How will TCU respond to higher standards?

Elite programs lose.

Florida lost to Alabama last season; USC struggled just to get through the season; Texas drops a game from time to time; and Ohio State lost to Purdue and got picked off by the Trojans. It happens to everyone.

What separates the top programs from the run-of-the-mill powerhouses is consistency in games they’re supposed to win. USC has had a problem with that over the last few years, while Ohio State has almost always been great at that, and Texas almost never loses a shocker.

After TCU’s puzzling offensive clunker in the Fiesta Bowl (the Boise State defense had a lot to do with that), it might be tempting to think the team couldn’t step up in primetime and the loss was a step back. Instead, it was simply a loss to a team in the BCS.

That’s all.

Considering the Horned Frogs have gone 29 games and over two years since losing to a team that didn’t finish the season in the BCS, it was just a speed bump along the way. What’s most impressive is that TCU has gotten a big enough brand name and enough respect to come within a made Texas field goal in the Big 12 Championship of possibly playing for the national championship. And now, that’s the standard and the goal the team has to shoot for.

While fellow non-BCS star, Boise State, continues on with its happy-to-be-here, one-game-at-a-time attitude, TCU needs to continue to keep its focus on getting through the conference play first while actually putting out there the possibility of playing for the whole ball of wax. The program has dealt with expectations extremely well over the last few years, so there’s no reason to not ramp them up a little bit more now with the loaded team returning.

The offense that finished last year fifth in the nation in scoring gets nine starters back. One of them, tackle Marshall Newhouse, wasn’t as good as Marcus Cannon, who’ll move from the right side to the left, while the one other lost starter, RB Joseph Turner, won’t be missed in any way with an upgraded role for both Matthew Tucker and Ed Wesley. Throw in the return of the reigning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, QB Andy Dalton, one of the most explosive receiving corps in America, and a line loaded with all-stars, and there’s no reason to not expect even more pop.

The defense might lose future NFL stars Jerry Hughes and Daryl Washington, along with both starting corners, but as long as the linebackers are healthy (more on that in a bit), everything will be more than fine. It’s TCU; the defense is always fine. The secondary has a slew of star safeties, while the cornerbacks are good enough that losing two First Team All-Mountain West performers in Nick Sanders and Rafael Priest won’t hurt. Throw in one of the five best sets of special teams in America, and TCU is poised and ready for yet another big run to the BCS.

Like last year, TCU could be playing in Glendale in January. Unlike last year, it might not be the Fiesta Bowl. Yeah, it really is time to set the expectations that high.


What to watch for on offense: Right tackle. Everything else is perfect from the loaded receiving corps, the speedy running backs, and the talented front line. However, there’s one big, gaping hole on the right side after 6-5, 350-pound all-star Marcus Cannon moved over to Marshall Newhouse’s spot at left tackle. Jeff Olson came from out of nowhere to take over the starting tackle job after spring ball, but the position is wide open with the hope that the talented, yet disappointing, Zach Roth can step up his play and become the main man. For a team that was sixth in the nation in sacks allowed, this could be the Achilles’ heel.

What to watch for on defense: The shoulders of the linebackers. Losing a superior athlete in Daryl Washington hurts, but the Horned Frogs only use two linebackers in the 4-2-5 scheme and have several great players ready to take on bigger roles. However, the corps needs Tank Carder to be 100 percent after he suffered a shoulder problem this offseason. Making matters worse was a shoulder injury suffered by key reserve Kris Gardner, making TCU suddenly thin at a position that shouldn’t be a problem. Both Carder and Gardner are expected to turn out fine, but there will be a drop-off in overall defensive production if those two aren’t right.

The team will be far better if … Andy Dalton doesn’t throw multiple interceptions. Sometimes statistics are just quirks and sometimes they’re telling. TCU operates with a nasty defense and an efficient offense that doesn’t give the ball away. When the turnovers come, the system usually breaks down. TCU is 31-8 over the last three seasons and is 0-4 when Dalton throws more than one interception. Taking it a few steps further, over the last 29 games, TCU is 25-1 (with the one loss at Oklahoma in 2008) when Dalton doesn’t throw multiple picks and is 0-2 when he does. How good has TCU been with Dalton at quarterback when he doesn’t throw any interceptions? 22-0.

The schedule: There’s no reason TCU can’t run the table again. There isn’t a killer of a non-conference game, but there are some nice battles with Oregon State to kickoff the season in a supposedly neutral site game in Arlington, and battling Baylor will be a chance to thump a BCS conference team. Out of the five true road games, only a date at SMU (which might as well be a home game) and one at Utah are against teams that went bowling. BYU and Air Force come in back-to-back weeks, and the Horned Frogs have to come up with wins in those two home games before dealing with three road games in the final four dates.

Best offensive player: Senior QB Andy Dalton. Actually, OT Marcus Cannon is the team’s top NFL prospect and is the most talented player, and WR Jeremy Kerley is the team’s most explosive playmaker, but it’s Dalton who’s coming off the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year season after throwing 22 touchdown passes and five picks with 522 rushing yards and three touchdowns. And then came the Fiesta Bowl with three picks and getting stuffed for -10 rushing yards to take the luster off. He’s a hard-nosed leader who has been around for the last three years, and now he gets another loaded attack to play around with.

Best defensive player: Junior LB Tank Carder … assuming he’ll be healthy. While he was overshadowed a bit by the other stars on defense last year, he came up with a whale of a year both against the run and as a pass defender. There are plenty of tremendous players on the TCU defense once again, but as long as Carder is right, it’s his show.

Key player to a successful season: Junior OT Jeff Olson. If he really does end up taking over the starting right tackle job, and it’s not redshirt freshman John Wooldridge and/or senior Zach Roth, he’ll have to do the impossible and try to be as good as Marcus Cannon, who’ll move over to left tackle. Cannon didn’t allow a sack last year.

The season will be a success if … TCU goes unbeaten and gets back to a BCS game. The defense might take a wee step back, but it won’t be that much while the offense should be even better with nine starters returning. An 11-1 record with a Mountain West title would be a success by almost any measure, but that’s not good enough at this point for a team this good.

Key game: Nov. 6 at Utah. This was the game that tripped up the Horned Frogs two years ago, and it’s the only one they have to worry about this year as long as they hold serve at home against BYU and Air Force. It’ll likely be the game of the year in the Mountain West and it could end up determining a BCS bid, with the winner getting the call.