The TCU Horned Frogs will face their toughest challenge yet heading into the 2012 season as new members of the Big 12 conference.
The Frogs have been one of the most successful programs in the last decade and will finally get their chance to play with the big boys after dominating in Conference-USA, the WAC and the Mountain West for years.
The step up in competition presents TCU with a great opportunity—no longer will detractors be able to make any argument against the Frogs based on schedule. An undefeated season in the Big 12 all but guarantees a spot in the championship game (or four team playoff when that format rolls around).
However, the perks of playing in a power conference also provides new challenges. Just like any team, the Frogs enter this season with plenty of questions that will need to be answered as the season progresses.
These are the questions that will shape TCU's season.
You couldn't tell by watching last season's TCU team, but defense has been the team's calling card throughout the Gary Patterson era.
Prior to the 2011 season, the Frogs ranked in the top ten defensively in scoring defense for four consecutive years and was the country's top defense in terms of yardage for three straight seasons. Patterson's 4-2-5 scheme and penchant for recruiting and developing gems on the defensive side of the ball have made TCU consistently great on that side of the ball.
Which is what made 2011's mediocre defense surprising as they ranked 32nd in total yardage (347.4 ypg) and 28th in scoring defense (21.5).
Most teams would be thrilled to post those kind of numbers on defense, but the holes in the secondary were made painfully obvious in the team's losses to SMU and Baylor.
Making the leap to a conference that boasts some of the best offenses in the country in the Big 12, the Frogs will absolutely have to improve upon the defense of last season.
That will be no easy task as they lose several key contributors from the defense last season including Tank Carder, Tanner Brock and D.J. Yendrey.
Patterson isn't completely without proven talent on the defensive side of the ball; Kenny Cain and Stansley Maponga are both highly qualified to lead this defense, but turning this squad into an elite unit would be Patterson's best defensive accomplishment to date.
Given the Frogs ability to put up a ton of points, the defense doesn't necessarily need to be elite, but it will need to stack up favorably against their Big 12 foes.
If TCU is going to make waves in their inaugural Big 12 season they must get huge contributions from a wealth of young players on both sides of the ball.
In all, the Frogs will have 11 starters between offense and defense that are either sophomores or freshmen. The youth movement will be most noticeable in the trenches as four of five defensive lineman are new starters and both tackles on the offensive line are new.
That much youth could be a cause for concern, but coach Gary Patterson doesn't seem too worried about it. Patterson told TCU360.com:
“I think we have what we want coming back. It will develop. It won’t be as much about the younger players... I’m more worried about the hunger of our group going into this camp.”
Patterson hasn't been forced to play freshman and sophomores regularly during his tenure in Ft. Worth but he has played them when he needed to (Andy Dalton took over at quarterback as a redshirt freshman). Patterson seems to have confidence in what he has one the roster.
How well the young players on this roster back that confidence will go a long way in determining the ceiling of this team.
While the defense struggled to maintain its usual position as one of the country's premier units, the TCU offense was firing on all cylinders en route to a top-10 ranking in scoring offense at 40.8 points per game.
If the Frogs are going to compete for a conference championship they'll have to continue to be one of the best offensive units in the country.
The offense has plenty of firepower coming back—Casey Pachall and Josh Boyce should be one of the most explosive quarterback-receiver tandems in the country, and Brandon Carter, Sky Dawson and LaDarius Brown should give plenty of secondaries a headache.
The only questions surrounding this unit will be an offensive line that features new starters at both tackle positions and how the Frogs will deal with the loss of running back Ed Wesley.
If the past is any indication, these shouldn't be real issues as Waymon James and Matthew Tucker should offer more than enough production to replace Wesley; so, the only real concern is how new tackles Aviante Collins and Tayo Fabuluje will adjust to their new roles as the bookends of the line.
If the line can buy Pachall and Co. time while paving the way for the James and Tucker, this offense should have no problem leading the way in 2012.
There's no question that the Horned Frogs' schedule is back-loaded with tough games.
TCU should be favored in every one of their first seven games. Rivalry games against SMU and Baylor highlight the early schedule, but the Frogs will be 7-0 if they can maintain focus and play to the best of their ability in the first half of the season.
The last five games are a bit different—road games against Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas combined with home games against Kansas State and Oklahoma will be unforgiving as all five of those teams are ranked in the Top 25 and figure to be the top five teams in the Big 12.
Given the Frogs level of success in the last decade, the first seven games shouldn't be a concern, but being tested week in and week out like they will at the end of the season is relatively uncharted territory for Patterson's squad.
If they can emerge out of those five games with a winning record they'll be on their way to a successful debut and a bright future in the conference.
Gary Patterson has been absolutely great in bowl games.
The Frogs are 7-4 in bowl games under Patterson, but that includes a 6-1 record in the last seven seasons. Considering the one loss was a 17-16 loss to Boise State, the Frogs have been one of the best bowl game performing teams in recent memory.
However, a move to the Big 12 means tougher bowl matchups. In the Mountain West, it was BCS bowl or bust in terms of high-profile matchups. A loss or two most likely meant taking on a fellow non-BCS school in the Poinsettia Bowl.
The Big 12 won't afford the Frogs many mismatches in bowl games. Even a sixth place finish in the conference can lead to a matchup against the Pac-12's third best team in the Holiday bowl.
Regardless of how well the Frogs season goes, they'll have the opportunity to prove themselves in a bowl game against an opponent from a BCS conference. That kind of exposure is definitely rewarding financially and in terms of recruiting, but it is just another question that the Frogs must answer in 2012.