Three weeks ago, Student Section contributor Kevin McGuire penned this excellent piece on the re-emergence of TCU and Utah in their new power-conference situations. Today, the Horned Frogs and Utes remain central factors in their respective leagues. They have only gotten better as the season has moved along. It’s time for the editors of The Student Section to discuss TCU and Utah. We’re joined in “Roundtable Village” this week by TSS columnist Allen Kenney.
What is your biggest takeaway from the twin ascendancies of TCU and Utah this season, in their new power-conference homes?
On Twitter @TheCoachBart
The takeaway is fairly resolute and cross-applicable in multiple facets of life: when you give someone the same resources as someone else, odds are they’ll have similar levels of success.
College football’s game changer was 1994, when scholarship limits were set at 85. This leveled the playing field in a dramatic way and paved the way for more teams to dip their digits into Division I-A (now FBS) water. Since then, we’ve seen a rise to power of programs which hadn’t often been huge factors on a national level, programs like an Oregon, Virginia Tech, Kansas State, or a Wisconsin.
The haves and the have-nots had to be rearranged at that point, which mostly happened with conference realignment, eventually the BCS bowls, and now the Power 5 and the CFB Playoff. The rub for the have-nots was always that they felt if given the same luxuries, they’d succeed just as handsomely.
This plays out in every political discussion everywhere: if the playing field were equally level for everyone, everyone individually would have a better chance instead of some being born into automatic disadvantage.
You can debate the merits of that line of thinking in the very non-black and white areas of politics and life, but from the side that will argue it, it’s the same basic theory.
TCU and Utah were elite powers outside the guys that were always allowed into the party, so in a sense, they started at a disadvantage, worked themselves up, and now are seeing the spoils of their labor: huge television contract money as a result of being in a Power 5 conference; easier recruiting; more exposure.
Now, it’s not so easy to say that if you put Houston, Central Michigan, or Florida Atlantic in a Power 5 conference, they’d have the same type of success. For a few years, TCU and Utah were the poster children for “See, we told y’all you couldn’t hang up here with us weekly.”
But like anything else, the cream always rises to the top in a sense. These are programs that weren’t just successful because they were playing smaller schools more frequently. They were successful because they had the mechanisms in place to be successful AND got the chance.
Going back to the political example, they started from the ground floor, became successful, and that’s why people wanted them. That, there, is a much better metaphor for life.
On Twitter @BlatantHomerism
The upstarts won’t like hearing this, but I think it speaks to the state of brand names in the Big 12 and Pac-12 as much as anything. In Big 12 country, the precipitous decline of Texas and slower erosion of Oklahoma have opened the door for the TCUs and Baylors of the league to climb their way to the top. Meanwhile, Utah finds itself atop the Pac-12 South with USC still reeling from probation and UCLA still struggling to maximize all the talent on campus in Westwood.
History has shown that wins and titles in college football tend to revert back to prestigious programs over time. In the meantime, Utah and TCU have the kind of track records to suggest that they can make the most of those windows when the big boys stumble.
On Twitter @SectionMZ
The reality of Utah’s situation is a complex one. On one hand, the Utes’ rise in the Pac-12 South is the product of the rest of the division’s frailty as much as anything else. USC lacks a home-run-hitting coach (though Steve Sarkisian did not blow Saturday’s game in Salt Lake City). UCLA is still UCLA, teasing and torturing its fan base at every turn and failing to live up to its greatest hopes. Arizona has never made the Rose Bowl. Arizona State still has much to prove in the coming month, despite all of its successes under adverse circumstances. Moreover, Utah still has to play Oregon and the two Arizona schools. The Utes aren’t even the favorite in their division at the moment.
On the other hand…
Utah’s achievements through two months of the season are nothing short of sensational. It is astounding to contemplate just how mentally weak this team was in road games last season, and then realize how far the Utes have progressed in 2014. It is striking to see the extent to which quarterback Travis Wilson has made better decisions with the ball, the product of good coaching. Wilson hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 143 passes. Could Utah fans have imagined that statistic in their wildest dreams at the end of 2013?
Utah fumbled multiple times inside the USC 2-yard line on Saturday, and still had the stones to overcome those mistakes and win a game of great importance. The Utes had not won a conference game of such stature since they moved to the Pac-12. Kyle Whittingham has shown that while yearly consistency has proved to be elusive for his program, he is able to retain the trust of his players to the point that a season such as this one is possible.
A final note about the Utes’ record and their divisional prospects: Though Utah is not the favorite in the Pac-12 South, that’s not so much the fault of the Utes as it is a product of the Pac-12’s nine-game schedule. If Duke in the ACC had to play a nine-game schedule, chances are the Blue Devils would have had to play one of these three teams: Florida State, Clemson, or Louisville. The Blue Devils and Utes are prime illustrations of how cross-divisional schedules in a large conference can be affected by the implementation (or lack) of a nine-game league schedule.
As for TCU’s turnaround? Just read this story by Zach Barnett of Football Scoop on co-offensive coordinator Doug Meacham. The instructive point to make is that Meacham made Houston’s offense really good last season. The Cougars have regressed in his absence. The double impact of Meacham’s move — not just helping TCU, but hurting Houston — shows how skilled this coordinator really is.
On Twitter @SectionTPJ
The biggest takeaway is to adopt the advice given by Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
Let’s be honest: TCU and Utah thought that when they moved up, they could continue doing the same types of things on offense and defense that made them so successful in the Mountain West. Considering the amount of success both teams had in their final three seasons (Utah 21-3 in league play, TCU 23-0), who could blame them?
However, it didn’t work out very well for either squad. While both qualified for a bowl in their initial season in the new league, both suffered losing campaigns in the their second year (and Utah in year three as well).
Like all great coaches do, Kyle Whittingham and Gary Patterson decided to make a huge change in the offseason by shaking up their respective offenses. Utah hired former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen to run the Utes’ offense, while TCU tabbed Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie to lead the Horned Frog attack.
These hires have changed the fortunes of both teams this fall. Under Meachem and Cumbie’s tutelage, Trevone Boykin went from an athlete playing quarterback into one of the top signal callers in the nation. He ranks eighth nationally in passing yards per game (329.4) and has an amazing 21/3 TD-to-INT ratio. As a result of his improvement, the Horned Frogs lead the nation in scoring offense (50.4 points per game) and rank second nationally in total offense (573).
Similarly, Christensen has done an excellent job turning things around at Utah. While the Utes’ yardage numbers don’t compare to TCU’s, the team is quietly ranked in the top 30 in scoring offense, averaging 35.9 points per game.
The improvement of both offenses is exactly that type of adaptation that Gunny Highway would be proud of.