Will 2014's Ultimate Dark Horse Be a College Football Playoff Contender in 2015?

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistApril 10, 2015

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Last year, on the heels of a 4-8 finish, TCU turned small preseason expectations into a 12-1 record, a co-Big 12 title and a thorough run at making the College Football Playoff.

Next year, it won't sneak up on anybody. 

Despite that, the Horned Frogs are expected to repeat last year's success and make a run at the national title. They lose some important defensive pieces, chief among them coordinator Dick Bumpas, but return nine starters from the No. 2 scoring offense in America.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 31:  Head coach Gary Patterson of the TCU Horned Frogs celebrates with the trophy after their 42 to 3 win over the Ole Miss Rebels during the Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl at Georgia Dome on December 31, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On paper, TCU deserves the praise and expectations it's received since hammering Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl—praise like that from Bleacher Report's Ben Kercheval, who ranked it No. 2 on his most recent Top 25.

History, however, suggests we might want to rein that back.

From 2003 to 2013, only 12 teams improved by seven or more wins in a season. Only four of those 12 improved by eight or more wins, most recently Auburn (2013), which rebounded from a 3-9 season to finish 12-2 and fell 13 seconds short of a national title.

Naturally, each of these teams entered the following season with higher expectations than the previous season. That's what winning does. But how did each team fare after its turnaround?

Turnaround Teams One Year Later (since 2003)
TeamYearsY1 Rec.Y2 Rec.Y2-Y1 WinsY3 Rec.Y3-Y2 Wins
Central Florida2004-060-118-5<strong><font color="green">+8</strong>4-8<strong><font color="red">-4</strong>
Miami (OH)2009-111-1110-4<strong><font color="green">+10</strong>4-8<strong><font color="red">-6</strong>
Houston2010-125-713-1<strong><font color="green">+8</strong>5-7<strong><font color="red">-8</strong>
Auburn2012-143-912-2<strong><font color="green">+9</strong>8-5<strong><font color="red">-4</strong>
TCU2013-154-812-1<strong><font color="green">+8</strong>???<strong>???</strong>
Source: Sports-Reference.com

None of TCU's forerunners came even close to sustaining success. On average, they won 5.5 fewer games the year after their turnaround, with no team regressing by fewer than four wins.

By that metric, TCU should expect six or seven wins in 2015. As a ceiling, it would finish 8-5. Auburn's 2014 season, which ended with a loss in the Outback Bowl, is by precedent the best-case scenario.

How much should we read into that? Not too much and not too little.

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 29:  Head coach Gus Malzahn of the Auburn Tigers shouts in the first half during the Iron Bowl against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 29, 2014 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Im
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Horned Frogs have the benefit of a relatively weak Big 12, which should help with exceeding those projections. If they play as well as 2014 Auburn, which finished No. 7 on the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders, they will win double-digit games and contend for a conference title. The only reason Auburn lost five games was a brutal strength of schedule.

At the same time, TCU must cope with the loss of its defensive coordinator, which is something (major coaching turnover) Auburn avoided. It promoted from within for continuity, elevating safeties coach Chad Glasgow and linebackers coach Demontie Cross to co-defensive coordinators, but the loss of Bumpas looms large.

Five TCU defenders made an All-Big-12 team last season: linebacker Paul Dawson (first team), safety Chris Hackett (first team), defensive tackle Chucky Hunter (second team), safety Sam Carter (second team) and cornerback Kevin White (second team).

Guess how many return in 2015…

TCU All-Conference Defenders (2014)
PlayerPositionHonorBack in 2015?
Paul DawsonLBFirst Team<strong>No</strong>
Chris HackettSFirst Team<strong>No</strong>
Chucky HunterDTSecond Team<strong>No</strong>
Sam CarterSSecond Team<strong>No</strong>
Kevin WhiteCBSecond Team<strong>No</strong>
Source: Big12Sports.com

TCU might still field a solid defense. It might still contend for a playoff spot. The talent is there, quarterback Trevone Boykin is there, head coach Gary Patterson is there, et al.

I just wonder if we've ordained them too quickly. And I use "we" because I'm as guilty as anyone. I saw how TCU destroyed Ole Miss, computed how many offensive players might return and decided, without one look at precedent, that it would contend for another national title.

But there's another, more skeptical way to look at.

TCU Turnover Luck (2014)
StatValueRank
Fum. Rec. %56.0%32
Off. INT %15.3%25
Def. INT %33.3%5
TO Margin+183
Adj. TO Margin+1.557
TO - Adj. TO+16.51
TO Luck (PPG)6.341
Source: Football Study Hall

Teams that improve by eight wins one season regress the following season. This is shown in the numbers above.

Teams that lose five all-conference defenders, along with a three-time Broyles Award finalist on the sideline, regress the following season. This is inferred by logic.

Teams that lead the nation in turnover luck, as computed by Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall, regress the following season. This is outlined by the laws of statistics.

"Heading into 2015, [turnover luck] might provide us with a pretty tenuous glimpse of TCU's potential national title hopes," Connelly wrote in January.

And that was before Bumpas retired.

Patterson has vented publicly about TCU's omission from the playoff, which should help the Horned Frogs' case in 2015.

"[The selection committee's] job was to watch all this film and pick the four best teams no matter who you played, what you did," he said in April, according to Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com. "All the sudden it came down to, ‘Well, they played a championship game but they didn't.' That's not what we were told."

Such criticism might nudge the committee toward including a Big 12 team in the upcoming playoff. It certainly won't nudge it the other way. If they repeat last year's 11-1 regular season, the Horned Frogs stand a better chance than last year of making it.

The problem concerns not interconference politics but intraconference performance. In order to repeat that 11-1 regular season, the Horned Frogs would have to buck mathematical trends.

The real Big 12 favorite should be Baylor, a team which:

  1. Has posted consecutive 11-win seasons.
  2. Beat TCU in 2014.
  3. Returns all four members of the All-Big 12 first team: running back Shock Linwood, offensive tackle Spencer Drango, defensive tackle Andrew Billings and defensive end Shawn Oakman.

TCU should not be discounted. It's playoff chances are real. But it should enter next year a contender instead of a favorite.

Obviously, that's a matter of semantics, but it's important because it aligns TCU's projections and expectations. If you think this team should win nine or 10 games on average, and with luck can win 11 or 12, you are bound to enjoy next season.

If you think it's the No. 2 team in the country, and would only accept making the playoff as an outcome, you might be in store for a letdown.

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