by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Forgive us our little double-take when referring to TCU as a gridiron power. It’s taken a while to get used to the notion of the Horned Frogs among the nation’s elite after spending much of the last half-century as one of the most notorious also-rans in the sport.

Prior to the recent upswing that peaked last year when TCU rolled through its second straight unbeaten regular season, and a win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl (the Frogs in the Rose Bowl!), it took the equivalent of a football archaeological dig to locate the glory days in Fort Worth. And there was glory, alright, back in the ‘30s, when HC Francis “Show ‘Em No Mercy” Schmidt enjoyed great success with his teams before moving to Ohio State, and a couple of legendary HC Dutch Meyer’s teams claimed the mythical national championship (1935 & ‘38). Abe Martin’s teams then won three Southwest Conference titles, although the program began to tail off in the mid ‘60s, preceding Martin’s retirement after ‘66. Along the way, the Frogs produced some of the most recognizable names in the sport’s history, such as Slingin’ Sammy Baugh and Davey ‘Brien, the latter a Heisman winner in 1938. TCU, however, only “bowled” three times in a 38-year stretch (enduring 11 parched campaigns of 2 wins or fewer) before Dennis Franchione arrived from New Mexico in 1998 and set the wheels in motion for a dramatic revival that has continued under Fran’s successor Gary Patterson. Who, by the way, is now one of the hottest coaching commodities in the sport, but thus far resistant to any moves from the pleasant limestone accented-campus, situated adjacent to comfy residential neighborhoods and the Colonial Country Club just a couple of miles south of the delightful Fort Worth downtown, the stockyards, and Billy Bob’s.

It’s a nice place, and we don’t blame Patterson for wanting to stick around. Especially since upgrades are continuing at Amon Carter Stadium, which is undergoing extensive renovation en route to becoming a showcase facility when all is completed in 2012 (the Frogs will play in Carter this season as the project continues), and TCU slated for a move to the Big East, and automatic BCS qualification for its champion, beginning next year.

For those who wonder what the Frogs are going to be doing in a conference that has other outposts in far-flung locales such as Providence and Tampa, chalk it up to another example of football as king. And because TCU is now a “brand” name on the gridiron, the Frogs were in demand before deciding the Big East was their best landing spot. The financial windfall is significant, as right off the bat, the move is worth around a cool $8 million per year to the Frog athletic department. Although nobody asked beleaguered TCU hoops coach Jim Christian what he thought about the move (the Frogs have been laggards in Mountain West basketball, much less the Big East), Patterson seems excited by the new challenge, and for good reason.

He’ll have the best football program in the league, just as he has had lately in the Mountain West.

Before that fun and frolic (and extra revenue) begins next year, TCU still has matters to tend to this season in the Mountain West, itself in a period of transition. BYU (to independent status in football, WCC for other sports) and Utah (to the Pac-12) have already abandoned the league, replaced this year by Boise State. The league swells to ten schools next year when the Frogs leave and get replaced by Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawaii (football only for the Warriors). The byproduct, at least for this last TCU season in the conference, is a potential titanic showdown at Boise on November 12 that figures to have major BCS implications. The Frogs and Broncos are somewhat familiar with one another after bowl games following the 2008 & ‘09 campaigns, and, a bit further back, in 2003 (Boise winning two of those three affairs). It’s worth noting, however, the venue of the November showdown, which was originally scheduled to be in Fort Worth but switched by the Mountain West as an undeniable “parting gift” to TCU. The Frogs also had a bye request denied by the league in Week Two, instead assigned a tricky trip to Air Force.

But by the time TCU travels to the land of the blue carpet in November, it should have had ample time to break in new QB Casey Pachall, who will be trying to fill the very big shoes left behind by four-year starter Andy Dalton, now drawing paychecks from the NFL Cincinnati Bengals. It is hard to recall a time when Dalton wasn’t starting for the Frogs, as his tenure seemed to almost extend back to the days of Davey O’Brien. Indeed, when Dalton wasn’t last in the lineup for TCU, Barack Obama was just another senator from Illinois. The concern for Patterson and co-o.c.’s Justin Fuente and Jarrett Anderson, however, is that several other replacement parts must be found on the attack end after graduation claimed several key elements from last year’s 13-0 juggernaut.

For what it’s worth, they’re nonetheless excited in Fort Worth about Pachall, a redshirt soph who is at least well-versed in the nuances of Patterson’s wide-open, multi-look attack that has gained better than 5000 yards in each of the past five campaigns (and a school-record 6199 yards in 2010 when the Frogs finished fourth nationally in scoring at a whopping 41.6 ppg). Pachall’s physical tools are considerable, including size (6'4"), quick feet, and a rocket arm, stronger, perhaps, than Dalton’s. “He throws the ball harder than Andy,” says WR Josh Boyce. “He can get it in tight places.” Replacing Dalton’s considerable leadership qualities might be a more difficult task, although Pachall seems to be relishing his role, and has impressed Patterson with his take-charge attitude in fall camp.

Even assuming Pachall does a reasonable imitation of Dalton, there are other questions to be answered on the attack end, especially up front where four new starters will be employed along the line. The new first-stringers have all seen action in the past, but developing the cohesion of last year’s forward wall might not come overnight. Regional sources believe the talent is on hand to prevent much, if any regression, and the next in the assembly-line of top-shelf tackles could be 6'6, 305-lb. soph James Dunbar, but how quickly the new unit jells will be key. Moreover, Pachall will not have the benefits of Dalton’s recent top targets, graduated wideouts Jeremy Kerley and Jimmy Young, although the aforementioned Boyce flashed considerable upside as a frosh in 2010 when gaining almost 20 yards per catch and scoring 6 TDs on his 34 receptions. This fall’s newcomer to watch is true frosh LaDarius Brown, a Waxahachie product considered perhaps the top “athlete” in the nation’s 2011 recruiting class. Sources say his presence could be felt immediately.

Until all of the pieces in the new-look aerial show splice together, Pachall can be expected to lean on a dynamic infantry that returns its top three rushers, including slashing jr. Ed Wesley, already on the Maxwell Award watch list after exploding for 1078 YR as a soph in 2010. He’s back to full strength after sitting out spring drills with numerous nagging injuries, and good depth remains in place with sidekicks Matthew Tucker (709 YR LY) and Waymon Jones (513 YR and 5.9 ypc last year as a frosh) still on the scene from last fall’s 10th ranked rushing offense (247 ypg).

There is room for a little bit of an adjustment phase on offense, however, with the nation’s top-ranked defense on the other side of the ball. Shrewd 8th-year defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas, who like Patterson has resisted offers to move elsewhere, should field another dynamite version of his pet 4-2-5 looks which last year permitted only 228 yards and 12 points per game, both nation’s bests.

Bumpas has been used to reloading his platoon following high-profile graduations in recent years (such as last season), so the departure of five starters from 2010's stop unit is simply regarded as business as usual. A couple of key members from last year’s dynamic front four, DE Wayne Daniels & DT Cory Grant, must be replaced, but Bumpas is not sweating things with soph DE Stanley Maponga hinting at dominating status. Quicks remain the constant in the front four; watch jr. DT D.J. Yerdley, whose cat-quick reflexes force opposing lines into gimmick schemes that exposes them to havoc from elsewhere. Which will likely mean returning LBs Tank Carder (last year’s Mountain West Defensive MVP and hero of the Rose Bowl with his deflection of Wisconsin’s potential game-leveling 2-point conversion late in the 4thQ) and Tanner Brock, a pair of destroyers who complement each other superbly. Carder and Brock seemed everywhere a year ago when the Frogs also finished 5th nationally in rush defense.

The strength of the platoon, which is saying something for this decorated stop unit, is likely in the secondary which ranked number one nationally in pass yardage and pass efficiency “D” last season. Facing several “vertically challenged” offenses in the Mountain West had something to do with those numbers, but the Frogs still allowed only 10 TD passes all of 2010. All TCU DBs can run like the wind and tackle with a thud; the best of those is probably lockdown sr. CB Greg McKoy (also to be a featured kick returner this season), who effectively shuts down his side of the field. With athletes galore from which to choose, Bumpas should eventually find another new CB (soph Traveras Battle looks to be another star in the making) and a pair of safeties. Not to nitpick, but what Bumpas would really like to find is a ball-hawker or two after the D” recorded an admittedly-modest 12 picks last year.

Spread-wise , despite being saddled with considerable imposts in recent years, Patterson’s Frogs continue to excel, standing 43-27-1 overall vs. the line since 2005. TCU is also 18-6 vs. the number, almost always laying double digits, its last 24 on the board at Fort Worth.

Summary...Consensus opinion seems to agree that the Frogs could slip a bit from their recent high-shelf lily pads, mostly because of some key departures offensively that include longtime QB and big winner Andy Dalton. A look at the schedule, however, suggests that it would be no surprise if TCU makes another run at the BCS (which would be its third appearance in a row), with only the opener at Baylor and a visit from SMU looking potentially tricky among the non-conference slate. The Frogs have not lost a league game since 2007, so the BCS berth will likely come down to the trip to Boise on November 12. As long as new QB Pachall delivers, and with another expected rock-ribbed defense, it will be no surprise if TCU bids adieu to the Mountain West in grand style.

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