Often the underdog, TCU begins to embrace its role as Big 12 favorite

Usually the underdog, TCU head coach Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs are embracing their new role of Big 12 and College Football Playoff favorite.
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DALLAS — James McFarland says it’s weird, but he kind of likes it. In fact, it’s almost something to celebrate.  

As often happens this time of year, people are talking about TCU football. But in a strange twist, the chatter isn’t about the Horned Frogs’ vaunted defense, the unit on which coach Gary Patterson has built his reputation.

TCU defenses have been some of the best and grittiest in college football in Patterson’s 15 years as head coach, five times leading the nation in total defense (2000, ’02, ’08, ’09, ’10). Defense helped the Horned Frogs go from BCS wannabe to BCS buster as a member of the Mountain West, playing in back-to-back BCS games in ’09 and ’10 and it was supposed to help them hang with the big boys of college football. Then they joined the Big 12, and their offense couldn’t hack it. TCU stumbled through miserable 4–5 and 2–7 conference campaigns in 2012 and ’13, stunted by an offense that struggled to score.

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To combat this, Patterson brought in Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, ‘Air Raid’ disciples who took former receiver Trevone Boykin (3,901 passing yards, 707 rushing yards, 41 total touchdowns) and turned him into a preseason Heisman candidate at quarterback. The result: A 12–1 record, a narrow miss in the College Football Playoff and all the attention TCU can handle heading into 2015. That the focus is on the offense—TCU brings back 10 starters on that side of the ball, headlined by Boykin—is fine with McFarland, a senior defensive end.

“It’s strange, but it comes with the territory when you change offenses and have that type of year,” laughed McFarland, shrugging. “I’m OK with it. (The offense) deserves the publicity.”

Each year, Patterson says, outsiders lay out reasons why TCU will struggle. Last season, pundits bemoaned the lack of a veteran quarterback. This year TCU’s unproven on defense, returning just three defenders who started all 13 games last season. Patterson blocks out all the talk, good and bad, saying that while everything they’ve accomplished at TCU is “all great and fine … it's kind of like winning any awards. You can put them all in the closet because it doesn't mean anything to anybody anymore when we play Minnesota.”

When that comes around on Sept. 3 in Minneapolis, the Horned Frogs will be breaking in plenty of new defenders. On the plus side, they’ll build around a core of veterans like McFarland who understand the aspiration of “holding teams to zero points every time we play.” That seems an unrealistic goal. But at TCU, where defense has set the tone for longer than a decade, McFarland said Patterson communicates and preaches believing in the impossible every day. It’s part of why when everyone counted TCU out last season, the Horned Frogs rallied.

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Senior Derrick Kindred is the most experienced member of the secondary, notching 80 tackles last season, third-best on the team. McFarland, who earned defensive MVP in TCU’s 42–3 win over Ole Miss in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, returns after leading the team with seven sacks in 2014. Senior defensive tackle Davion Pierson (eight tackles for loss) and sophomore cornerback Ranthony Texada (seven pass breakups) round out the familiar names. McFarland isn’t worried about the defensive depth chart being populated by unknowns. He gushes about the work put in this offseason by the new guys, pointing out that in program like TCU, where defense is king, the backups are usually pretty good.

“Going into two-a-days, we’ve got a lot of questions that need to be answered,” McFarland said. “I like that people don’t know what to expect from us. We have the potential to be faster (everywhere) and more physical up front, or we could be not that good at all. It’s all about what we make of ourselves.”

True freshman Mike Freeze, a Rivals.com three-star who didn’t play his senior year of high school because of injury, enrolled early to participate in spring ball and will likely start at linebacker. Patterson wasn’t ready to anoint Freeze quite yet, but said his speed will help the unit, adding that last year’s linebacker corps was “the slowest group we’ve ever had at TCU.”  Patterson is confident this season: The defense will be more athletic, which will help the Horned Frogs keep pace with the prolific Big 12 offenses.

After all, he says, they’re tasked with keeping up with their teammates each day in practice.

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“You know that going into two-a-days, your defensive team is really going to improve because of the kind of people they practice against,” Patterson said, adding that the speed of TCU’s offense forces young defensive players to grow up quickly. “We get a lot better quicker (now) than when we were in the other offense.”

Rebuilding or reloading defense aside, big expectations await TCU: In a vote of conference media members, the Horned Frogs were picked as the runaway favorite to win the Big 12, earning 32 first-place votes compared to 10 for Baylor.

In many ways, the change in conversation about TCU mimics the change of conversation in league. In a conference once dominated by Texas and Oklahoma, TCU and Baylor have become the new darlings, stealing the spotlight from programs with deeper traditions. But their breakthrough last season lacked a knockout punch, as both were on the outside looking in when the inaugural CFP kicked off.

Asked Monday about his confidence level that TCU would be invited to the CFP this year even though the Big 12 again won’t have a conference championship game, Patterson didn’t hesitate. “After last year, I don't feel confident about anything,” he said.

That being said, TCU has undefeated potential, and Patterson knows it—even if he won’t say it out loud. And so his new favorite line this offseason, repeated in interviews and his locker room, has become an acknowledgement of the pressure. “Last year was about proving people wrong,” he likes to say. “This year is about proving people right.”