Big 12 preview: TCU

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Fall practice began with TCU coach Gary Patterson attempting to stoke the competition at quarterback.

Trevone Boykin started most of TCU's games last season, but only because Casey Pachall entered an rehabilitation clinic and left the team entirely.

The Horned Frogs, making their debut in the Big 12, went 4-0 with Pachall as the starter, then closed 3-6 for a 7-6 overall mark, while tying for fifth in the conference at 4-5. That league mark included losses in all four of TCU's home games.

TCU is ranked No. 20 in the preseason Associated Press poll.

Pachall, if back on his game, should provide a huge lift in 2013, particularly since TCU returns eight starters off the Big 12's top defensive unit a year ago. Pachall was treated for three months at a substance abuse center following an October arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence.

"I've matured a lot," insisted the 6-foot-5 senior. "Everything that's happened has really humbled me and helped me out as far as my mentality. I'm actually very grateful for it now."

In 2011, Pachall set TCU records for passing yards (2,921), completions (228) and completion percentage (.665). He then threw for 948 yards and 10 touchdowns through four games last season before Boykin took over and threw for 2,054 yards and 15 scores.

Assuming Pachall returns to form, enough of a supporting cast exists to make the TCU offense potent. Three starting linemen were lost, which raises issues regarding protection. In addition, receiver Josh Boyce left early for the NFL after leading the Frogs in receiving. Still, B.J. Catalon returns after moving into a starting backfield slot and leading the team in rushing. And enough experienced receivers return, led by Brandon Carter and LaDarius Brown, to give TCU established threats on the outside.

Defensively, the Frogs always take on the gritty nature of their coach, whose first stint on the TCU staff was a coordinator for the defense.

"Whether it's at TCU or anywhere else, you can score points," said Patterson, "but in big ballgames, you've got to be able to play defense. ... I don't think there's any magic formula, but you can't allow offenses to dictate."

To prevent that a year ago, the TCU staff inserted a true freshman and quickly developed Devonte Fields into one of the nation's top pass rushers. Fields was so disruptive, he was named the Big 12's defensive player of the year in his first season after leading the league with 18.5 tackles for loss.

The pass rush helped the TCU secondary snag a league-best 21 interceptions. That entire group returns intact and features playmakers at every spot capable of breaking on balls and making a killing off any errant pass.

Even with the return of Pachall, defense could very well trigger any push TCU makes for the Big 12 championship after being ranked 20th in the initial coaches poll. An opener on a neutral field against LSU will provide a solid gauge for how the Frogs will respond to their returning quarterback, assuming Pachall beats out Boykin.

Patterson offered additional perspective when addressing the need to battle LSU tough.

"We need to play well because for us to recruit the kind of kids to win a Big 12 title and to win a national championship, you have to have some of the best players in the nation come to your place," said the 13th-year coach. "The only way you can prove that you can do that sometimes is to go play a program like an LSU."

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The first month promises to be eventful for TCU. It faces games against a national power (LSU), a Big 12 rival (Texas Tech) and an arch-rival (SMU). The matchup against LSU on Aug. 31 looms as the marquee opener among Big 12 teams and will be played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The game features the return of Pachall His effectiveness as an accurate passer, as well as his leadership, will be tested by the stout LSU defense. The Thursday visit to Texas Tech on Sept. 12 will not be an easy test, either, though the Red Raiders are involved in a makeover designed by new coach Kliff Kingsbury. SMU continues its revival under coach June Jones by moving into a new league, the American Athletic Conference. Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert returns as the Mustangs quarterback.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Under Patterson, TCU will never minimize the value of a strong defense. The veteran coach fielded some of the best units in the country before the Horned Frogs moved into the Big 12. Then, when they debuted in the conference, the Frogs quickly emerged as the top defense, yielding 324 yards per game to rank 16th nationally. Eight starters return off that unit, including a pair considered to be among the best in the country, DE Devonte Field and CB Jason Verrett. Experience will be a key factor on both sides of the ball after TCU used 28 freshmen last season. QB Casey Pachall needs to return to his old form. His skills will prompt TCU to return to more of a pro-style attack, though Trevone Boykin, the quarterback who filled in after Pachall drew a season-ending suspension last year, provides a nice complement with his rushing ability.

AREAS OF CONCERN: A difficult schedule is something the Horned Frogs must prove they can manage, particularly after losing all four of their Big 12 home games last year. An opener against LSU will be tough. In addition, TCU plays games at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, two teams that figure to contend in the Big 12 race. C Eric Tausch and OT Aviante Collins are the only returning starters, which could prompt TCU to use true freshmen up front, never a good prospect at the FBS level. Special teams were spotty at times last season, though PK Jaden Oberkrom emerged as one of the Big 12's best and should be more consistent as a sophomore.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.