Can TCU navigate its now-clear playoff path?
FORT WORTH, Texas — Shortly after TCU announced its impending Big 12 membership, I took a tour of the Frogs’ facilities.
On every single screen in the building, I saw the same thing: TCU’s 2011 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin on an endless loop.
After the No. 6 Frogs’ systematic 41-20 destruction of No. 7 Kansas State on Saturday night, it might be time to switch out that Rose Bowl film for a new set of games on screens throughout TCU’s facilities.
How about Oklahoma State’s shocking double-overtime loss to Iowa State in 2011? Kansas State’s lopsided loss to Baylor in 2012 would be a nice addition, too.
If you need a third, Baylor’s 49-17 embarrassment to Oklahoma State a year ago would do fine.
OSU and Kansas State were four-touchdown favorites before smooth paths to national title shots got rocky with late-season road trips for games against opponents that looked overmatched on paper.
Baylor gave Oklahoma State the inside track to the league title in Stillwater as a 10-point favorite in 2013.
Saturday, TCU left no doubt about the better team on the field after jumping to a 14-0 first-quarter lead and never letting the Wildcats cut its lead to single digits in the final three quarters.
In six weeks, TCU played five top 20 teams and escaped with a 4-1 mark and a clear path to the playoff with only Kansas, Texas and Iowa State remaining. The Frogs will be big favorites the rest of the way, but where will TCU finish?
Will it join Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor as woulda, coulda, almost got-there Big 12 champions? Or will the Frogs avoid those fates and close out an 11-1 season with at least a share of the Big 12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoff?
"I’m not going to go for style points. We’re just going to win ball games. … It’s November. Find a way to win," Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson said. "If we don’t see what we have in front of us, I can’t help them."
What’s in front of TCU is the difference between a very good season and a season that further transforms the program’s perception in the state of Texas and more, in the world of college football.
That Rose Bowl was big. A playoff appearance would be bigger, not to mention a national title.
The Frogs spent the last month and a half laying waste to its biggest criticism when it was a Mountain West member: "Sure, you can play one big game a year, but play one every week and you’d rack up the losses."
So much for that.
The Frogs finished their brutal stretch in style, making Kansas State look a whole lot like San Diego State.
"Every week, we’re going to have to come to play because now we’ve got that bulls-eye on and everybody’s out aiming for you," said quarterback Trevone Boykin, who spent much of the fourth quarter on the bench after putting up 342 yards of offense and four touchdowns without a turnover. "It’s nothing new for us. We want that target on us."
Boykin left the game early but reinserted himself into the Heisman race with his big night, highlighted by a dive into the end zone that allowed a Kansas State defender to flip him head over heels.
"Maybe try something else next time," Boykin said TCU’s coaches told him.
Regardless, the 23-yard touchdown run put the Frogs up, 41-14, midway through the fourth quarter and gave TCU some welcome style points that Patterson says he’s not chasing.
As for TCU and the bulls-eye on its back?
The rest of the Big 12 will have its sights set on defending champion Baylor, too. If they miss both teams’ bulls-eyes in the season’s last month, TCU and Baylor will share a Big 12 title and Baylor will represent the Big 12 as the league champion to the College Football Playoff committee, by way of its 61-58 comeback win in Waco on a last-second field goal last month.
I doubt the Big 12 will make any alterations to its One True Champion slogan if it does, despite naming co-champions in two of the last three seasons if both Texas teams win out.
"I don’t see any of the games they have left would mean any more than the games we have left," Patterson said.
Will the committee continue penalizing Baylor for its lackluster nonconference schedule? Or will it eventually slide Baylor ahead of the Frogs if both teams sport identical records and Baylor earns the Big 12 title belt once again with a head-to-head victory?
The next month will give us answers. TCU’s road is clear, but as recent Big 12 history has proven, as pressure intensifies and the bulls-eye grows, those smooth paths can be deceiving.