With Big 12's future in flux, TCU out to prove its worth this season and beyond
FORT WORTH — TCU is going into its 10th season in the Big 12, a conference headed toward a more seismic shift than the one that made the Horned Frogs a Power Five team.
The Frogs have proven themselves quite worthy of that status.
Of the 12 teams that have changed or moved into power leagues in the past decade, only Texas A&M in the SEC and Pittsburgh in the ACC have better conference records since switching. In the Big 12, only second-ranked Oklahoma has more league wins than TCU since 2014, the season the Frogs shared the conference title with Baylor before the Sooners won the last six.
In the pandemic-altered 2020 season, the Horned Frogs won five of their final six games before not being able to play in their bowl game because of COVID-19 issues.
“Mentally, to be honest with you, even for me, it was really tough,” coach Gary Patterson said about that uneven season, which was his 20th as TCU's head coach after three years as defensive coordinator.
TCU and West Virginia started play in a 10-team Big 12 in 2012, following the departures of Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC. The SEC is where Oklahoma and Texas, the only Big 12 teams to win national championships, are headed no later than 2025.
“Maybe I’m just a kind of a little bit of an old school when it comes to it. Just regional rivalries, that’s what I worry about. I worry about the state of Texas more than I worry about anything else, and Fort Worth,” Patterson said. “Because that’s what we’ve tried to do, why I stayed here. It’s not about just TCU, TCU football. It’s about Fort Worth.”
Left out of the initial 12-team Big 12 that started play in 1996 after the old Southwest Conference was dissolved, TCU then won or shared titles in the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA and the Mountain West over a 16-season span.
Max Duggan has accounted for nearly 5,000 total yards of offense and 41 touchdowns in 22 games for TCU. Yet, the junior quarterback is just now coming off what could be considered a somewhat normal offseason for the starter.
“People don’t really understand what Max went through a year ago,” Patterson said. “So for him to grow up where he’s at, an unbelievable leader.”
After starting the final 10 games as a freshman in 2019, there were only a few practices last spring before COVID-19 shut those down. Duggan was then sidelined most of preseason camp last fall after a previously undetected heart issue was revealed during more extensive testing amid the pandemic. He ended up not missing a game due to the delayed start of the season.
“Once you have spring ball, you have summer workouts, you just feel more confident going into the season,” Duggan said. “You’ve been with your guys a little bit more, get a little bit more comfortable with everything. So it’s been awesome. It’s been very productive.”
While there are eight returning starters on defense, the Frogs have to replace two All-Big 12 picks: linebacker Garret Wallow and safety Trevon Moehrig. Those are two key positions in Patterson's primary 4-2-5 scheme.
Wallow was the team's leading tackler the past two seasons, and was the Big 12 leader in 2019. His likely replacement is Jamoi Hodge, a 6-foot-2, 224-pound former transfer from Independence Community College who played in only two games last season before getting hurt.
“You won’t find a better looking linebacker in college football as far as just the way, body type and everything he does. He’s just got to stay healthy,” Patterson said.
TCU does still have an All-Big 12 defensive back, with the return of junior cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, the nephew of NFL Hall of Fame running back and former Frogs standout LaDainian Tomlinson.
TCU opens the season with four consecutive home games: nonconference matchups against FCS team Duquesne in the Sept. 4 opener, California from the Pac-12 and local rival SMU before its Big 12 opener Oct. 2 against No. 21 Texas. The Horned Frogs play five of their nine conference games on the road. That includes trips to No. 2 Oklahoma and then No. 7 Iowa State the day after Thanksgiving to end the regular season.