Taking top-billing on Friday night, the 14th- ranked TCU Horned Frogs begin their final season in the Mountain West Conference as they challenge fellow Lone Star State school, Baylor, at Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco.
TCU, which was located in Waco from 1895 to 1910 before moving to Fort Worth, brings along the nation's second-longest win streak at 13 games, trailing only national champion Auburn (15). Under the direction of head coach Gary Patterson who is entering his 11th year with the Frogs, the team also sports the longest road win streak at 11 games, setting a new MWC record in the process after running the table a year ago and finishing a perfect campaign with a narrow 21-19 win over the Wisconsin Badgers in the Rose Bowl.
As for the Bears, they're coming off one of their most successful seasons in years, snapping a 16-year bowl drought by making it to the Texas Bowl, although they lost miserably to Illinois, 38-14. In fact, Baylor had been nationally ranked early in the season thanks to four wins in five tries right out of the gate. The squad also registered wins over Colorado, Kansas State and a rare Texas victory (30-22) on the road, but that was before losing the last three games in the regular season under coach Art Briles, who is now 15-22 overall in Waco as he enters his fourth season.
Last season, these Texas-based programs clashed in the middle of September, with host TCU completely dominating in a 45-10 final. With that win, the Frogs are now ahead in the all-time series by a slight 50-49-7 margin.
After enjoying several successful seasons with Andy Dalton at the helm of the offense, the Horned Frogs now have to re-tool at the quarterback position and have sophomore Casey Pachall penciled in as the starter. Pachall has very little experience, but he's still the top choice with freshmen Matt Brown and Trevone Boykin following him on the depth chart.
The good news for the Horned Frogs is that they have a host of running backs returning from a group that ranked 10th in the nation with 247.4 ypg on the ground a year ago. Tops on that list is Ed Wesley who was a 2010 Doak Walker Award semifinalist and became the first TCU back to top 1,000 yards (1,078) since 2003. Matthew Tucker is also a powerful runner who contributed more than 700 yards a year ago and has scored 15 TDs in 26 career games.
Even though the spotlight might be falling on the offense a little more this season as the rest of the nation watches to see how TCU picks up after the loss of Dalton, the key to the program's success will again be the defense. Last season, the Horned Frogs were first in the nation in both total defense (228.5 ypg) and scoring defense (12.0 ppg), and during one stretch held six straight opponents to a touchdown or less.
Linebacker Tank Carder, the Rose Bowl Defensive MVP and First Team All- American last season, was fourth on the team in tackles with 60, but made almost one out of every six stops behind the line of scrimmage for maximum impact. Fellow linebacker Tanner Brock was named to multiple All-America teams last season and paced the program with 106 tackles in 2010.
"We're only going to be as good as how far along we can bring young guys," Carder says of the prospect of having a dominant defense again this season. "We got a lot of talent that has come in, we have freshmen, a lot of new faces and they're going to have to play a key role on the team this year."
You can bet that Carder, Tanner and the rest of the amped up TCU defenders will be keeping a close eye on Baylor's Heisman Trophy candidate Robert Griffin III, who threw for a school-record 3,501 yards in 2010 and is on pace to own every major school passing record by season's end. Thanks to Griffin, the Bears had one of the top passing attacks in the Big 12 and ranked 19th in the country with 280.7 ypg through the air. However, against TCU last season Griffin III was held to just 164 yards passing by the Horned Frogs, the second-lowest total for the QB behind the 124 yards passing versus Oklahoma in the regular-season finale.
"To me, it's not a thing about revenge or holding a grudge, but they definitely got into us last year," Griffin said of the matchup with TCU. "We didn't play like we wanted to play, and they did things that were part of the reason for that. We are a more prepared team offensively and defensively this year, so we're looking forward to going out and executing it."
As great as Griffin can be, he needs to have someone, anyone coming out of the backfield as a legitimate threat to expose holes in the defense and initial signs indicate the Bears will ask Terrance Ganaway to fill the void left by leading rusher Jay Finley. Ganaway carried the ball just 46 times a year ago, but expect that number to increase significantly.
Unfortunately for the Bears, the defense couldn't keep up the pace set by Griffin and the offense last year, ranking 10th in the conference and 104th in the country with 435.4 ypg allowed. Were it not for the combined 16 points permitted to Sam Houston State, Buffalo and Kansas in the first half of 2010, the scoring defense would have been even more offensive after permitting 30.5 ppg.
The Bears have to make up for the loss of leading tackler Byron Landor who was among the nation's best last season with 127 stops and three forced fumbles. The same goes for Tim Atchison and Chris Francis who tied for second on Baylor with 72 stops apiece. Tevin Elliott, the leader with five sacks last season, will be back along the front line for the defense, but he'll need a lot more help to develop the same sort of opportunities in the backfield.
On a positive note, coach Briles has brought in a new defensive coordinator in Phil Bennett, a former head coach himself at SMU who has helped to reshape several high-profile programs on his side of the ball.