As part of my continued tour of the Big 12 following spring ball, I look at the TCU Horned Frogs, a popular pick to contend for the league title this season.
1. TCU's offensive line gave up an average of nearly 3.5 sacks per game in its six losses last year to Iowa State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, OU and Michigan State.
If Casey Pachall or Trevone Boykin is going to have a chance to lead the Horned Frogs to a Big 12 title in 2013, they are going to need better protection than they received in 2012.
The focus is on left tackle Tayo Fabuluje (pronounced Tie-o Fah-BOO-loo-zhay), a BYU transfer who made 12 starts in 2012, and right tackle Aviante Collins, who started 13 games as a true freshman (12 at left guard and one at right tackle).
Boykin was able to make some plays when the protection broke down last year, with his performance against Texas a prime example. Boykin ran for 77 yards against the Longhorns, and had three different first-down conversions with his legs on drives that led to two field goals and a touchdown.
Boykin was the leading rusher in the Texas game for TCU.
But Pachall is expected to be the guy at quarterback for TCU in 2013, even though coach Gary Patterson wouldn't name Pachall the starter coming out of the spring. Pachall is not nearly as mobile as Boykin. If the O-line, which has to replace center James Fry and RG Blaize Foltz, can't improve its protection, Pachall could be a sitting duck.
TCU gave up 4 sacks in a loss to Iowa State; 6 sacks in a loss to K-State; and 4 sacks in a 17-16 loss to Michigan State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
2. If the O-line can provide protection for Pachall in 2013, watch out.
Pachall had 10 TD passes and 1 INT through four games last year before being charged with DUI and leaving the team and ultimately going through rehab.
Pachall ranks first nationally among active quarterbacks in career pass efficiency with a 163.1 rating. He completed 66 percent of his attempts in those four games in 2012. His 180 pass efficiency rating in 2012 would have led the NCAA if he had qualified for the listing.
In 2011, Pachall set TCU single-season records for completion (228), completion rate (66.5) and passing yards (2,921). His 25 TD passes that season placed second.
3. TCU loses WRs Josh Boyce and Skye Dawson. But Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson likes what he saw in the spring from his receiving corps.
WR Brandon Carter (5-11, 161, junior), who had 36 catches for 590 yards and 6 TDs, is TCU's top returning receiver.
Carter is joined by LaDarius Brown (6-4, 220, soph), who had 27 catches for 385 yards and 5 TDs in 2012, and by Cam White (6-3, 200, jr), who had 21 catches for 284 yards and 2 TDs.
TCU also adds transfers Ja'Juan Story (6-4, 208, soph), who sat out last season after transferring from Florida, and Josh Doctson (6-4, 185, soph) of Mansfield, who transferred from Wyoming.
4. A transfer who could help the offense this year is RB Aaron Green (5-11, 190, soph), who sat out last season after leaving Nebraska.
TCU had such depth concerns at RB in 2012 after Waymon James suffered a season-ending knee injury two games into the season that backup QB Trevone Boykin was about to take snaps at RB.
But James, who was averaging 9.9 yards per carry when he was injured last year and averaged 7.2 ypc in 2011, is back. So is last year's leading rusher B.J. Catalon, who really didn't do anything special in 2012 (44.8 ypg).
TCU also has incoming freshman Kyle Hicks.
5. The bottom line is TCU, even in a transition year on defense in 2012, led the Big 12 in rush defense (105.4 ypg), passes intercepted (21), turnovers gained (32), third-down defense (29.9 percent), first downs allowed (17 pg) and total defense (323.9 ypg).
And TCU has 9 starters back on defense in 2013.
Only Kansas State finished ahead of TCU in scoring defense last year, giving up 22.1 ppg compared to TCU's 22.6 ppg.
The D will be highlighted by sophomore-to-be sensation Devonte Fields at DE, who led the Big 12 in tackles for loss with 18.5 and registered 10 sacks in 2012. TCU lost DE Stansly Maponga a year early to the NFL Draft.
But Patterson likes his DL, anchored by DTs Chuck Hunter and Davion Pierson. Senior DE John Koontz is likely to replace Maponga.
Cornerback Jason Verrett, who had six INTs in 2012, is also back in the secondary with safeties Elisha Olabode and Sam Carter, both of whom had four INTs in 2012.
TCU is looking for answers at linebacker after losing leading tackler Kenny Cain. Patterson will go with Joel Hasley, who was second on the team in tackles in2012, and inexperienced Marcus Mallett. But the rest of the cast is pretty salty.
TCU plays a 4-2-5 under Gary Patterson, and the Horned Frogs have their top nine defensive backs returning.
FINAL ANALYSIS: We'll know right away if TCU is a contender, because the Horned Frogs open the season at Cowboys Stadium against LSU.
If the Horned Frogs win that one, watch out. They could pick up a whole bunch of confidence heading into a road trip to Oklahoma on Oct. 5.
An unfortunate break could play huge role in the Horned Frogs' season: they have to play at Oklahoma State for a second straight year, because of a scheduling quirk created by inheriting Texas A&M's schedule.
A lot of people are picking either Oklahoma State or TCU to win the league, so that second straight matchup in Stillwater between the two teams could prove to be a big break for the Cowboys. TCU got up in last year's game in Stillwater, 14-0, then watched OSU reel off 36 unanswered points in a 36-14 triumph.
The key to the season for TCU could rest on that offensive line and if it can protect the QB enough and create some holes for the running game.
Texas plays at TCU on Oct. 26, two weeks after the OU game (thanks to a bye week).