TCU has very quietly featured some of the better teams in college football for the last half-decade. Much like Chris Peterson's Boise State program, the Horned Frogs consistently dominated lower level competition while frequently rising to the occasion when offered the chance against a major power.
However, TCU's legitimacy undoubtedly took a hit in the national perception when their inaugural Big 12 season saw them manage only a 7-6 record against big time competition.
But TCU's inaugural season was not exactly the disqualifying mark it may have appeared to be. TCU has secretly been stockpiling weapons up in the Fort that were not all fired in the 2012 season. There's potentially elite running back Waymon James, who was injured early in the year, or star QB Casey Pachall, whose personal issues took down his game and forced a season away from football after a promising start. These losses were both inflicted on a roster already suffering major hits from graduation and a big drug bust that sapped them of experience and star power in the defensive front.
Meanwhile, TCU's opening opponent, LSU, continues to live the lavish life of a major SEC football power with a revolving door of star talent beating on the doors to be let in and girded in a Tiger uniform. While Les Miles' Tigers also suffer major losses to graduation, there can be no doubt that the LSU football machine is ready to unleash another wave of great football players against the college landscape. It's a program on the frontier of national relevance against an established power eager to swat them down.
In the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson led a cast of volunteers, American regulars, and assorted rogues against an army of the British empire twice the size of his own force. Unbeknownst to either side, the US and Great Britain had already struck a truce that should have precluded a British attempt at capturing New Orleans but news had not reached the armies.
Despite having no implications for the truce (other than perhaps ensuring that the British honored it) or the war in general, the victory proved to be one of the most important in American history, re-establishing the US claim to independence and influence over their area while affirming the American spirit.
For Gary Patterson and the Frogs to defeat LSU and protect and expand their invaluable DFW recruiting turf from the SEC empire will require that Patterson's hard-nosed approach to disciplining and molding teams with fewer resources proves to be superior to the methods of Miles and SEC country. Essentially, it's a replay of the battle between hard-working upstart frontier entity vs. established power with major resource base.
In football terms, a TCU victory will have to play out as follows:
TCU withstands LSU's upper-tier athleticism on defense
SEC country is uniquely abundant with large and powerful athletes of the kind that make winning football games simple.
When drafting his NFL squads, Bill Parcells, paragon of football wisdom, operated under his "planet theory" in making draft choices. Planet theory is the simple formulation of the fact that this world produces 300-pound human beings with athleticism in very limited quantities. The SEC's recent run of dominance is directly related to their ability to consistently field Barkevious Mingos, Chance Warmacks, Jadeveon Clowneys, Nick Fairleys, and Marcell Dareei in the trenches.
John Chavis' LSU defense combines the advantages of handpicking Louisiana's biggest boys with elite smaller athletes in the secondary as well. The Tigers have cranked out such NFL prospects as Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne, Tharold Simon, Eric Reid, and Tyrann Mathieu. They always seem to be able to reload with physical and gifted defensive backs.
Fortunately for TCU, LSU graduated two DBs and three DL from the starting lineup; and even now Les has his Uzi fixed on Patterson's chest while reaching blindly for another clip from his belt. Unfortunately for TCU, its own offensive line has been in rebuilding mode since the undefeated 2011 Rose Bowl squad. The TCU OL is stocked with some solid athletes and has its own virtually unnoticed NFL tradition in the Patterson era, but the collective experience and age of this group is not impressive.
Earning a program-defining victory in the season opener will require both that the Frogs are not overwhelmed by LSU's physicality and athleticism and that they check and restrain the Tigers' aggression by utilizing their own offensive weapons.
TCU's offensive system is based on spread concepts and formations that are built around quick reads from the QB, quick vertical strikes in the pass game, and a run game that utilizes the QB as a runner. Such a system generally requires a mobile and athletic line and an overall savvy and cohesion between all the different parts of the machine in order to recognize dangers and opportunities in the narrow windows in which they present themselves.
LSU has been the standard bearer for the SEC's supposed imperviousness to the spread offense, which was finally left in the dust of Johnny Football's 1,400-yard scamper across the south. However, LSU's own reputation against the spread is still in good standing. The Tigers' success against spread offenses has resulted from Chavis' willingness and ability to field some of the most loaded nickel and dime personnel packages witnessed in the modern era, and the resulting options for LSU in bringing pressure.
Word from TCU's camp seems to indicate that Pachall has reclaimed his starting job from the RB-turned-QB Trevone Boykin. The key to surviving LSU's frequent zone blitzes for Pachall will be having great awareness of the pressure, quick feet in the pocket, and using his arm strength to threaten the LSU defense outside the hashes.
Fire Zones in particular ask a lot of the Corners on the sideline to maintain deep leverage over the top as deep 1/3 defenders, while rallying to defend against the hitch or curl routes on the sidelines that the underneath defenders can't reach. To maximize the effectiveness of these responses, the QB and WR need to be aware of opportunity and the QB needs to have the arm strength and accuracy outside the hash marks to hit the receiver quickly and in position to do something after the catch.
While SEC country cranks out elite athletes, the Big 12 enjoys harvesting the fruitful land of Texas where summer 7-on-7 leagues, offensive innovation, and heavy resource allocation allows the state to churn out elite QB prospects and offensive players well-versed in precision passing games.
Slot receiver Brandon Carter is one of the more dangerous weapons in the Frog arsenal, one who presents a vertical threat over the middle of the field. A lot of defensive blitzes ask a lot of the safeties in pass coverage, but with Carter, that's a huge risk. A strike over the middle that victimizes the LSU safeties could limit Chavis' options for safely attacking the Frog pass protections.
Running back Waymon James has a part to play in handling the LSU "Mustang package," a 3-2-6 personnel grouping that is loaded with athleticism and blitzing options.
The combinations of three-, four-, five-, and six-man pressures the Mustang package includes, along with the tremendous amount of athleticism it puts on the field, makes it a very dangerous minefield for a spread offense to navigate. To prevent LSU from getting away with such tactics, TCU will need James to make an impact:
James combines quick feet and great acceleration with an Emmitt Smith-sized 5'8, 203-pound frame that packs a lot of punch with a low center of gravity. If TCU's run game can force nickel alignments and honest rush lanes from the LSU pass-rushers it will go a long way towards protecting Pachall and the Frog OL from having to take on the full breadth of the Tiger pressure packages.
Then there's also the secret weapon, Trevone Boykin. Forced into starting duty by Pachall's suspension, Boykin has a similarly strong arm and throws a great deep ball, but is also a dangerous weapon in the run game:
In this play he runs the "Power-Read" play that is a staple of many spread offenses right up the gut of the Oklahoma defense. At minimum, Boykin offers a red zone or short-yardage package for LSU to prepare for while potentially providing a spark or solution if Pachall is not up to the challenge of navigating the Tiger coverages.
TCU withstands imposing Tiger offensive personnel
TCU has now twice encountered B1G programs in bowl games that emphasize pro-style, power run games. First, the Horned Frogs faced a dominant Wisconsin offense in the 2011 Rose Bowl and utilized red-zone stops to hold the Badgers to only 17 points in a major victory. Then they faced the Michigan State Spartans and Le'Veon Bell, whom they held to 2.9 yards per carry and, again, 17 total points of offense in a narrow (17-16) defeat.
In each instance, there were assumptions made that the base 4-2-5 nickel defense of TCU would be mauled in the trenches due to small size and lack of familiarity with major-conference smashmouth football.
Despite LSU's own great success utilizing 4-2-5 alignments in the SEC, there will undoubtedly be much talk about how talented running back Jeremy Hill, 272-pound wrecking-ball fullback J.C. Copeland, and an LSU line that averages 6'5, 321 pounds across the board will be moving downhill all night against the Frogs.
In answering this assumption, let's start by talking about the fifth defensive back in the nickel defense, strong safety Sam Carter. The strong safety position in the Frog defense is similar to the role played by Mathieu in LSU's schemes, except Carter is 6'1, 215 pounds. He finished 2012 with 63 tackles, three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and four interceptions. Equally skilled in coverage, run defense, and blitzing, Carter is not likely to be a weak spot for the Frog defense.
Next, it's worth mentioning that the TCU defensive line, which despite missing potential All-American weakside end Devonte Fields, is one of the stronger units Patterson has had in Fort Worth. In particular, nose tackle Chucky Hunter will present difficulties for the Tiger run game with his squatty 6'1, 300-pound frame and quickness off the ball. For massively tall linemen like the ones LSU fields, it can be immensely difficult to latch on to and root out shorter and quicker defensive linemen on inside runs.
The design of TCU's 2-deep base coverages is a perfect blend of "bend don't break" principles geared towards keeping receivers in front of defensive backs while actively involving TCU's defensive backs against the run game. "Spill it and kill it" is the name of the game for the defensive front, which relies on linemen and linebackers aggressively plugging interior gaps and spilling runners outside, where the presence of five well-leveraged and quick defensive backs means quick pursuit.
In this clip, Sam Carter gets outside of the run blocks very quickly and forces Bell inside to TCU's six-man front, where the defensive tackles are proving nearly impossible to displace and the linebackers are running freely to the ball.
The great advantage TCU has in this game is in its cornerback play with great players in both Kevin White and Jason Verrett. LSU will attempt to match them with Odell Beckham, Jr., and Jarvis Landry, but you can expect TCU to turn its safeties loose in run support while leaning on Verrett and White to handle the sidelines on islands.
By doing so, TCU can mix in its "Cover-2 Robber" scheme to the strong side while playing "Cover Blue" on the weak side. In Cover-2 Robber, Carter forces runs inside or plays the cutbacks on runs away from him while Free Safety Elisha Olabode fills the alley and adds a potential ninth run defender in pursuit. On the weak side, Hackett fills the role Carter plays to the strong side.
LSU can attempt to respond to these schemes in two different ways. The first is to attempt to run the Frogs over anyways and hope to set up play-action opportunities.
J.C. Copeland and new OC Cam Cameron's Zone Stretch run schemes present the greatest opportunity for LSU to punish the small size of the TCU squad.
That'd be Sam Carter or weak safety Chris Hackett tasked with taking on Copeland on the edge rather than South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger, who meekly dived at Copeland's feet. Meanwhile, the Frog defensive ends would be looking to avoid being hooked by a LSU tackle working in combination with a tight end.
In general, the great length and girth of the LSU line, combined with Copeland's lead blocks on the edge, make "Zone Stretch" a dangerous play for TCU to defend because it attacks the perimeter and defensive backs with size and power. Hackett and Carter are physical players, but if they are neutralized by Copeland's lead blocks, then the TCU run defense will find itself in trouble. It's a strength-on-strength scenario that would reveal a lot about how LSU's coaching staff considers the Horned Frog defensive reputation.
These aggressive TCU schemes could also invite LSU to attack its corners on the sidelines with Beckham and Landry on the early downs. But it's worth pointing out that Verrett and White combined for seven interceptions while the three safeties added another 10. Unless Cameron and Miles feel that Mettenberger and the LSU passing game has come a long way since last year, it'd be a safer approach to challenge the Frogs' speed with a classic smashmouth gameplan. The Frog linebacking corps is also inexperienced and suspect, although they'll be well protected and supported by the defensive line and secondary.
If LSU cannot beat TCU's corners on the sidelines or wear down the front with Hill and Copeland, the Tigers set themselves up for the nightmare of third-and-long against the Patterson defense. While offenses never thrive in third-and-long, offenses facing TCU have been obliterated in these situations. The very young 2012 Frog defense ranked seventh in the nation on third down, and the Frogs have a large variety of options on third down for opposing teams to navigate.
It begins with the Cover-5 scheme, which is basically two-deep/man-under that occasionally brings a sixth defensive back on the field and moves Carter to linebacker, where he can be a threat to blitz. Finding passing windows against TCU playing Cover-5 is generally a losing proposition:
That's a tackle for loss on a third-and-long passing play.
When they aren't running Cover-5, TCU has a varied blitz package, much like LSU's "Mustang package," which involves Fire Zones and several "Cover Zero" man blitzes. This can be particularly devastating because the Frogs have the horses to trust their secondary in man coverage with no safety help. LSU would very much prefer that Mettenberger not have to spend the game eluding these blitzes while attempting to beat Verrett with a throw on the run. That's exactly what a TCU victory would look like.
All in all, this contest is part of the final test for Patterson's TCU program. Has their relentless scouring of the DFW area and intensive development of their football program assembled a team that can withstand the might and athleticism of an SEC power in primetime? Can Gary Patterson emulate "Old Hickory" and put together a game plan that can take advantage of Les Miles' famous big-game hubris?
Much like at New Orleans in 1812, a victory will not have a lot of direct impact for either team. It won't affect the conference standings, and a respectable defeat for either team won't necessarily preclude them from the national discussion. However, a victory by TCU would have great symbolic significance in establishing the Horned Frogs firmly on the map as a national power and potential future powerhouse.