With spring practice finally over, the 2018 college football season is slowly coming into focus, and the TCU Horned Frogs have revenge on their minds. The Frogs beat Stanford in the Alamo Bowl to finish the 2017 season 11-3, with two of those losses coming at the hands of the three-time defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma Sooners -- including a 41-17 blowout in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Despite some key personnel losses, Oklahoma is likely to be favored in the Big 12 again in 2018, but TCU will again rank among the top challengers. Head coach Gary Patterson welcomes six starters back from a defense that led the Big 12 in every major category last season and ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring (19.0 ppg), total defense (331.4 ypg), and run defense (103.9 ypg).
The unit should be one of the best in the league again this season, but TCU has some question marks on offense. The Horned Frogs welcome back just five starters, which is tied with Oklahoma State for fewest in the league. TCU is one of four Big 12 teams that must replace its starting quarterback, though front-runner Shawn Robinson did start in place of the departed Kenny Hill against Texas Tech last year. Robinson will work behind a rebuilt offensive line, but should have a solid foundation of running backs and receivers.
The Frogs face a tough task as nine teams on their schedule went to bowl games last season, including College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma and Big Ten champion Ohio State. Overall, the Horned Frogs' 12 opponents combined for a .558 winning percentage a year ago, which ranks No. 36 among FBS programs and tied with Kansas State for the second toughest in the Big 12. But which game will be the toughest test?
12. Sept. 1 vs. Southern
TCU opens with the Jaguars in an FCS tune-up. Southern posted a solid 7-4 record last season, but lost to FBS opponents Southern Miss and UTSA by a combined 96-17.
11. Oct. 27 at Kansas
The Horned Frogs struggled with Kansas for three straight years before winning 43-0 in Fort Worth last season. TCU barely escaped Lawrence with a come-from-behind 24-23 victory the last time the two met at Memorial Stadium, so this matchup might make TCU fans a little nervous. The Jayhawks bring back the most experienced roster in the Big 12, and feature a trio of talented defenders in defensive lineman Daniel Wise, linebacker Joe Dineen, Jr. and defensive back Bryce Torneden. Nevertheless, KU is widely expected to finish in the conference cellar for the fourth consecutive year.
10. Sept. 7 at SMU
SMU made huge strides under Chad Morris, who led the Mustangs to a 7-5 record in the regular season before moving on to Arkansas. The transition to Sonny Dykes looks great on paper, but Dykes' Frisco Bowl debut was anything but smooth. TCU holds a six-game winning streak over the rival Mustangs, including a 56-36 victory in Fort Worth last season. Both teams will be working on a short week due to the Friday night kickoff.
9. Nov. 7 vs. Baylor
Baylor suffered through a nightmare 1-11 campaign in 2017, but the Bears gained some valuable experience in the process and should improve this season. It wouldn't be a shock for BU to open 4-0 in Matt Rhule's second year, and the Bears might be fighting for a bowl bid by the time TCU travels to Waco for the 114th edition of The Revivalry. TCU has won each of the last three, including last year's 45-22 home victory.
8. Sept. 21 vs. Iowa State
The Horned Frogs were 7-0, ranked No. 4 in the polls and in the College Football Playoff mix when they traveled to Ames last season. However, the upstart Cyclones held TCU to 307 total yards of offense and zero points (the Frogs scored on a 94-yard KaVonte Turpin kick return) to pull off a 14-7 upset. Iowa State won't sneak up on anyone in 2018, but Matt Campbell's team hopes to build on what was a solid 8-5 season.
7. Oct. 11 vs. Texas Tech
Weird things can happen on Thursday night, and even though TCU will have home-field advantage when the Red Raiders come to town, the midweek showdown could prove troublesome. Texas Tech should be as explosive as ever offensively in 2018, and the Red Raiders improved tremendously on defense in 2017 -- including holding TCU to a season-low 289 yards and just 85 passing. Tech also returns 10 starters on the defense. Of course, the Frogs held Tech to a season-worst 327 yards, including just 153 through the air, in last year's 27-3 victory.
6. Nov. 3 vs. Kansas State
Kansas State is always a dangerous opponent, and the last time the Wildcats visited Amon G. Carter Stadium, they left with a 30-6 win. Kansas State must rebuild what was a largely subpar defense as the Wildcats were solid against the run, and held the Frogs to 98 yards on the ground in last year's 26-6 TCU victory, but ranked 129th nationally in pass defense (309.1 ypg). On offense, Bill Snyder has eight starters returning, including two quarterbacks with starting experience, from a unit that scored 32.3 points per game.
5. Nov. 24 vs. Oklahoma State
TCU and Oklahoma State both lost six starters on offense from their 2017 squads, which ties atop the Big 12. The Cowboys were by far a more explosive unit, and ranked in the top five nationally in scoring (45.0 ppg), total offense (568.9 ypg) and passing (389.2 ypg), but must replace their record-setting quarterback-receiver combo of Mason Rudolph and James Washington, among others. Nevertheless, Mike Gundy has a penchant for producing high-scoring offenses regardless of experience, and he will have one of the best running backs in the nation to work with. Justice Hill led the conference with 1,467 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.
4. Sept. 22 at Texas
Texas may or may not be "back," but the Horned Frogs will likely have their hands full when traveling to Austin in September. Texas made strides in Tom Herman's first season, and though the Horns must replace several key playmakers (especially on defense), expectations are high in 2018. Defense was the team's calling card last year, and Texas hopes to improve its offense in order to make a push for the Big 12 Championship Game this season. TCU had nearly as many sacks (7) as rushing yards allowed (9) in a 24-7 victory over the Longhorns in 2017.
3. Nov. 10 at West Virginia
In what will likely be the toughest road trip of the season for the Horned Frogs, TCU must travel more than 1,200 miles to Morgantown for a mid-November date with the explosive Mountaineers. Will Grier is easily the best returning quarterback in the Big 12, and arguably one of the best in the nation. Grier was 7-3 in his first 10 games as a starter for the Mountaineers, but suffered a season-ending hand injury against Texas and West Virginia finished the year with a three-game losing streak. With a healthy Grier and All-American receiver David Sills V, who tied for the FBS lead with 18 TD receptions, West Virginia should have one of the top passing attacks in the country. The Mountaineers are a legitimate Big 12 title contender.
2. Sept. 15 vs. Ohio State (Arlington, Texas)
The mid-September clash between Ohio State and TCU is one of the marquee, neutral-site non-conference games of the season. Assuming both teams enter the contest 2-0 as expected, it could be a top-10 matchup tailor-made for prime time. The Buckeyes lost seven players to the NFL draft as well as record-setting quarterback J.T. Barrett, but the cupboard is far from bare for Urban Meyer. The defense should be tout once again led by defensive end Joey Bosa, the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Ohio State will likely be favored to repeat as Big Ten champs, and is high on the short list of College Football Playoff contenders.
1. Oct. 20 vs. Oklahoma
Oklahoma won't be ranked higher than Ohio State during the preseason, but because of the history between the two, TCU's date with the three-time defending Big 12 champions takes the top spot on our list. TCU lost to the Sooners 38-20 in the regular season and fell to OU in the conference title game to push the series losing streak to four. Simply put, the Horned Frogs couldn't slow down Baker Mayfield. And, though Mayfield will no longer be running the show for head coach Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma should be similarly explosive on offense. If the defense improves -- a distinct possibility with six starters returning and a talented recruiting class in the mix '' the Sooners should compete for a fourth straight Big 12 crown.
-- Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.