TCU Horned Frogs Have Silenced the Skeptics
NCAA Week 13 - The TCU Horned Frogs capped off an undefeated regular season with an emphatic blowout victory over Iowa State on Saturday, racing out to a 24-0 lead in the first 15 minutes and doubling that lead over the final three quarters to win by a final score of 62-14. The Cyclones finished a disappointing year in last place in the Big 12, so this wasn't exactly TCU's toughest test. But it was still the Horned Frogs' best opponent-adjusted overall game rating of their remarkable year, and one of the best single-game results of the season. They are the first Big 12 team to run the table in the regular season since the conference pivoted to a full round-robin regular season format in 2011, and they'll become the first team ever to win 10 games against Big 12 opponents with a victory in the conference championship game against Kansas State this weekend.
Count me among the skeptics that have been anticipating a stumble somewhere along this run. Four weeks ago, I wrote that no team in the Big 12 was likely to run the table in November, and that my FEI game projections gave TCU a better chance of a 1-3 finish (16%) than a 4-0 finish (10%) this month. The Horned Frogs flirted with disaster and escaped Baylor in Week 12, but the Week 13 punctuation mark against Iowa State has them in position to now claim a College Football Playoff berth that I never would have anticipated at the start of the year. Back in August, my projected FEI ratings had TCU ranked 60th overall, with a projected regular season win total of 5.2, a 0.3% chance of winning 10 games, and a 0.0% chance of being a legitimate playoff contender. Consider those cold takes fully exposed.
As a program, TCU has a strong history of ceiling-shattering success, but the 2022 season still came out of nowhere. From 2018 to 2021, the Horned Frogs never won more than six FBS games in a season and bottomed out last year with an overall FEI ranking of No. 84, low-lighted by disastrous defensive efficiency metrics. Following Gary Patterson's exit, TCU brought in Sonny Dykes from SMU, a program that was more reliably consistent than TCU over the same stretch but hadn't enjoyed any breakthrough elite success in his tenure. Dykes didn't flip the roster entirely by opening transfer portal floodgates to jumpstart the transition, though they did shore up key areas of need. More importantly, the new staff found ways to max out the veteran roster already in Fort Worth, most notably senior quarterback (and Davey O'Brien Award finalist) Max Duggan and junior wide receiver (and Blietnikoff Award semifinalist) Quentin Johnston. If their current efficiency ratings hold, this season would be TCU's first since 2014 with top-25 opponent-adjusted efficiency ratings on both sides of the ball.
That TCU made conference history in this particular Big 12 season is especially noteworthy. This is not a top-heavy league where a couple of contenders can feast on a handful of conference bottom-feeders, then gear up for only a couple of tentpole matchups sprinkled through the year. Every single Big 12 team has an above-FBS-average FEI rating at the end of the regular season, nine of 10 are ranked in the top 50, and six of 10 are ranked among the top 35. TCU leads the nation with nine wins against FEI top-50 opponents, and no other team that has played nine top-50 opponents has won more than seven. TCU already has bagged a very worthy playoff résumé.
That could be important because, womp womp, TCU may have its hands full on Saturday against Kansas State. The Wildcats did not avoid the weekly pitfalls as nimbly as TCU did this season, but their peak performances have been every bit as impressive. Can TCU repeat its 38-28 Week 8 victory performance over Kansas State, or could that result be flipped this weekend and throw a bit of chaos into the final playoff committee proceedings? My FEI game projections (yes, based on the same imperfect formula referenced above) give the Wildcats a slight edge to avenge that regular-season loss and claim the conference crown.
And ... here's that statistical skepticism creeping back in. Time to prove FEI wrong again, Horned Frogs. (I believe in you a little bit more than the numbers do, for whatever those instincts may be worth.)
2022 FEI Ratings (through Week 13)
Fremeau Efficiency Index ratings (FEI) are opponent-adjusted possession efficiency data representing the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) are opponent-adjusted drive efficiency data representing the per-drive scoring advantage a team unit would be expected to have against an average opponent unit. Net drive efficiency (NDE) is the sum of offensive drive efficiency and defensive drive efficiency data representing scoring value earned by offense and defense units per drive. Strength of schedule ratings represent the expected number of losses an elite team two standard deviations better than average would have against each team's schedule to date (ELS), the expected number of losses a good team one standard deviation above average would have against the schedule to date (GLS), and the expected number of losses an average team would have against the schedule to date (ALS). Ratings for all 131 teams are found here, and expanded ratings including projected win totals are found here.