Gary Patterson, TCU Struggle To Adjust To Big 12
By Ryan Wooden
Coming off of an astonishing 47 victories in their final four seasons in the Mountain West, the TCU Horned Frogs and head coach Gary Patterson hoped to transition smoothly into the Big 12 and fill the Texas A&M-sized vacancy in the conference. After all that unprecedented success as a "mid-major," the general sentiment was that TCU was ready to step into the fray with the Oklahomas and Texas of the world.
Two years into their Big 12 tenure, the Horned Frogs have managed just 11 wins. They're 6-12 in conference play.
In hindsight, it's easy to say that expecting TCU to immediately dominate in the Big 12 was far-fetched. After all, when it entered the league ranked 20th in the AP poll, it had lost nearly every star from the team that won the Poinsettia Bowl in 2011, and the Horned Frogs were a far-cry from the team that managed to win the Rose Bowl and finish an undefeated season ranked second in the nation.
However, such a precipitous drop beckons several questions: How large could the talent gap between what was a solid Mountain West to the now 10-team Big 12 really be? Should TCU really have fallen off this much? And, perhaps most importantly, is Gary Patterson still capable of keeping this program relevant in a quality conference?
Any pundit, coach, player or casual fan could identify the differences between the old Mountain West and this current machination of the Big 12, but while that talent disparity is evident, it's hard to quantify exactly how large it is. In any given season, teams like Boise State, Nevada, San Diego State, Air Force and Utah State are capable of sneaking up and taking an undefeated team into November and taking it to some power-conference school in a bowl game; however, it's the doormats in a league like the Mountain West that hold it back.
And, in a league like the Big 12, which saw eight schools reach bowl eligibility in TCU's first season in the league in 2012, the overall depth weighs heavily on a school like TCU. Programs like Iowa State, which battle perennial mediocrity, still produce as much NFL-caliber talent as any of those upper-echelon teams in the MWC.
All that being said, the disparity stems from battles won and lost on the recruiting trail. As a member of the Mountain West, TCU could rely on the state of Texas to subsidize their success. With such a wealth of talent available in their home state (a luxury most other MWC schools don't have), they were able to pick their battles and field a roster mostly made up of Texas scraps — solid players who didn't necessarily get heavy consideration from the state's flagship schools.
Now, that's not to say that TCU wasn't occasionally capable of picking off some of the state's top prospects, but, for the most part, they certainly didn't recruit on par with folks like Texas and Texas A&M. But, that's OK, because they didn't have to. The talent they were able to acquire in Texas often gave them a leg up on the rest of the MWC.
The move to the Big 12 circumvented that strategy. Now that TCU has to compete with Oklahoma and Texas on the recruiting trail and on the field, subsisting on mid-level prospects isn't conducive to success.
And while it's possible to recruit to a system and coach up that talent (a la Baylor), it's not something TCU and Patterson have been able to do in the Big 12 just yet.
Patterson is a worthy tactician, but in 2014 his recruiting class ranked eighth in the Big 12 per Rivals.com, and unless the goal is to win six or seven games a year and enjoy their slice of the Big 12 TV pie, that's simply not going to cut it.
The 14th-year head coach has earned himself some time to ingratiate this program to its new home, but they're going to have to find their niche quickly if he hopes to enjoy the same sort of job security he was used to when TCU was a member of Conference USA and the Mountain West and routinely competed for championships.
The hope is that a new philosophy offensively will give TCU an edge in a conference that is seemingly all about offense, and Patterson is placing his faith in former Oklahoma State position coach and Houston offensive coordinator Doug Meacham and 32-year-old former Texas Tech quarterback (which very nearly describes Kliff Kingsbury) Sonny Cumbie. If the pair can make TCU prolific offensively in a league where offensive proliferation seems to translate directly to championships, TCU may stand a chance just yet.
For now, though, TCU fans are in a position they're unfamiliar with. They're uncertain.
And while uncertainty is to be expected with such a major change, it's hard to blame them if their patience starts running thin.