TCU football opened at No. 16 in the preseason Associated Press poll on Monday for the 2018 season. It’s the third time in a span of four seasons that the Horned Frogs have started the year in the top 25.
On a surface level, it’s something to smile about for TCU fans. But take it with a grain of salt, as head coach Gary Patterson often goes on and on about how his players handle failure better than success.
Entering this fall, it’s a theme of success rather than failure for the Horned Frogs. TCU is coming off a 2017 campaign in which it began the season 7-0 before ultimately finishing 11-3 and at No. 9 in the AP rankings. The Horned Frogs are expected by many to pick up more or less right where they left off, even with a new face at quarterback and a complete reconstructed offensive line.
For all the predictions we can make about TCU’s 2018 season, there’s hardly any point knowing how fickle the sport of college football can be. But an educated guess is possible when looking at previous seasons.
With that, shall we look at how the Horned Frogs fared in comparison to their preseason ranking every fall since they joined the Big 12?
Preseason AP ranking: 20
Record & final ranking: 7-5, unranked
The Horned Frogs first year in the Big 12 was an interesting one. The team seemed to be living up to its preseason hype — fresh off a span of 36 wins in three seasons — when TCU began the year 4-0. They may very well have finished the season in the Top 25 had all gone according to script, but an early-season drug bust that resulted in starting quarterback Casey Pachall withdrawing from the program ultimately sent the Horned Frogs into a tailspin, dropping five of their final eight games. It marked just the third time since 2002 that TCU finished the year unranked.
Preseason AP ranking: 20
Record & final ranking: 4-8, urnanked
First things first, the Horned Frogs probably never should have been ranked No. 20 entering the 2013 season after a 7-5 finish in 2012. It certainly made the team’s season opener vs. No. 12 LSU look that much more glamorous, but the Horned Frogs dropped that contest and never got over the .500 mark en route to a dismal 4-8 finish. Part of that had to do with another unexpected absence from Pachall, who missed multiple games due to a Week 2 injury after returning to the program during the offseason. Nonetheless, expectations were largely higher than what the TCU’s resume warranted as a member of the Big 12. To this date, this is the only time in the Patterson era that the Horned Frogs have finished unranked in consecutive seasons.
Preseason AP ranking: Unranked
Finish: 12-1, No. 3
You can already see where Patterson gets his theory from, can’t you? The Horned Frogs had little to no expectations entering the 2014 season. Some even wanted quarterback Trevone Boykin to be benched in favor of former Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel following Boykin’s glaring inconsistencies in place of Pachall during the 2013 campaign. The rest is history, as the Horned Frogs ended up fielding what was perhaps their most complete team in history — narrowly missing the inaugural College Football Playoff before dominating No. 9 Ole Miss in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
Preseason AP ranking: No. 2
Finish: 11-2, No. 7
Finally, TCU began and ended the season ranked in 2015 — its first and only instance of such joining the Big 12. The Horned Frogs rocketed out to an 8-0 start as they jockeyed position within the AP Top 5 before finally falling to Oklahoma State in November. Of course, injuries decimated TCU’s roster that fall, so a No. 7 ranking is a bit more impressive than what meets the eye. Oh, and who could forget the Alamo Bowl? Even though the Horned Frogs failed to crack the playoff, it was another year to remember.
Preseason AP ranking: No. 13
Finish: 6-7, unranked
The Horned Frogs lost a ton of talent on both sides of the ball after the 2015 campaign, and the growing pains from that were evident rather quickly in 2016. TCU only won twice at home all season as Kenny Hill struggled to find a rhythm in his debut season as the Horned Frogs quarterback, while the Horned Frogs’ defense seemed uncharacteristically vulnerable in multiple contests throughout the year. Though the Horned Frogs did hang tight with several ranked opponents and posted a memorable 62-22 route of a No. 17 Baylor team in Waco, it wasn’t enough to avoid a disappointing 6-7 finish on the year.
Preseason AP ranking: Unranked
Finish: 11-3, No. 9
Well, here we go again. Expectations were modest for TCU entering last season, and rightfully so, given how things went in 2016. But behind closed doors, Patterson had whipped his team into shape at every position. The Horned Frogs made noise early with a 7-0 start, including a shocking road upset of No. 6 Oklahoma State in Stillwater, as they climbed to as high as No. 4 in the AP Poll. Iowa State and Oklahoma (x2) derailed TCU’s aspirations of a playoff appearance, but a 10-3 regular season mark was enough to get the Horned Frogs back in the Alamo Bowl for another comeback victory, this time vs. Stanford.
Again, college football is unpredictable. But Patterson’s theory appears to hold true. Of the four times the Horned Frogs have been ranked in the preseason since joining the Big 12, they’ve only finished the year ranked in one of those campaigns. Likewise, the Horned Frogs have won at least 11 games and flirted with the College Football playoff a year removed from a losing season not once but twice since joining the conference.
With the talent TCU has, there’s no reason the Horned Frogs can’t start and finish the season ranked for the first time since 2015 this fall. But when it comes to history, there may be a slight uphill battle.