BIGGEST STRENGTH — Defensive Line
It all starts up front for the Horned Frogs, who return nine starters from a defense that was probably the Big 12's best a season ago (TCU was first in total defense, second in scoring defense, but third in Defensive S&P+). That defensive line was responsible for the nation's 11th best defense in rushing S&P+, and just as importantly, the country's 10th best defense in passing downs S&P+. That means the Horned Frogs were not just shutting down opposing rushing attacks, but they were slamming the door closed when getting teams behind the chains. The latter factor can be largely attributed to the way that defensive end Devonte Fields harried opposing passers. But an undersold part of Fields's game was the way that he chased down running backs. He led the Big 12 in tackles for loss with 18.5, with 10 of those coming on sacks. People will make a big deal about the loss of Stansly Maponga leaving for the NFL, but Maponga was seldom healthy a year ago, and the Horned Frogs appear to have solid replacements on-hand in James McFarland and Jon Koontz. But while Fields might be the best returning player on the defense — it's tight between he and Jason Verrett, the Big 12's top cover corner — the best overall position on D might be at defensive tackle. TCU returns four players who have started at least five games over the past two seasons. Chucky Hunter is the headliner … he's a returning second-team All-Big 12'er. Running mate Davion Pierson started 11 games a year ago and made 36 tackles, including 7.5 in the backfield and 3.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman. That allowed the Horned Frogs to bring David Johnson — who had seven tackles for loss and three sacks as a nine-game starter in 2011 — off the bench as a key rotation guy. Jon Lewis started four games last year and was a member of the All-Mountain West Freshman Team two years ago. And don't sleep on bulked-up end Terrell Lathan, who should factor in because of his athleticism.
BIGGEST QUESTION — Linebacker
When you play two linebackers, and one of them is gone, that qualifies as somewhat of a question mark, particularly with 1) the blows to depth that TCU took at this position heading into last year and 2) when the player you have to replace is leading tackler Kenny Cain. Cain had 86 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks a year ago, while making two interceptions. That performance helped him earn a spot on the All-Big 12 second team, while the AP tapped him as a first-teamer. But a big part of the reason that this is the biggest question mark is simply that TCU doesn't have too many of them. Cain was outstanding, but TCU returns second-leading tackler Joel Hasley, who made 79 stops and 8.5 tackles for loss last year. Additionally, TCU appeared to get a lift this spring from rising junior Marcus Mallet, who had 18 tackles and five tackles for loss a year ago. Asking Mallet to be Cain would be a tall order, but with the bevy of talent around him, Mallet doesn't have to be Cain.
BREAKOUT STAR — McFarland
McFarland was one of the players who blew up this spring, looking like a potential pass-rushing star opposite Fields. And if the 6-foot-3, 248-pound sophomore can fill that role this fall, he should be in for a big season. With Fields certainly dealing with a number of double (at least) teams, it will be up to McFarland to progress and pressure quarterbacks from the left end spot. McFarland played limited reps a year ago, making six tackles, including a half-sack. Expect him to produce that in a single game this year. TCU has done well in the past by taking speedy outside linebacker types and turning them into edge-bending guys on passing downs. And with McFarland racking up 16 sacks in his last two years at West Monroe (La.) High School, he's shown that kind of potential.
KEY EARLY ENROLLEE — Bryson Burtnett
Burtnett was an outstanding find, and get for the TCU staff on the recruiting trail, serving as one of the top tight ends in the region — Fox Sports NEXT and Scout.com rated him as the No. 5 tight end in Texas and the 40th best tight end in the country. And after hauling in 19 passes and making 37 tackles in his senior year at Springtown, he enrolled early in Fort Worth. Burtnett doesn't figure to be a huge factor right away at tight end, but he's already listed as the team's top deep snapper. That's a quick ticket to a non-redshirt year. And with none of the other early enrollees holding down a high spot on the depth chart, that leaves Burtnett as the default choice here.
Big 12 Championship. That's the expectation on a team that not only returns a bevy of talent — including the league's best returning defense — but also a squad that adds prolific passer Casey Pachall back to the fold. Trevone Boykin had a nice season as a redshirt freshman, but there are few who believe that TCU was better off playing without a quarterback who entered 2012 on just about every possible award watch list. Pachall is expected to win the battle there, though Boykin should still play, especially in select packages. Can Pachall regain his early 2012 form, when he was on-pace for (projected over 13 games) 3,081 yards and 33 touchdown passes to three interceptions? He should have plenty of offensive weapons around him, and with the Horned Frog defense looming, if Pachall can simply move the chains and avoid turning the ball over, TCU should be in a great spot. With the exception of a three-overtime loss to Texas Tech, when the Horned Frogs lost, it was because the offense let them down, scoring under 20 points in losses to Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Michigan State, while five turnovers led to a 37-23 loss at Iowa State in Boykin's first game. The Frogs will certainly be battle tested by the time they get to Big 12 play — they open the season with LSU in Arlington. TCU must travel to Stillwater to play one of the Big 12 favorites in Oklahoma State, but the Frogs get Texas at home.