Between conference realignment and the drug scandal that rocked the Fort Worth campus, the fact that TCU posted an 11-2 record in their final Mountain West campaign failed to generate the same headlines. A 50-48 loss in the opener at Baylor, where Robert Griffin III announced his Heisman candidacy, did little more for the Horned Frogs on the national scale than to eliminate them from title contention. The only other stumble occurred inexplicably in the Battle for the Iron Skillet as SMU bested their crosstown rival for the first time since 2005. Knocking Boise State out of the national championship race had to be sweet considering the petty Mountain West moved a matchup slated for Fort Worth to Idaho as a result of TCU’s conference exit.
A postseason victory followed in the Poinsettia Bowl and though it wasn’t celebrating in Pasadena, the Horned Frogs finished 2011 with their 17th conference title in school history and their 4th in the Mountain West. Always an underlying topic in college football, TCU completed a scaling of the realignment hill that had dogged them since the Southwest Conference folded in 1995. Stints in the WAC, Conference USA, Mountain West and an abbreviated dalliance with the Big East provided solace for the Horned Frogs until the Big 12, finally, came calling. Jealousy over the inclusion of the Baylor Bears all those years ago abated and the “mid-major” that boasts a Rose Bowl trophy walked, nay swaggered, out of 2011 with an eye toward 2012.
Reality begins in September. New Mexico, Wyoming and UNLV no longer dot the schedule. Teams like Iowa State with a tendency to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 have made a name for themselves in upsetting the traditional conference powers. That’s to say, there’s no cakewalk unless you include Kansas and even then, Charlie Weis might not allow you any cake. Certainly TCU won’t win 25 consecutive conference games like they did in the Mountain West. And while the Big 12 doesn’t have a true national title contender and runaway favorite in 2012, it’s difficult to place the Horned Frogs in the upper-echelon.
Between grades, personal reasons and the campus-wide drug bust, probable starters Tanner Brock, Ed Wesley, D.J. Yendrey, Devin Johnson and Ty Horn are gone. Junior quarterback Casey Pachall recently admitted to failing a drug test but having completed drug and alcohol counseling, he faces no suspension. It appears Gary Patterson has quickly embraced the seedier tenets of major conference football because Pachall’s presence isn’t exactly required against Grambling State in early September. I expect the Horned Frogs to remain competitive into the second halves of the majority of their conference games but depth, the road block to TCU’s initial success, betrays them.
A 7-5 or 8-4 season in 2012 isn’t the end of the world because commissioner Bob Bowlsby won’t retract the Big 12 invite. More important is establishing a stable foundation in the wake of the drug scandal and selling parents of prospective recruits that their sons aren’t future dismissals. Located in Fort Worth, right in the middle of the DFW hotbed, there’s potential for the Horned Frogs to build another Big 12 power. If TCU can occasionally steal a 4/5-star from Texas or Oklahoma and keep the second-tier kids from Oklahoma State and Baylor, the opportunity to succeed soon exists.
Currently ranked 34th in the 2013 cycle by 247 Sports, their haul of commits includes a pair fo 4-star linebackers in Paul Whitmill and Dac Shaw. In terms of facilities, the stadium (Amon G. Carter) underwent a $164 million renovation over the past year which expanded suites, a necessity and provides a 40,000 seat building with an ability to broaden to 50,000. More seating will be needed when the wins arrive in bunches but keeping Gary Patterson content in Fort Worth is always the ultimate goal. He’s signed through 2018 and considering the number of offers he’s likely turned down, only leaving for an elite job. Perhaps he’s more interested in taking his employer to that level.