Last year the Big 12 had one of its more successful seasons ever by sending nine teams bowling—that's an astounding 90 percent of the league's teams.
Unfortunately, only one Big 12 team received a BCS bowl berth and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl's outcome left a sour taste on a lot of fans' tongues—Kansas State got spanked 35-17 by the Oregon Ducks.
With so much talent leaving the conference there is going to be some growing pains for a lot of teams but which team will surprise the most next season?
Oklahoma State is becoming the darling for some pundits but I'm a defensive-minded analyst who believes good defense wins championships. While the Cowboys have made steady progress in improving their defense over the past three years, I'm still not completely sold on it (and yes I know Oklahoma State beat TCU 36-14 last season but I'm still not sold).
I am however, sold on TCU's defense. And the Horned Frogs are my surprise team of 2013.
Head coach Gary Patterson has a lot of defensive talent returning but he also lost defensive end Stansly Maponga who declared for the 2013 NFL Draft. It's a big loss but defensive end Devonte Fields, the Big 12's Freshman Defensive Player of the Year, should calm some nerves. The Horned Frogs also lose linebacker Kenny Cain, who was named All-Big 12 second team.
What makes TCU so intriguing next season is its consistent demonstration of overcoming adversity. From the AP regarding TCU's inaugural season in the Big 12:
The Frogs have played more true freshmen (15) than they have scholarship seniors (11) on the roster. No FBS team has played more than the 27 overall freshmen TCU has, that when added with 22 sophomores account for 65 percent of the players who have stepped on the field.
Which team will be the surprise Big 12 team?
TCU went bowling in its first year as a BCS school, albeit it ended up losing 17-16 to Michigan State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Still, schools who initially go from a non-BCS conference to a BCS conference rarely go bowling in their first season.
Next season may also not be as disruption-filled as 2012 was—quarterback Casey Pachall has returned to the team and will be competing for the starting spot. Pachall missed the last nine games of the 2012 season after he was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated. Pachall eventually left the team last October to enter rehab. TCU was 4-0 at the time but suffered its first loss when quarterback Trevone Boykin started as Pachall's replacement against Iowa State—Bowkin threw two of his three interceptions in the fourth quarter and the Horned Frogs lost 37-23.
More heartbreak was down the road. In two of TCU's losses, the difference in the games' scores was a scant four points combined.
The Horned Frogs lost receiver Josh Boyce after he declared for the draft but they will also get a new offensive weapon in running back Kyle Hicks. The 4-star running back flipped from Texas to TCU last December and looks like a turnkey back. The other starting receiver, Skye Dawson, is also gone.
We'll know how good TCU really is—or how poorly LSU will have rebounded after 10 players' (11 if you count Tyrann Mathieu) defections to the NFL—on August 31. The Tigers and the Horned Frogs mix things up in Arlington, Texas in the season opener.
If TCU beats LSU—and I think it has a legitimate shot—then road trips to Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, as well as hosting Texas, are the biggest land mines remaining for the Horned Frogs' leap to the Fiesta Bowl.
TCU returns its entire secondary intact, including corner Jason Verrett, which is very important in a league that throws up big passing numbers. The biggest concerns for TCU are replacing the two receivers (Dawson and Boyce), a center (James Fry), a guard (Blaize Foltz), a linebacker (Cain) and a defensive end (Maponga).
True, there's a lot of talent to replace but compared to some other Big 12 teams—like Oklahoma and Kansas State—the Horned Frogs are in pretty good shape for the fall.
And pretty good shape with a defense mostly intact going into the fall means I will have TCU circled as my surprise team of the year.
Then again, with Gary Patterson as head coach, should we really use the word "surprise?"