This is Part 8 of my “First Look” series, in which I take a quick peek at each of the Air Force football team’s 2010 opponents. We move this week to the Falcons’ Week 8 opponent – mighty TCU.
Coach: Gary Patterson (10th season)
2009 Record: 12-1 (8-0, 1st in Mountain West Conference)
2009 vs. AF: TCU 20, Air Force 17
2009 in a Sentence: Living with BCS pressure from the start of the campaign, the Horned Frogs went unbeaten in the regular season, winning a pair of games from Atlantic Coast Conference schools and drilling conference powers BYU and Utah before losing to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, 17-10.
Off/Def Starters Back: 9/7
Roster Report: So you’d probably expect a team that rampaged through the 2009 regular season 12-0, claimed the MWC title, advanced to a BCS bowl game and finished the year ranked sixth in the country to be heading into a rebuilding year, right?
Not so much.
TCU lost a handful of big-name players to graduation (including two-time MWC Defensive Player of the Year Jerry Hughes). But the Horned Frogs return 19 starters from 2009 (including three specialists). They also will have a 27-player senior class, which is more than twice as big as last year’s, when TCU tied for ninth nationally in having the fewest number of seniors (13). Last season the Horned Frogs had more freshmen on the depth chart (17) than seniors on the roster.
The offense that ranked fifth in the country in scoring (38.3 points per game) and seventh in total offense (456.7 yards per game) in 2009 has most of its big guns back, including senior quarterback Andy Dalton.
Dalton has come a long way since his freshman season (when he threw a late, key interception in the Horned Frogs’ early-season loss to Air Force) and, according to Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com, should be given Heisman Trophy consideration in 2010. Last season he won MWC Offensive Player of the Year honors while passing for a school-record 2,756 yards with 23 touchdowns and a 151.8 passer rating that was eighth-best in the nation. He also rushed for 512 yards.
Dalton will have all but one of his wide receivers from last season back, including seniors Jeremy Kerley and Jimmy Young and junior Antoine Hicks. Kerley, the 2009 MWC Special Teams Player of the Year, had 44 catches in 2009; Young had 33 receptions for 517 yards (including six for 113 against Air Force); and Hicks scored 10 touchdowns (six receiving, four rushing) on just 32 touches.
All of the Horned Frogs’ tight ends from 2009 are back, as are the second- and third-leading rushers from last season’s squad – sophomores Matthew Tucker (676 yards) and Ed Wesley (5-9, 185). The offensive line also should be stout with four starters back, including first-team All-American (by SI.com) center Jake Kirkpatrick (6-3, 305) and first-team All-MWC tackle Marcus Cannon (6-5, 350).
The defense lost Hughes, standout linebacker Daryl Washington and four-year starting cornerbacks Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders. But TCU always will be stacked on defense under Patterson.
The Horned Frogs have three of four starting defensive linemen back (including senior end Wayne Daniels, who had 5.5 sacks in 2009) as well as second-team All-MWC linebacker Tank Carder and a trio of returning starting safeties.
Special teams shouldn’t be a problem either, with Kerley back and third-year starters at kicker (Ross Evans) and punter (Anson Kelton).
“I’ve been challenging them from the very beginning – will this team be as hungry as last year’s team was?” Patterson said. “Only time will tell whether that happens or not.”
Fast Fact: Patterson has had arguably the best program from outside the BCS conferences in the last decade. After going 6-6 in his first full year at the helm, Patterson has guided the Horned Frogs to 10 or more victories in six of eight seasons. Here are TCU’s last five seasons, during which it has compiled the sixth-best record of any program in the nation (53-11, .828 winning percentage – behind only Boise State, Texas, Florida, USC and Ohio State):
“For us as a program, it used to be if you could be 8-4, things were OK,” Patterson said. “But that’s not OK anymore.”
What Caught My Eye: TCU’s nonconference games are against Oregon State (8-5 last season) at Cowboys Stadium; home against Tennessee Tech of the Football Championship Subdivision; home against Baylor (4-8 last season); and at SMU (8-5 last season).
Those aren’t gimmies (save for Tennessee Tech), but the foursome isn’t necessarily a murderer’s row either.
The Horned Frogs do have a tough five-week stretch in their MWC schedule in which they’ll face the other four teams from the top five in the league (Wyoming, BYU, Air Force and Utah). But TCU will face all of those squads save for Utah at home.
So if the Horned Frogs get past Oregon State in their opener, TCU could be headed back to the BCS.
Jake’s Way Too Early Line vs. Air Force: TCU minus-13.5. Air Force gave the Horned Frogs arguably their toughest test during the 2009 regular season. But the frigid weather probably gets an assist there. And this year TCU gets Air Force at home (where the Falcons never have beaten the Horned Frogs).
Final Thought: With all those starters back, the memory of the painful loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl on their minds and the experience of going through a season with BCS stress, TCU could be even better in 2010 than it was in 2009.