The TCU Horned Frogs check in at No. 22 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: Casey Pachall, QB
Pachall showed last season he was capable of taking the reigns from Andy Dalton, who now quarterbacks the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL. In his first year as the starter, Pachall broke Dalton’s single-season records for completions, completion percentage and yards passing in leading the Horned Frogs to 11 victories and a win in the Poinsettia Bowl. Now TCU begins play as a member of the Big 12 conference, and for the Horned Frogs to be successful the team will need Pachall and the offense to pile up the yards and put plenty of points on the board. Pachall’s leadership and poise in the pocket will be even more critical this year with a relatively inexperienced offensive line protecting him.
Trap Game: vs. Texas Tech (Oct. 20)
This Homecoming contest against the Red Raiders will come on the heels of TCU’s much-anticipated rematch against Baylor in Waco the previous Saturday. The Horned Frogs fell to Baylor 50-48 in last season’s opener and want nothing more than to exact some revenge this time around and earn a Big 12 victory in the process. It’s hard enough to prepare for and slow down Texas Tech’s offense as it is, let alone having to worry about the potential emotional letdown.
Upset Alert: at SMU (Sept. 29)
SMU shocked TCU at home last season, beating the Horned Frogs 40-33 in overtime and ending their 22-game home winning streak in the process. The Mustangs will look to make it two in a row on their home turf. Even though TCU faces Virginia the weekend before SMU, motivation should not be an issue for the Horned Frogs. Stopping the Mustangs’ offense, however, will be. SMU racked up 461 yards of total offense in last season’s win and two of the Mustangs’ biggest weapons that day – wide receiver Darius Johnson (152 yards receiving, 2 TDs) and running back Zach Line (120 yards rushing) — are back and will be looking for an encore come Sept. 29.
Biggest Game: at West Virginia (Nov. 3)
The newest members of the Big 12 will meet for the first time the first weekend in November in Morgantown. TCU will have just faced Oklahoma State in Stillwater the previous weekend prior to playing the Mountaineers, making it back-to-back Big 12 road games in loud, raucous environments. Besides serving as an indoctrination to Mountaineer Field and being faced with the challenge of having to slow down West Virginia’s high-octane offense, this game sets up the most difficult stretch of the Horned Frogs’ 2012 schedule. Following West Virginia, TCU plays Kansas State at home and then gets a week off before traveling to Austin to face Texas. TCU then closes out its regular season the following weekend by hosting Oklahoma on Dec. 1. How successful TCU’s inaugural Big 12 season is will likely depend on the outcome of its final four games.
Revenge Game: at Baylor (Oct. 13)
Last Sept. 2, Baylor defeated TCU 50-48 in a season-opening shootout that catapulted Bears’ quarterback Robert Griffin III into the Heisman spotlight. TCU would like nothing more than to return to Waco and exact some payback. The Horned Frogs have to like their chances even more since Griffin, wide receiver Kendall Wright and running back Terrance Ganaway, all of whom put up big numbers in last season’s meeting, have all departed for the NFL. This also represents the first time the long-standing, in-state rivals will face off as Big 12 foes.
Defensive MVP: Stansly Maponga, DE
The junior born in Zimbabwe who has 25 career starts entering the 2012 season will be called on even more to wreak havoc along the line and put pressure on the quarterback. Maponga will anchor the Horned Frogs’ defensive line, which is the most experienced unit on the defense. Maponga’s size, strength and big-play ability will set the tone for the rest of the defense. He and the rest of the defensive line must be successful in disrupting opposing offenses’ timing to help take the pressure off of an inexperienced linebacker corps and secondary.
Season-Defining Moment: Oct. 27-Nov. 10
TCU’s first season in the Big 12 will more than likely come down to how the Horned Frogs fare in a three-game stretch that takes them from the end of October through the middle of November. TCU has to travel to Stillwater, Okla., and Morgantown, W.Va., in back-to-back weekends before hosting Kansas State at home on Nov. 10. Besides giving the Horned Frogs their first taste of two of their new conference’s toughest road environments, this three-game stretch also will set the tone for how the Horned Frogs will close the regular season. After the Kansas State game, TCU gets a week off to prepare for its Nov. 24 trip to Austin to face Texas and will conclude its inaugural Big 12 season by hosting Oklahoma the following Saturday.
Unsung Hero: Ross Forrest, DE
If Stansly Maponga is TCU’s Batman on defense, there is no reason that Forrest can’t be Robin. The senior, who will start at the other end position on TCU’s defensive line, is a former walk-on with nine career starts under his belt. Eight of those came in 2011 when he compiled 32 tackles, six tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. The strength of the Horned Frogs’ defense in 2012 is along the line and with Maponga likely to attract plenty of attention on the left side; it will be up to Forrest to make an impact from the right.
Newcomer to Watch: LaDarius Brown, WR
Brown, a four-star recruit from Waxahachie, Texas, was the jewel of TCU’s 2011 recruiting class, called by several publications and ranking services the best in school history. Brown redshirted last season, but is primed to make an immediate impact on offense at wide receiver in 2012. The athletic Brown has the size (6-4, 220) and speed to be a factor in the passing game and could develop into a dependable and productive target for quarterback Casey Pachall.
Freshman to Watch: Devonte Fields, DE
Fields is the jewel of TCU’s 2012 recruiting class, as the Under Armour All-American from Arlington, Texas decided to stay close to home, picking the Horned Frogs over Oklahoma, Michigan, Tennessee and Texas A&M. The four-star recruit was considered to be one of the top defensive end prospects in the country and the freshman should get the opportunity for significant playing time in his first year. TCU returns three starters from its defensive line, led by Stansly Maponga, but the line’s overall depth is relatively young and inexperienced, opening the door for Fields. His chances to play right away are also helped by two other factors – the dismissal of projected starter D.J. Yendrey in February following his arrest on drug charges and the fact that TCU will be in its first season in the Big 12 this season. TCU Head coach Gary Patterson and defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas will use every able body on defense they have to try and slow down the high-powered offenses the Horned Frogs will be facing from the Big 12, including the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and West Virginia, once again providing Fields a golden opportunity to shine in 2012.
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