Daily Focus: Can TCU challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 title?

Jeff Dooley takes on the biggest headlines in college football, including the Big 12 frontrunners and what to expect from the Alabama O-line.

| 11 months ago
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Daily Focus: Can TCU challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 title?

Every week day in “Daily Focus,” Pro Football Focus looks at the top college football storylines and explains what they mean from a PFF perspective.

Can TCU challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 title? The Oklahoma Sooners are being considered the clear favorite to repeat as Big 12 champions in 2016, which is understandable given their returning talent. Baker Mayfield was our top-graded quarterback a year ago, running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon are both very productive, and their defensive front is one of the best in the country, led by Charles Walker.

But after the Sooners things get a little murky in the Big 12, and it could very well be that their top challenger is TCU. There are plenty of unknowns with the Horned Frogs, given they haven’t yet settled on a starting quarterback between former Texas A&M QB Kenny Hill and Foster Sawyer, and yesterday at Big 12 media days head coach Gary Patterson announced that projected starting running back Shaun Nixon would miss the entire year due to injury.

There is also a lot to like about this returning roster, however. That starts on defense with a secondary that rates as one of the top returning units in the conference and a solid group of returning front-seven players, led by Aaron Curry, who ranks in the top 10 in run-stop percentage among returning Power-5 defensive tackles.

On offense, left tackle Joseph Noteboom graded very well in pass protection, allowing just 21 total pressures and three sacks all year, good for a top-20 pass-blocking efficiency. Wide receiver KaVontae Turpin was second only to Miami’s Stacy Coley in yards per route run average from the slot last year among returning Power-5 WRs (minimum 60 percent of targets coming from the slot). All isn’t lost at the running back position following Nixon’s injury, either, as Kyle Hicks graded well as a rusher a year ago and he’ll be joined by Michigan graduate transfer Derrick Green.

The big question mark will be at quarterback, but if Hill wins the job, there are signs based on his 2014 performance with the Aggies that he could have a lot of success. We listed him on our list of potential breakout QBs on the strength of his earning the No. 21 passing grade among QBs that year – just a few points behind eventual No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston – despite playing roughly half the snaps of most of the guys ahead of him on the list. If he is able to play at that level for TCU, the Horned Frogs – who get both the Sooners and Oklahoma State at home – could be a sleeper title contender in the Big 12.

What to expect from the Alabama offensive line: The news came out Monday that Alabama has indefinitely suspended starting right guard Alphonse Taylor following his arrest for driving under the influence over the weekend.

There is more uncertainty surrounding the Crimson Tide offensive line this time of year than there usually is, and not just because of left tackle Cam Robinson’s off-field issues (it appears likely that he will start Bama’s season opener versus USC and not miss any game action). All three of the team’s returning offensive line starters earned negative grades a year ago – Robinson, Taylor and left guard-turned-center Ross Pierschbacher.

That’s not to say the Tide won’t miss Taylor for however long he misses time, as while he graded poorly in pass protection, he did earn a positive grade as a run-blocker, and at 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, he profiles as a mauler in the running game.

If Robinson begins to realize his elite potential (detailed here by colleague Steve Palazzolo), that could cover up some deficiencies elsewhere along the line. But entering fall camp, there are some significant questions along the offensive line and for the Bama offense in general.

How Dalvin Cook can get even better in 2016: Florida State’s Cook enters the season as one of the best running backs and overall players in the entire country. He was the nation’s top breakaway threat, producing 34 runs of 15 yards or more with a nation-leading 1,066 yards off of such runs, and his yards after contact per rush average ranked third in the nation.

He recently told ESPN’s Andrea Adelson about the strides he is taking to get even better entering the season.

While Cook’s descriptions mostly had to do with dealing with stacked boxes like the ones Houston employed against him in the Cougars’ upset bowl win last year, the numbers show different areas of opportunity for Cook to get better. While his rushing prowess was undeniable, he didn’t produce much as a pass-catcher. He ranks just 60th among returning backs in receiving grade (compared to his No. 5 rushing grade) and finished 61st among 72 eligible backs in drop rate, after dropping four of 28 catchable passes. But he struggled even more when asked to stay in and pass protect, ranking in the bottom 10 nationally of pass-blocking grades.

If Cook can improve his abilities in the passing game, he can further challenge Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette for the title of best running back in college football.

| Editor-in-Chief

Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.

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