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August 10, 2010
In recent seasons, TCU has fielded elite teams. This season, it can prove it has a bona-fide elite program.
Elite programs can lose multiple star players from a successful team and keep winning without missing a beat.
That's the task facing the Horned Frogs, who lose six All-Mountain West Conference players from last season's team, which finished 12-1 and played in the Fiesta Bowl.
But plenty of talent remains, especially on offense. So, if the Frogs can adequately fill some significant holes on defense, win a key season opener and survive a trip to Salt Lake City, they could make a second consecutive BCS bowl appearance, which is something elite programs accomplish.
THE SCHEME: TCU employs a spread system with multiple formations. The Frogs may have a four-receiver set on one play and use two backs on the next.
STAR POWER: The Horned Frogs are hailing QB Andy Dalton as a Heisman candidate. Last season, Dalton passed for 2,756 yards with 23 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He also rushed for 512 yards. But the best player on offense likely is T Marcus Cannon, a huge (6-6/350) senior who is one of the best tackles in the nation. He has All-America potential.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: WR Josh Boyce was so impressive as an early enrollee last year that TCU coaches considered using him. But the Frogs were so deep at receiver they opted to redshirt him. Coaches feel like he can be a big-time playmaker. This season, he'll get the chance to show it.
STRONGEST AREA: The Frogs are stocked at receiver. They return four players who had more than 400 receiving yards last season. Jimmy Young and Jeremy Kerley are considered the top playmakers, even though sophomore Antoine Hicks averaged more than 20 yards per catch and had six touchdown grabs.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Nine starters return from an '09 offense that was fifth in the nation in scoring, so there aren't too many problems. There is a measure of concern at left tackle, where All-MWC selection Marshall Newhouse must be replaced. Of course, he's being replaced by Cannon, who was an All-MWC selection while playing right tackle last season. There aren't many problems with this offense.
THE SCHEME: TCU uses 4-2-5 defensive set. The Frogs have ranked among the nation's top 25 in total defense in each of the past five seasons and were ranked No. 1 in each of the past two seasons.
STAR POWER: LB Tank Carder earned second-team all-conference honors in 2009, his first season as a starter. Carder, who posted 89 tackles a year ago, will have an even greater presence in the Frogs' defense this season. Not only is he an accomplished linebacker, but he has to take over a leadership role vacated by Daryl Washington, a second-round selection in April's NFL draft. FS Tejay Johnson is a big-timer, as well. He will be a three-year starter and a has a flair for delivering big performances in big games. He made 14 tackles -- the highest single-game total by any TCU player since 2006 -- during the Horned Frogs' 38-7 thrashing of BYU. Johnson also made seven solo tackles and eight overall stops in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State. Johnson finished the season with 59 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman Stansly Maponga is the fastest end on the roster. He looked good enough to play last year, but the Frogs were strong at end. This season, they need him.
STRONGEST AREA: The Frogs ranked sixth in the nation in pass defense and allowed only 10 touchdown passes last season. Even though All-MWC CBs Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders are gone, TCU should still be strong in the secondary. All three safeties are back, including Johnson, an All-American candidate. Also, CBs Greg McCoy and Jason Teague are highly regarded. McCoy might be the team's fastest player, and Teague originally signed with LSU out of high school; they combined for four interceptions last season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Replacing the production of All-American E Jerry Hughes may be impossible. Hughes, who posted 11.5 sacks, was a major force. Now that he's gone to the NFL, the Frogs are hoping some combination of Wayne Daniels, Ross Forrest, Braylon Broughton and Maponga can ensure that the pass rush stays strong.
Few teams in the country can match TCU in the kicking game. Kerley has All-America credentials as a return specialist. Last season, he returned two punts for touchdowns and averaged 26.6 yards on kickoff returns. P Anson Kelton averaged only 37.5 yards in '09, but his ability to place kicks inside opponents' 20 (19 of them) contributed to that. He also had six punts cover more than 50 yards, including a 72-yarder. K Ross Evans has converted 81 percent (31-of-38) of his career field-goal attempts. The Frogs are good in coverage, too, but they do need to find a new deep snapper.
Any team from a non-automatic qualifying conference needs a victory over a Big Six opponent to enhance its chances to reach a BCS bowl. The Frogs get that chance right out of the gate against Oregon State at Dallas Cowboys Stadium. Three weeks later, TCU faces Baylor. Still, the most important part of the season is a four-week stretch beginning in mid-October that includes games against BYU, Air Force and Utah. The Horned Frogs have lost in both previous trips to Salt Lake City.
It took 11 years for TCU to earn a spot in a BCS bowl game. It may take just one more season for the Horned Frogs to get back. Behind Dalton, an experienced offensive line, a talented group of receivers and a committee of running backs, the Frogs' offense figures to be just as productive as last season's unit, which averaged more than 38 points per game. The question is whether coach Gary Patterson, who typically fields powerful defensive units, can do so again without Hughes, Washington, Priest and Sanders. Unless the defense becomes a liability, which is highly improbable, the Horned Frogs should again win the MWC title. If the new starters play well and the defense continues to play at a high level, the Frogs could make a strong run at a perfect season.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.