Building depth, battling adversity part of growth at TCU, Michigan State

FORT WORTH, Texas -- TCU and Michigan State have spent all season hearing about what they're lacking.

They've lacked polish in their normally pristine defenses. They've lacked dominance against teams many think they should clobber. They've lacked players, as injuries and other issues have decimated both teams' depth charts. They've lacked the look of a top-five team, which they both were at the end of last season.

But here's what TCU and Michigan State aren't lacking: wins. Both teams are 7-0 and very much alive for the College Football Playoff. Their ability to win amid dramatic personnel issues underscores how far they've come in their climb up college football's food chain.

The elite programs overcome these types of challenges, and TCU and Michigan State want to carve out permanent places in college football's aristocracy. This season and these challenges are providing a litmus test of whether they're here to stay.

"Thankfully we've done a great job building this up, like TCU, they've built that thing up for years," Michigan State offensive line coach Mark Staten said. "That's stability, that's depth. The results aren't as flashy as they've been in the last couple years. But it's even more impressive what we've done it without.

"It'd be interesting to see some other programs, if they were able to face these issues, would they plug in and go, or would they waver and fall?"

Top-down stability has helped both TCU and MSU hold firm. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio is in his ninth year, the third-longest tenure in the Big Ten. TCU's Gary Patterson is in his 15th season, the fourth-longest tenure in the FBS.

Both coaches note that their teams would have had a harder time navigating these obstacles earlier in their tenures.

"There's a strong foundation," Patterson said. "There's a toughness part of what a TCU team's about. We've overcome adversity because we've prepared for adversity.

"But if you told me before the season that I [was] going to have to basically play seven DBs and four defensive linemen, and be 7-0, I'd probably tell you you're crazy."

Patterson knew it would be a challenge on defense even before TCU lost four projected starters to season-ending injuries, one to a leave of absence, one to a suspension that has since ended and two others to non-season-ending injuries. He expected an offense returning 10 starters, including quarterback Trevone Boykin, to "carry us early" and allow the defense to develop.

But the attrition left TCU visiting Texas Tech on Sept. 26 with only one defender who had started last year's Peach Bowl -- safety Derrick Kindred. The Frogs surrendered 52 points and 607 yards but still emerged victorious, thanks to huge performances by quarterback Boykin, wide receiver Josh Doctson and running back Aaron Green, who combined for the play of the year in college football -- until Michigan State topped it last week against Michigan.

TCU followed a similar script two weeks later at Kansas State, rallying from a 35-17 halftime deficit. The stat sheet bled with penalties (11) and first downs allowed (28), an unfamiliar winning formula for a TCU team that led the Big 12 in points allowed and yards allowed last season.

"The only other year the offense carried the season was 2004, but we didn't win enough ballgames to go to a bowl game," Patterson said of a 5-6 Frogs team. "To see it shift and win it the other way speaks miles of what our program has grown.

"At the end of the day, people just see your record."

Michigan State's 24-3 surge the past two seasons occurred without significant personnel setbacks. But the Spartans lost senior linebacker Ed Davis to a season-ending knee injury in August.

Other injuries soon followed: promising freshman cornerback Vayante Copeland (fractured vertebra), starting safety RJ Williamson (torn biceps), starting tight end Josiah Price (ankle). All-Big Ten left tackle Jack Conklin hurt his knee in Week 4, only to be replaced by Dennis Finley, who broke his leg in Week 5.

Even MSU's biggest win came with a cost, as Jalen Watts-Jackson suffered a fractured and dislocated hip on the game-winning return at Michigan.

"You can't use excuses," Dantonio said. "Nobody wants to hear, 'This guy was hurt, or this guy.' Nobody's buying that. You just keep playing and you build the expectations that somebody's going to get hurt at some point in time and you keep moving.

"As much as anything, it's the belief system that everything's going to be OK."

MSU's personnel losses have had an effect. The celebrated "No Fly Zone" secondary no longer has an empty radar, as the Spartans rank 75th nationally in yards per completion allowed (12.3) and 83rd in percentage of completions for first downs or touchdowns (56.8). After producing first-round draft picks at cornerback the past two seasons, MSU now lacks a lockdown cover man.

Last week, the Spartans started two true freshmen, Khari Willis and Grayson Miller, at safety.

"Two freshmen at the Michigan game, first time starting, no panic," Dantonio said. "Everybody basically has injuries in football, it's part of it. And everybody needs to adjust. That's the norm."

This season has brought a new normal for both teams and both coaches. Patterson and Dantonio are among the nation's top defensive minds, but their mere presence isn't enough to work magic with banged-up groups.

Like TCU, Michigan State has leaned on its offense, its senior quarterback (Connor Cook), its top receiver (Aaron Burbridge) and a talented line.

The Spartans couldn't make the jump from good to great the past two years without an upgraded offensive line, but this season has tested the group. Three opening-day starters -- Conklin, center Jack Allen and right tackle Kodi Kieler -- have missed games with injuries. Staten has started five line combinations in the first seven games. He's hoping Allen (ankle) can return Saturday against Indiana.

"I was looking at the starting lineups for Michigan," Staten said. "They've been blessed to start the same O-line every week. I thought to myself: 'What the heck am I doing wrong? I'm reading the Bible, trying to go to church when I can.'

"But the overall feeling of this group is it doesn't matter; the piece of the puzzle, we're going to make it fit."

Michigan State and TCU both have proved to be survivors. But can they become champions? Tougher tests await both teams, particularly TCU, which faces No. 14 Oklahoma State, No. 17 Oklahoma and No. 2 Baylor during a four-week span in November.

Patterson expects the defense to improve, and extra prep time should help, as TCU plays just once between last Saturday and Nov. 7. He's encouraged that the Frogs are still holding up on third down (third in the Big 12 in conversion percentage) and sacks (tied for third in the league).

But he's not naïve to TCU's changing reality.

"In the old offense, we'd play it close to the vest, we'd play defense and we'd beat them 21-17," he said. "At least this season, that's not possible. We're doing it with offense. We've been carried a little bit by Josh Doctson and Trevone Boykin, but at some point in time, they're not going to have a great game, and we've got to be prepared that we can do the rest of it."

It has been a treacherous road so far for TCU and Michigan State, but both still see their preseason goals straight ahead. The talk about what they lack isn't going away, but a playoff berth and a run at a national title will yield something more important.

A permanent place at the head table.

"It may not be as pretty," Patterson said, "but it doesn't mean we can't be one of the top four teams. You can be strong enough on one side of the ball, and it still counts. It doesn't matter how you do it."