TCU has talent to rebound from rare losing season

Aug 17, 2017 - 8:57 PM If college football pundits and media types are looking past TCU this season, they are doing so at their own peril.

One losing season does not a downturn make, and Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson has the tools, and now some added motivation, to make sure his team bounces back in 2017.

TCU finished 6-7 last season, only the third time in Patterson's 17-year tenure in Fort Worth that it did not post a winning record.

The Horned Frogs have rebounded in the first two of those seasons to win conference titles in the ensuing campaign, but preseason media polls have them ranked fifth in the league.

The Horned Frogs lost six of their final nine games and barely squeaked into a Liberty Bowl appearance, where they lost to Georgia.

Four of TCU's defeats came by eight points or fewer -- including two three-point double-overtime defeats -- but the Horned Frogs also lost three games by at least 24 points and their offense failed to top 10 points three times.

It was an uncharacteristically uneven year for TCU, but things should be different this season.

Patterson, TCU's winningest coach with a 149-54 record, figures his team could have won nine games. He put offseason emphasis on getting stronger after his team faltered in the second half of games late in 2016.

"At the end of the year, we got beat up in the second half against a couple of teams," Patterson said. "We've got to be more physical and mentally tough. I tell everybody that the good news is we have everybody back, and the bad news is we were 6-6 (in the regular season) and we've got everybody back. I really like the team; I like the kids."

Any turn around has to start with quarterback Kenny Hill, who had an up-and-down season in 2016.

While Hill's stats (17 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) were pedestrian, they obscure the fact that he was hurt by countless drops and other mistakes by his receivers.

TCU receivers dropped 38 passes, more passes than any team in the country, per Pro Football Focus.

"We've got to catch the ball a lot better if we're going to win any ballgames," Patterson said after the spring game. "As I say, you can't just blame it on quarterback."

No receiver caught more than 40 passes last year, with Taj Williams leading the group with 39; running back Kyle Hicks (47) had the most receptions on the team.

Mercurial KaVontae Turpin returns from an injury and is one of the best return men in the nation, while Shaun Nixon, who missed 2016 because of an injury, will line up at both receiver and running back, where he will share the load with the mega-talented Hicks.

Three seniors anchor TCU's offensive line, including preseason All-Big 12 selection Austin Schlottmann at center.

After allowing 40 or more points in three of their first five games -- including 41 against South Dakota State -- TCU's defense tightened, not yielding more than 34 the rest of the season.

The Horned Frogs held Texas Tech to 27 in an overtime loss late in October.

One thing TCU did very well last season was get to the quarterback, averaging a Big 12-leading 3.31 sacks per game.

Patterson built his reputation on developing stout defenses and he is counting on eight returning starters to bolster that unit. Senior linebacker Travin Howard led the team and the Big 12 in tackles last season (130) and is the most versatile player on the squad.

As long as the front four can get bigger and tougher while still getting to the quarterback, this will be a defense that can keep TCU competitive in the Big 12.

TCU has two easy games in September and two tough ones.

It opens with Jackson State at home before going on the road to Arkansas. After a final non-conference game at home versus SMU, the Horned Frogs begin league play at Oklahoma State, which is one of the best teams in the nation.

If they can get through that stretch at 3-1, it could set the table for great run through the Big 12 grind.

It is not a stretch to think that Hill and the offense will be moderately better than in 2016 or that the defense will be improved -- probably very much so -- from last season.

TCU can win 10 games this year, and if it plays to its capabilities, could contend for the conference championship.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Kenny Hill got a lot of the blame for TCU's offensive inconsistency last season, but he had a better campaign than his stats indicate. Hill had some standout games last season in his first season as TCU's quarterback, including 449 yards and five touchdowns passing against Oklahoma, and 452 yards against SMU. He racked up 3,817 yards from scrimmage in 2016 (3,208 passing and 609 on the ground) and 27 touchdowns last year (17 passing, 10 running), but also had a league-high 13 interceptions. Hill gets one more chance to put the pieces together in his career and he has to be great for the Horned Frogs to have a chance at a big year -- there's no way around it.

BREAKOUT STAR: Kyle Hicks amassed nearly 1,500 total yards and scored 14 touchdowns as a junior last season. Hicks led TCU in rushing and receptions, a first for a TCU running back since Basil Mitchell in 1996. His 1,042 rushing yards included a career-high 192 yards in a win at Baylor and his 47 catches were the most by a TCU running back since John Oglesby caught the same number in 1993. Hicks won the team's MVP award, the first Horned Frogs running back to be so honored since LaDainian Tomlinson's back-to-back awards in 1999 and 2000.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: TCU's most notable addition is Louisiana-Monroe transfer Ben Banogu, a junior, who recorded five sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in 13 starts for the Warhawks in 2015. He's taken over one of the starting defensive end positions and should be a force with which to be reckoned on the outside for TCU.

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