Sun Sep 05 07:37pm EDT
Aside from injuries, luck, cohesion and other elements of the karmic mishmash, TCU faced two obvious hurdles as it launched its bid for a return trip to the BCS. The first was how to replace All-American edge rusher Jerry Hughes, whose ludicrous speed around the end made the pass rush the lynchpin of the units that led the nation in total defense each of the last two years. That question loomed for roughly two plays Saturday night, before Wayne Daniels answered by wasting Oregon State's left tackle, blindsiding quarterback Ryan Katz and forcing a fumble on the Beavers' first series, a three-and-out. It was the first notice to a national audience that the Frogs aren't going anywhere, and it certainly wasn't the last.
Daniels returned to sack Katz again in the second half, by which point the rest of the Frog D was already back in its usual chart-topping form. With workhorse Jacquizz Rodgers held in check (75 yards on 18 carries, with a long gain of 16), Katz was increasingly shaky throughout his first start, completing just 9 of 25 passes for the night with three third-down conversions in nine tries. The Beavers' 255 total yards wastheir worst output since 2007, easily eclipsed by TCU's team rushing total (278 yards) alone. When Katz booted a botched shotgun snap out of the back of the end zone for the safety that put the game out of reach at 30-21 in the fourth quarter, the kick seemed to be born as much of frustration as of quick thinking. Again, frustration is going to be a common theme among opposing quarterbacks.
The second obstacle to the big-money affairs is the schedule, the tallest hurdle of which has already been easily cleared. In fact, given that TCU has more or less had the run of the place since joining the Mountain West in 2005, it's hard to consider most of the remaining slate a legitimate obstacle at all: The Frogs are likely to go into their next five games as three-touchdown favorites, minimum, before BYU comes to Fort Worth for the last time as a conference rival on Oct. 16
After that, the season ends with two of the worst outfits in the league, San Diego State and New Mexico – the same New Mexico that was just shellacked 72-0 at Oregon – on the heels of the season-defining tilt at Utah. Two years ago, the Utes' come-from-behind win in Salt Lake City prpelled them to a perfect season, a Mountain West championship and ultimately a Sugar Bowl triumph over Alabama. Last year's revenge date in Fort Worth was a massacre from the coin toss, just like every other game in the Frogs' seven-game tear through the conference to close the year. Barring a bad karmic turn, the Utes are now all that's standing between TCU and another perfect regular season.
Based on their total owenership of the rest of the conference last year, the Frogs' destiny seems so predetermined at this point that it's worth debating – as the punditocracy has already been debating the merits of the other relevant mid-major darkhorse, Boise State, for most of the last eight months – whether one of the "traditional" BCS games is still the ceiling, or whether the championship game is suddenly in play under the right circumstances. They were one second away from being right last year: If Texas hadn't slipped out of Nebraska's grasp in the Big 12 Championship Game to close out its own perfect run, TCU was four-thousandths of a point behind No. 3 Cincinnati in the final BCS standings, and may have earned enough votes to pass the Bearcats if the championship game was at stake. The only reason so much more attention has followed Boise State as a would-be darkhorse since January is the Broncos' head-to-head win in the Fiesta Bowl (a grudge match in its own right, after TCU ruined Boise's perfect season by one point in the 2008 Poinsettia Bowl).
If the Broncos pass their own early season litmus test Monday night against Virginia Tech, the year-old Fiesta Bowl win could come to serve as a kind of semifinal that keeps Boise in the driver's seat in the polls as both teams – marquee tests behind them – speed toward 12-0 against everyone else. Frankly, if it comes down to it in December, that may be the only way to definitively decide the issue. Either way, TCU served notice that i plans to be there with bells on and blood spurting. We anxiously await the Broncos' reply.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.