TCU is picked to win the Mountain West, but are the Horned Frogs the Cadillac of the league or just a model with the best paint job?
Is TCU significantly stocked with more talent?
Are the defending champs, who return just about everybody but two starting corners, the favorite to win it all in 2006?
These are issues to be ironed out in months to come. Certainly getting BYU and Utah coming off short weeks is a TCU advantage.
Both Kyle Whittingham and Bronco Mendenhall give TCU its due — the Frogs come in as the champions. But both can certainly point to overtime losses to TCU as a testament that it's closer than it looked. Those two losses came down to a pair of controversial plays. And that gap — if there's one at all — may not be a canyon but a stretch as wide as Leon Spinks' pearly canines.
Is it so?
Well, one area where TCU may have had the edge a year ago is depth.
Mendenhall said he noticed it in how TCU spread its talent around on special-teams play.
And he should know because TCU returned a BYU kickoff for a touchdown. "That's where you see depth most readily is in caliber of players on special teams," Mendenhall said.
TCU coach Gary Patterson made several points of pride in his presentation to reporters in San Diego last month. You know, the group that underestimated his team last year? USA Today ranks the Frogs 21st in preseason.
Patterson threw out two points — to help reporters understand exactly who they're watching.
First, he noted that TCU played 63 players in the win over Oklahoma, and during the season his Frogs had a lot of kick left late in fourth quarters.
Second, "We recruit against Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Texas — and Texas just won the national championship."
OK, Gary, point made.
Utah and BYU have depth issues at different spots. For the Utes, it's at experience at linebacker and running back. For the Cougars, it is defensive line and secondary.
At TCU, when Chad Huffman opted for pro baseball, it left quarterback Jeff Ballard without much experience behind him. TCU lost corners Quincy Butler and Drew Coleman and will replace them with a pair of redshirt freshmen.
Mendenhall acknowledged the value of depth.
"We reviewed the other day on film, that at different times in the TCU game, we had nine starters on defense leave the game — not all at once — due to injuries."
Mendenhall said the difference in the MWC last season — with several teams finishing 4-4, a couple of others posting 5-3 marks and others going 3-5 — was depth.
"A key loss to a player here or there and how it changes your season is unbelievable. If those backups, wherever they may be, if they aren't capable or aren't prepared, the games are too close in this league and the teams are too evenly balanced to not have it show up on the scoreboard at the end. So, we do our best to establish and maintain depth on our team."
Mendenhall said the key to BYU winning five of six games in the middle of 2005 was depth, and the best example was finding confidence in some secondary players during that stretch.
"Was it dominating defense? Certainly not. Was it ideal? Of course not. But to find a way to win five of six, that to me was the difference — finding a way, with some depth and players making a few plays to get those wins."
Mendenhall said TCU has depth and athleticism.
The 2006 season, like 2005, may boil down to two or three plays. In 2005, those plays went TCU's way. The Frogs were a squad that led the nation in takeaways.
It would be incredible if TCU were to repeat that phenomenon — 40 forced turnovers — this season, and Patterson knows it.
But right now, on paper, team depth might be the key to the upcoming MWC title.
And TCU's got that advantage.