 12 offenses.

The team is good enough to be a player and the conference is ready to add an old Southwest Conference team into the fold. The Horned Frogs are a great addition, and they’re about to show why.

What to watch for on offense: The passing game should explode. It was good when it had to be last season, but it only finished 63rd in the nation averaging 232 yards per game. Part of the reason was that Pachall didn’t have to chuck it all over the yard against Portland State, Wyoming and Colorado State when the running game was going crazy, but he mounted a big comeback in the loss to Baylor and was brilliant in the win over Boise State. Pachall has the size, the arm and the receiving corps to do a lot more in a league that will once again be known for its shootouts. Josh Boyce and Skye Dawson are a good 1-2 wideout combination, and Brandon Carter, Cam White and LaDarius Brown will put up huge numbers, too.

What to watch for on defense: The back seven. Part of the foundation of the great TCU defenses in recent history has been tone-setting leaders at linebacker. Tank Carder is done, while Tanner Brock is out of the mix as part of the off-the-field issues and now he’s off to UTEP. The linebackers are expected to be fine in time, but the pressure is on Deryck Gildon and Kenny Cain to be great against the run. The problem, though, is a secondary that needs to be far stronger at corner and needing more plays from the safety. The pass defense is a concern which is why …

The team will be far better if: … the secondary can keep the yards to a minimum. The defensive backs will be the key to the season against the great-passing Big 12 teams. If the Horned Frogs can’t slow anyone down the offense will have to ramp things up. The D gave up 250-plus yards four times last season and gave up more than two touchdown passes just twice. The games with three or more TD passes came in losses to Baylor and SMU when TCU allowed 414 yards and 349 yards, respectively. The other two games with 250-plus passing yards allowed came in a 36-35 at Boise State (320 yards and two scores) and in a 31-24 win vs. Louisiana Tech (264 yards and two scores).

The schedule: Welcome to the Big 12, TCU. Now go to Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas. Patterson has a strong team that can beat anyone on the schedule, but the new kid on the block isn’t getting any favors over the second half of the season with road games in Stillwater, Okla., Morgantown, W. Va., and Austin, Texas in a four-game span. Does anyone else in America have to go on the road in back-to-back weeks to face teams — Oklahoma State and West Virginia — that won BCS games last year? No. Considering Kansas State was good enough to have gone to the BCS, and Texas and Oklahoma are Texas and Oklahoma, it could be argued that TCU has the nation’s toughest finishing kick — the Sooners close out the regular-season schedule on Dec. 1. The Horned Frogs get five conference road games, but they also get a little bit of a break with Kansas State and Oklahoma at home and a week off before going to Texas. The non-conference schedule isn’t going to be easy with home games vs. Grambling State and Virginia and a road trip to SMU.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Pachall. He was valiant in defeat against Baylor, being outplayed by Robert Griffin III but almost pulling out the win late. He was phenomenal in Boise State throwing for 473 yards and five touchdowns in the epic victory. While he was efficient, he was also consistent and careful with just one game with more than one pick — throwing two in the 27-14 win over San Diego State. With his size, mobility and arm, he’s soon going to be a red-hot pro prospect. This year he’ll have the stats to jump-start the hype.

Best defensive player: Junior DE Stansly Maponga. TCU always seems to have a star pass rusher who sets the tone for the defense and turns out to be an unstoppable force. While he was decent against the run, his real worth was as a pass rusher recording nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. At 6-2 and 265 pounds he’s a bit short, but he’s stocky and tough to go along with his quickness. In a league full of top quarterbacks, Maponga has to dominate and disrupt.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore OT Tayo Fabuluje. Junior James Dunbar will be tried out on the left side from time to time, but it’ll be Fabuluje, a transfer from BYU, who’ll likely have the job of keeping Pachall clean. The pass protection was terrific last year, allowing just 13 tackles, and now the pressure is on for the 6-7, 315-pound sophomore to be great right out of the box. With his frame and long arms he’ll be tough to get around.

The season will be a success if: The Horned Frogs win nine games. For a program used to winning 10 or more games, the idea of shooting for anything less might seem a bit disappointing. However, moving to the Big 12 really will be difficult with a brutal back half of the slate to deal with. If TCU can start out 6-1, at worst, it should be able to pull off at least one upset against the league’s elite over the final six games and hope to win a bowl game. That’s assuming there won’t be any major clunkers, but still, with the offense the Horned Frogs are bringing they should be able to come up with a strong record.

Key game: Nov. 10 vs. Kansas State. It’s the home oasis in a horrible run of road games with trips to Oklahoma State and West Virginia in the weeks before facing the Wildcats … and with a date at Texas to follow. Hoping to roll through the early part of the schedule is a must, and beating the Wildcats could be needed to avoid falling off a cliff over the second half.