Cowboys Classic 2013: No. 12 LSU Tigers vs. No. 20 TCU Horned Frogs Game Preview
The 2013 Cowboys Classic will provide plenty of entertainment on opening weekend for college football fans when the LSU Tigers and TCU Horned Frogs square off in Arlington, Texas.
The game kicks off at 9:00 p.m. ET and can be viewed on ESPN.
LSU is coming off a relatively disappointing season during which it lost to Florida, Alabama and Clemson while barely sneaking by Texas A&M and South Carolina. Not that this is anything to be ashamed of, considering the overall strength of these teams, but fans and players were looking for more after an appearance in the national title game the year before.
While the Tigers wave goodbye to a plethora of talent, including 11 early departures to the NFL and the entire starting defensive line, the Horned Frogs welcome back 16 starters after having one of the country's youngest rosters in 2012.
TCU is definitely on the rise after a 7-6 season finish in 2012, and while LSU may not be where it was a couple of years ago, it is still one of the nation's powerhouses. Though these two teams both find their strength on the defensive side of the ball, they each boast underrated offenses and match up quite evenly.
LSU enters the game ranked No. 12 with TCU at No. 20, so the Cowboys Classic is certain to be a great matchup. The Tigers and Horned Frogs each have a shot at pushing for a conference title, and potentially even a national championship, making this game huge for both sides.
TCU Offense vs. LSU Defense
Perhaps the biggest question mark heading into this game for TCU is who will start under center for the Horned Frogs: Casey Pachall or Trevone Boykin?
Unfortunately for us fans, it looks like we won't get an answer until Saturday night. Head coach Gary Patterson has claimed that he will not announce the winner of the quarterback battle until kickoff against LSU. According to Stefan Stevenson of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Patterson is playing his cards close to the chest:
“We won’t tell LSU who that guy is going to be until we play,” Patterson said. “You won’t know until he runs out on the field in the first huddle on game day.”
This is an effective tactic, considering the fact that Pachall and Boykin are significantly different quarterbacks. While both are good options, Pachall is a tall, strong pocket passer while Boykin is a smaller, dual-threat option.
Given Pachall's long absence from football following his dismissal from the team last year, this will likely be a tougher decision than many would have thought. However, it seems that Pachall would be the favorite to start based on his superiority as a passer. He posted 948 yards and 10 touchdowns to only one interception through the first four games of 2012.
Boykin's mobility is certainly valuable, but it won't be too effective against an extremely fast, athletic group of LSU linebackers. It should also be noted that TCU went 4-0 under Pachall and 3-6 under Boykin last year. Though, to be fair, the schedule got a lot tougher after Boykin took over.
The Horned Frogs will need as much help as they can get in the passing game against that tough LSU defense, and I think Pachall provides the best option.
TCU Offense vs. LSU Defense
Gary Patterson was working with a depleted stable of running backs last season after Waymon James went down with an injury early in the year. Luckily, true freshman B.J. Catalon was ready to step up, leading the team with 584 yards on the ground. Matthew Tucker, who added some valuable bulk to the mix, is gone, so Catalon and James will likely get most of the carries.
However, Nebraska transfer Aaron Green is another intriguing option. Once a very highly touted recruit, Green joined TCU last year but had to sit out during 2012.
According to Stefan Stevenson of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Patterson already sees Green as a leader for the Horned Frogs:
“A guy like Aaron Green has that moral compass already," Patterson said. "So it makes my job a lot easier. There’s good knuckleheads and there’s bad knuckleheads. When there’s more of a percentage of good knuckleheads, including coaches, then my life is a lot easier.”
Given Patterson's praise, it seems plausible to think that Green will see a good amount of time against the Tigers, especially given his 200-pound frame (Catalon is only 185 pounds).
While TCU's group of running backs has improved, the offensive line has taken a couple of big hits. Both guard spots need to be filled, and Blaize Foltz will be missed. Sophomores Joey Hunt and Jamelle Naff will take over, and both will have their work cut out for them against the Tigers defense.
The Horned Frogs averaged only 3.86 yards per carry in 2012 and found the end zone on the ground only 13 times. That was in the Big-12, and this is the SEC we're talking about. Do not be fooled by the departure of four outstanding LSU defensive linemen. The Tigers have tons of talent eager to get more involved.
In fact, LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis is working with one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the country in Anthony "Freak" Johnson and Ego Ferguson, both of whom are former elite recruits. TCU's young guards must win this battle if the Horned Frogs want to have any shot at establishing an inside running game.
This is especially important considering the speed and athleticism of LSU's linebackers. Lamin Barrow is the most experienced of the Tigers linebackers, but young studs such as Kwon Alexander, Lamar Louis and Deion Jones should all push for playing time. This is a group that is capable of playing sideline-to-sideline on every down, and it is rare that a running back could get outside of them.
LSU's defense may have lost a lot of outstanding talent, but it has plenty of players with very high ceilings ready to take over in that front seven. The Tigers finished No. 9 in rushing defense last season, so TCU will have a tough time running the ball, even with the addition of Green and the return of James.
TCU Offense vs. LSU Defense
If there is a talent drop-off in the LSU secondary, it will be a small one. Losing Eric Reid to the NFL will hurt, but Craig Loston, Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins are all outstanding players that can give quarterbacks nightmares. The Tigers let their opponents complete only 55 percent of their passes a year ago, so this is a tough group.
With that being said, the Tigers lack the true lockdown cornerback that they've had in the recent past. Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Morris Claiborne and Tharold Simon are all gone. As good as Mills and Collins are, they are young and have yet to prove that they can take away an entire side of the field as their predecessors did (Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins proved that in the Chick-fil-A Bowl).
TCU's aerial attack lost some weapons of its own, including the ever-reliable Josh Boyce and Skye Dawson. Like LSU's defensive line, though, the loss of experience does not equate to the loss of talent for the Horned Frogs receiving corps. Brandon Carter has made some great contributions in his first two years, and LaDarius Brown looks to have a world of potential.
This is not to understate the departure of Boyce. He was a true No. 1 receiver for three years, and neither Carter nor Brown have proven they have what it takes to be that go-to guy. Carter is only 180 pounds and Brown, though he has an ideal frame, struggled with drops last year.
Junior Cam White looks like he may be just what the Horned Frogs need to fill that void. At 6'3" he has good size, and he brings good hands to the table, so don't be surprised if he leads the team in receiving after hauling in 21 balls in 2012.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to TCU's passing game, however, will be its offensive line. The tackles are more experienced than the guards, but the Horned Frogs still allowed 29 sacks last year, bad enough to be ranked No. 84 nationally.
Tackles Aviante Collins and Halapoulivaati Vaitai have to keep their quarterback clean and hold off LSU's strong pass rush in order to give him time get the ball to Brown and White on the outside and Carter in the slot.
LSU Offense vs. TCU Defense
While I do think LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger is underrated, it is no secret that he struggled to find his groove in the SEC last season.
Aside from a spectacular game against Alabama in which he threw for 298 yards and a touchdown, Mettenberger had trouble connecting with his receivers. Sure, drops were a problem on the outside, but he still only completed 58.8 percent of his passes.
Again, excluding Alabama, Mettenberger struggled the most in the team's biggest games. In the first five games of the season, he had completed 65.5 percent of his passes with six scores and only two interceptions. However, once conference play began and he started going up against ranked SEC opponents, he struggled mightily, completing less than half of his passes against Florida, South Carolina and Texas A&M. He completed only 52 percent of his passes against ranked teams.
Mettenberger also had a much harder time on the road than he did at home, completing only 50.4 percent of his passes away from Tiger Stadium. None of this bodes well for a game at a neutral site against a ranked team.
LSU's pass offense finished the season at No. 94 with 200 yards per game. The Tigers also only had 94 passing plays of more than 10 yards, again putting them near the bottom of the rankings.
Mettenberger needs to step up and get into a groove early on Saturday if he wants to make the LSU offense two-dimensional. Otherwise, TCU's outstanding secondary is going to have a very easy day.
LSU Offense vs. TCU Defense
The strength of LSU's offense last season was its interior running game, and that shouldn't change heading into the Cowboys Classic. In fact, the Tigers scored 29 rushing touchdowns in 2012 compared to only 12 through the air.
The ground game really picked up when Jeremy Hill turned it on down the stretch as a true freshman. Hill posted over 100 yards in each of the team's games against Alabama, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Clemson, averaging 5.32 yards per carry on the year.
According to Nick Bromberg of Yahoo! Sports, it remains unclear whether or not Hill will be suspended for the Cowboys Classic after being arrested earlier this summer. Either way, new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has plenty of tools to work with in that backfield, most notably Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard.
Blue missed most of 2012 due to injury but managed to post 270 yards and two touchdowns on only 40 carries during the first three games of the season. Hilliard had a good year as well with 464 yards of his own.
On top of the talent at running back, LSU also has a terrific offensive line. Despite being decimated by injuries last season, the Tigers still managed over four yards per carry in 2012. Plus, if there was a bright side to those injury woes, it was that freshmen Trai Turner and Vadal Alexander got plenty of experience on the right side of the wall.
Nicknamed "Bull" and "Dozer," these two run-blocking specialists should have a great game against TCU's front six and provide the backs with plenty of running room.
TCU was outstanding against the run last year, allowing only 105 yards per game on the ground. However, the Horned Frogs have lost a lot of talent from their front six, including Kenny Cain at linebacker and Stansly Maponga at end.
Even though tackle Chucky Hunter remains a rock in the middle, it would not be surprising to see a dip in production from the front half of that 4-2-5 defense, especially against the power-running game of LSU.
Having Hill would be a major plus, but even without him I expect LSU to win the matchup on the ground.
LSU Offense vs TCU Defense
In the secondary is where we find arguably the biggest strength of the TCU defense. Five starters return to the unit, including lockdown corner Jason Verrett, who led the Big-12 in passes defended and interceptions last year.
However, as good as the secondary was in 2012, it was also very inconsistent. The Horned Frogs allowed only 145 yards to Collin Klein and Kansas State but 326 yards and two scores to Nick Florence and Baylor. A more consistent pass rush also wouldn't hurt the back five.
LSU's receiving corps should be much improved, so the secondary does have a tough job in front of it. Odell Beckham Jr. struggled with drops last season, but he is an electrifying threat on the outside. Jarvis Landry is one of the most underrated receivers in the SEC and brings a lot of physicality to the table.
Add in Kadron Boone and it becomes clear that the Tigers have some great options to throw the ball to. I would still give the advantage to the Horned Frogs in this matchup, but LSU will likely put up more of a fight than last season's numbers may indicate.
LSU finished the season at No. 95 in sacks allowed with 32, so it is imperative that it keeps Mettenberger clean and gives him the time he needs to get throws off. This is especially true against an aggressive, ball-hawking TCU secondary that finished third nationally a year ago in passes defended with 86.
However, the Tigers caught a huge break when Gary Patterson suspended Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields for violating team rules. Oddly enough, though, his suspension now seems in question, much like Hill's, as Patterson has announced that his star defensive end will at least be suited up on Saturday, according to Dan Greenspan of NFL.com.
Fields or no Fields, protecting the quarterback is key for LSU, as an ineffective pass rush will greatly improve the Tigers' chances of moving the ball on that TCU secondary.
Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson vs. Joey Hunt and Jamelle Naff
Johnson and Ferguson are two of the best in the country at defensive tackle, and TCU has two new guards joining the starting lineup. For TCU's offense to remain two-dimensional, Hunt and Naff have to at the very least neutralize LSU's interior defensive line in order to get any kind of ground game going.
Jason Verrett vs. Zach Mettenberger
This matchup represents the biggest advantage that TCU has over the Tigers. Mettenberger is a good quarterback with a great arm, but his accuracy is not always there. Verrett allows very little cushion to his opponents, so a small mistake by Mettenberger could easily turn into a huge play and momentum swing for the Horned Frogs.
Chucky Hunter vs. Interior LSU O-Line
Like Johnson and Ferguson on the other side of the ball, Hunter has to quell the LSU ground attack. With Verrett and a great secondary behind him, Hunter must clog running lanes up front so the Tigers' outstanding interior run game never gets going and force them to turn to the passing game.
Keys to Victory for TCU
Don't Let Mettenberger Get Comfortable
Even if Fields remains on the sideline, Chucky Hunter, Jon Koontz and James MacFarland have the talent to pressure Mettenberger. This is a group that managed to tally 29 sacks in 2012, including at least three against Texas, Kansas State and Baylor. To help out the secondary, it is imperative that the front four keep consistent heat on Mettenberger as the game goes on.
On the back end, Verrett and his teammates need to be aggressive, play with tight coverage and prove why they comprise one of the best secondaries in the country.
Win the Battle Up Front on Offense
Pretty obvious, huh? Well, I can't understate the importance of TCU's offensive line. LSU's defense is one of the best in the country, and TCU needs time and space to beat it. Hunt and Naff have to hold their own against LSU's interior line, and the tackles must give Pachall or Boykin time to find their weapons on the outside.
If the offensive line can give the Horned Frogs that necessary time and space, they will be able to get the ball to electrifying weapons such as James, Catalon, Carter and Brown in the open field and move the ball against the Tigers defense.
Hold Strong Against Power-Running Game
LSU is going to move the ball on the ground, it's just a matter of limiting the damage. It will be a grind, but TCU's front six must stay strong against the ground game and contain LSU's backs. Chucky Hunter, the rock in the interior, will likely be the key piece to this puzzle.
The TCU defense may not be able to shut down the Tigers running game, but it will be able to discourage it by limiting big runs. If it can do that, LSU may turn to Mettenberger to make things happen in the passing game, which is where the Horned Frogs truly have an advantage.
Keys to Victory for LSU
Convert in the Red Zone
As good of a team as LSU was in 2012, it simply could not convert red-zone trips into touchdowns. The Tigers finished the season at No. 102 in red-zone touchdown efficiency, crossing the goal line only 50.9 percent of the time they were within their opponents' 20-yard line.
On the flip side, TCU allowed only 18 red-zone touchdowns last year, making it one of the best teams in the nation in that category. This game will be too close for LSU to afford missing out on red-zone opportunities.
Keep Mettenberger Clean
We saw what he can do when he gets in a groove when he torched Alabama last year. Even though Fields will most likely remain on the sideline, TCU still has a solid pass rush. After struggling to keep opponents out of the backfield in 2012, it is imperative that the Tigers front wall keeps Mettenberger protected and gives him the time he needs to establish a passing game so that the Horned Frogs don't stack the box against the run.
Shut Down the TCU Ground Game
This is what the Tigers do best. LSU has made a habit of quieting the rushing attacks of its opponents. In fact, the Tigers allowed barely over 100 rushing yards per game in 2012.
With TCU's young guards entering their first real game as starters, Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson need to dominate the interior of that offense so that the Horned Frogs have no shot at establishing a threatening running game. This should not be too challenging considering the talent of that tandem and the relatively small size of TCU's backs.
Play with a High Motor on D
This one also may sound obvious, but one of the true strengths of the LSU team is its speed on defense, especially at linebacker. This is a defense that plays sideline-to-sideline on every down, and it needs to maintain that intensity throughout the entire game.
TCU may not have a power-running game, but it has enough speed and athleticism on the outside to hurt the Tigers in a big way. John Chavis needs to contain those offensive weapons with the high motor of his defense.
There is no doubt that this is will be an even, entertaining matchup between two great teams with promising outlooks.
TCU is not your average Big-12 team with an offensive-minded, pass-happy attack. This is a team with an exceptional defense capable of giving any SEC team a taste of its own medicine.
It is hard to truly make a prediction for this game because of the unknowns that remain. Will Fields and Hill play? Will it be Pachall or Boykin under center for TCU? These are questions that we likely will not know until Saturday.
With that being said, LSU looks to have the slight advantage in most of the matchups I've explored. It has the clear advantage in the trenches, and even though Mettenberger might have a hard time, the running game is strong enough to make up for it.
TCU's best chance at winning this game is to make things happen on defense. An interception or defensive touchdown at a key moment could make all the difference, and the Horned Frogs have the aggressive players to make that happen. Without a spark, I don't see TCU's offense doing too much against that formidable LSU defense. I predict that LSU will pull out a close one in a low-scoring affair.
My Prediction: LSU, 23-16