What happened to TCU football this season? Experts chime in on Horned Frogs’ struggles

The struggles of TCU have been well documented, but sometimes a fresh, outside perspective is needed.

Ahead of the Horned Frogs’ marquee matchup with No. 7 Texas on Saturday, the Star-Telegram reached out to various experts to get their take on what’s gone wrong with TCU football since last year’s magical season.

After competing for the national title in January, TCU faces an uphill climb just to reach a bowl game with a 4-5 record.

From award-winning reporters to a former player, here’s where they think things went for the Horned Frogs:

Shehan Jeyarajah, CBSSports

Jeyarajah is a national college football reporter for CBSSports. He recently won first place in the Football Writers of America Association best writing contest for enterprise stories. Jeyarajah is a Baylor alum who covered the Bears under Art and Kendal Briles.

On TCU’s struggles this year: “When you look at the run they had last year, it was going to be tough to replicate. This was such a senior heavy team, a group that had been through the mud. When you look at the offensive side of the ball, a lot of that left. Max Duggan, Quentin Johnston and the two interior offensive linemen, I mean there were a lot of holes heading into this year.

“When you look back at the Big 12 the last couple of years, there’s always been a team that’s kind of ridden close game luck to the Big 12 title game. It was Baylor in 2021, 2020 it was Iowa State, 2019 it was Baylor, 2018 it was Texas. You look at them that next year and most them finished right around .500. So it’s definitely a tough thing to replicate.”

How TCU’s offense has looked: “I think a lot of the issues are just growing pains with the system. You’re seeing it happen at Oklahoma and to some extent at Tennessee without Hendon Hooker. Going back to my team covering those mid-2010s Baylor teams and they had really good offensive line play and good run blocking. The whole system is built on spacing you out and the creating running lanes in that space.

“Well TCU hasn’t had that dynamic outside threat to spread the field and I think the other part is this hasn’t been a very good run blocking team. The success has still been there moving the ball between the 20s, but when you get into the red zone it just hasn’t worked. Max Duggan was a huge red zone player for them last year and they just don’t have it this year.”

Does TCU need to make a change on defense? “I don’t know whether they need to go and make a change, but I think Joe Gillespie needs to come up with a new plan. When you look at the Big 12 teams are getting heavier and running more heavier sets with more tight ends. The 3-3-5 is a system built take away more pace and space offenses. I think the league is changing and can Gillespie change with it or is he more of a system guy? I think that’s the question Sonny Dykes needs to find an answer to this offseason.”

Joel Anderson, Slate

Anderson played for TCU in 1996-98 and has gone on to have a successful media career with stops at ESPN, the Tampa Bay Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Buzzfeed among others.

State of the program: “They won all these one-score games [in 2022] and as it was happening I was like ‘This is great, I’m glad TCU won,’ but it sort of obscures the deeper problems within the program like the fact they couldn’t exert their will on anybody. Except the Oklahoma and Iowa State game they never really put anybody away and that’s the sign of a truly dominant team and they never did that. Coming into this year I knew they would struggle.

“If you look at [Sonny Dykes’] teams at SMU, they tend to start fast and then things fall apart as the season goes along. The thing that was surprising to me is they didn’t even come out of the gate strong this year. This year they’ve looked as sloppy and undisciplined as you would normally expect from his teams in November. For that reason I was always wary of Dykes. No disrespect to him, but I just always thought TCU could do better.’

On offensive coordinator Kendal Briles: “I thought that there was no excuse to bring him in, like we know what went down at Baylor. Some of the things he said like trying to entice Black recruits with white women on campus, that’s just really ugly and beyond the pale. I just didn’t think that was a guy that deserved to wear our purple.

“On the field, he’s okay. With the offense I see they can move the ball and put up a lot of yards, but there’s a lot of people running that style of offense now, there’s other coordinators out there that can do what Kendal Briles does and I just didn’t think he was so special that we had to have him.”

Is there any momentum left from last year? “I mean it’s over. The championship game was a tremendous embarrassment and ordinarily you don’t wanna say that because getting there is an accomplishment and it was great to have TCU in front of the world. But everything that’s happened since then has been a disaster. Like you lose that game in a way that confirms everybody’s worst notions of TCU. That we’re not talented enough, that we don’t belong up there with the big boys.

“Then you open this season up and lose to college expansion team like Colorado and it’s just like what’s the direction here? All the enthusiasm and positive vibes before the Big 12 title game are gone. Recruiting is not going very well, we’re [33rd] in the country behind teams we shouldn’t be [Purdue, Minnesota].”

Lack of national interest: “It’s been kind of weird that I don’t think anybody nationally cares. I haven’t seen the big College GameDay piece about what’s wrong with TCU. I listen to a bunch of college football podcasts through the week and none of them have dedicated any time to what’s going at TCU. That’s to me the most troubling thing, it would be better if more people were curious, but it just kind of seems like people have accepted TCU has fallen back into the pack. Whatever boost we got from starting 12-0 seems to have dissipated.”

Sam Khan Jr., The Athletic

Khan is a college football reporter for The Athletic that focuses on the entire state of Texas. He previously covered college football for ESPN and worked at the Houston Chronicle.

How surprising TCU’s season has been: “Yeah, very much. I was one of the ones that was really high on them coming into the year. I looked at the schedule and thought this team could potentially start 6-0 just based on the talent. When I’ve watched the team play, even though they’re struggling, the personnel is good. I still think there’s talent on that roster.

I did not expect them to be sitting here in November and having questions about what’s wrong with TCU. I thought they probably would’ve been a eight- or nine-win team ... and possibly be in the Big 12 championship race.”

Thoughts on the TCU’s defense: “I don’t have any huge issues with the scheme. You saw Gillespie do well with it at Tulsa and a lot of teams around the country are running this scheme. It can be effective when done right. I think they lost some really key guys that have been hard to replace and I think to a certain degree they haven’t mastered it to an extent.

“And who does that fall on, obviously some degree on the coaches. I’m not ready to give up on it yet, I’m not ready to say this defense doesn’t work and flush it. Improving personnel is really where it starts.”

The QB room: “I know they were very high on Josh Hoover and you see some flashes of it. You’ve seen some throws he can make that are really impressive. You hate to see Chandler getting hurt again, but I did see some flaws. There were times really in the season where I felt he was locking on to receivers, particularly in the red zone.

“But I think in a perfect world, you bring in a transfer next year just to compete. But I’m really high on Hauss Hejny, their 2024 recruit. I think he’s a terrific player and is a fit of what they do offensively, assuming they stick with it. I went to see him at the Elite 11 regional in Austin and watching him throw against four-star guys, he threw one of the best balls of anybody there.

“He can spin it, he’s accurate and is a tremendous athlete. He’s not the biggest guy, he’s a small frame guy, but if you can protect him and he’s durable then it’s not as big a deal as 10-15 years ago. The future of the position is bright with him.”

TCU’s place in the new Big 12: “I don’t think it is a disaster when you have a bad season like this because this new Big 12 is going to be wide open, so just because you have one bad year, it’s not going to be crippling to a program. I don’t think it slows down the momentum of TCU’s athletic program in general. There’s a recognition that you can win at a really high level there.

“There’s a lot to like about TCU. You have really good facilities, they’re doing a lot in terms of improving the program’s infrastructure and they’re positioned in a great recruiting footprint. I think the overall momentum of the athletic program and the school exists, but to go from a national championship game to possibly not making a bowl game, that stinks.”