MORGANTOWN — There seems to be consensus that Oklahoma and Iowa State rank at the top of the Big 12 as we enter mid-summer and the start of a new college football season grows larger and larger in the distance, while Texas, as always, casts a shadow upon the front runners.
But every conference always has a surprise team, a team that can upset the big guys and exceed preseason expectations, and in the Big 12, the popular choice is TCU, which leads to one to wonder why TCU should be gaining more momentum than West Virginia as the conference's surprise team.
247Sports.com's Josh Kosko, for example, lists the Horned Frogs as one of the most dangerous teams in the conference and "one of the most dangerous in college football."
The TCU coach, Gary Patterson, is something of a legend in southwestern football. He is acclaimed for his defensive coaching abilities and is the longest-tenured coach in the conference, which should accord him more than passing notice as he tries to rebuild his team.
This is understandable, just as understandable as it is to give Neal Brown maybe less than his due as he begins building his major college resume.
But is TCU really more dangerous than WVU? Both coaches believe they are sitting upon an improved season.
Brown's approach is a direct one coming off his first winning season at WVU and also his first bowl victory at the school. He returns most of his offensive firepower, including a 1,000-yard rusher in Leddie Brown, his starting quarterback and a young, improving offensive line that should make a big jump forward with Zach Frazier where he belongs at center and with Virginia Tech transfer Doug Nester being a big-time upgrade.
What's more, while there were losses from a Top 5 national defense, there are replacements available and Brown sees growth from players like Dante Stills, Akheem Mesidor and Josh Chandler-Semedo giving them a chance to be as good, or better, than last season.
Still, the league coaches picked them sixth — directly behind TCU.
"Well, can't control where you're at in preseason," Brown said at media day. "I'm sure there's reasons why we're there. It's like I tell our players, you either prove them right or you prove them wrong. And our goal this season is prove them wrong, and to do that you have to play better and to play better you have to practice better. That's our goal and what we're focused on. Our theme this year is to be better and that's the objective in every phase, to be better."
Brown believes his culture has taken hold and his team's chemistry has grown to the point that while there may be 120 players on the roster, they beat with one heart.
Patterson places his confidence also in his team's chemistry.
"Our group has had great chemistry," Patterson told the world at media day. "I'll give you a great example. Usually, in May, when we get done with finals our guys will leave for a couple of weeks. This May, 90% of them didn't. They stayed on their own. They lifted, ran, so you can tell where they are at, what they're doing."
That chemistry has the kind of leader he wants for it in getting back quarterback Max Duggan, a talented player.
"It will be the first time we've had a returning quarterback since 2017," Patterson pointed out.
A year ago, Duggan was coming off a big freshman season, but COVID-19 hit. He lost his spring practice, then his summer workouts, then had doctors discover a lifelong heart condition during COVID exams. That sidelined him for most of the preseason, setting him back even further.
"They basically didn't let him do anything until a week before we played against Iowa State," Patterson said.
Now he has two years of starting behind him and has had a full off-season, operates behind a veteran offensive line — TCU lost only eight seniors from its 2020 roster — and has an underrated receiving corps.
While they are very different players, Duggan and WVU's QB Will Doege have a lot more in common than just their last names beginning in D, and that is a modest approach yet a lot of confidence.
Patterson believes in his quarterback, just as his quarterback believes in himself.
"You have to talk to him," Patterson said. "The confidence level he has, yet he's very humble. It's like the NIL and his approach to it: 'It'll all take care of itself if I have the season I'm supposed to.' He's into winning, he's into team. That makes my life a lot easier."
The truth is, Patterson and Brown are very similar in their approach to putting a team together.
Listen to Patterson, and you may think you are hearing Brown.
"I think you'll find the teams that keep everything in perspective, that understand you still have to win football games, they are going to be the ones that do the best job in the season and they are going to have more opportunities," he said.
"Every year that we have had big years at TCU, more guys have been drafted and more guys have been free agents. And so, success breeds success. I don't think there's going to be any change." he continued.
He understands that Texas and Oklahoma get the star prospects, but he doesn't take that as a negative, just as Brown doesn't at WVU.
"Like I told my team the other day, how many five-stars were there on either one of those teams that played in the Super Bowl?" Patterson said. "I don't know what it was, one or two, maybe three or four, five four stars, but a lot of three stars, two stars, all the rest of it. So, I'm looking for five-star talent with two-star humor and humility and accountability and all those kinds of things that we get where we need to."
Make no doubt that one of those two teams, if not both of them, are poised to be heard in the Big 12 this year.