BIG 12 SPOTLIGHT: Tight race behind undefeated No. 4 TCU
TCU coach Gary Patterson was a month into the season before he really thought about the fact that at least one team in the Big 12 Conference championship game in December will have a loss.
A mulligan per se, though the fourth-ranked Horned Frogs don't need one so far.
With the Big 12 reaching the midpoint of league play -- the fifth of nine conference games for every team is Saturday -- the championship game matchup as of now would be TCU (7-0, 4-0 Big 12) against No. 10 Oklahoma OR No. 11 Oklahoma State OR No. 22 West Virginia OR surprising No. 25 Iowa State.
"It's a wide-open affair," Patterson said. "The best thing we can do is control our destiny and just win out."
For the first time since going to 10 teams with a round-robin conference schedule in 2011, the Big 12 will have a championship game. The top two teams in the league standings will play the first Saturday in December at AT&T Stadium, the home of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys.
Oklahoma last season was the first Big 12 team to go undefeated in the round-robin format. Had there been a championship game then, a tiebreaker would have been necessary to determine the second team. That also would have been the case the previous two out of three years.
"If you have aspirations of being in that game on championship Saturday, you can't afford to lose," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Once you've lost, which we already have, that makes it even that much harder. ... There's a lot of good teams out there, and every game's going to be competitive."
At the midpoint of the conference schedule, here are some things to watch:
FROGS ON TOP
TCU, which has already knocked off Oklahoma State and West Virginia, plays at Iowa State on Saturday. That starts a four-game stretch with three road games, including a trip to Oklahoma.
The Horned Frogs got to the Big 12 fresh off three consecutive Mountain West championships without losing a conference game. (West Virginia had shared consecutive Big East titles before coming to the Big 12 with TCU in 2012). The Frogs were co-Big 12 champs with Baylor in 2014.
They have the Big 12's top defense by allowing only 291 yards and 15 points a game. The Frogs haven't given up a touchdown their last two games.
There won't be a four-way tie for second place between those Top 25 teams after this weekend. But there could be four teams tied for the league lead.
If Iowa State (5-2, 3-1) wins its fourth straight Big 12 game, which would be the Cyclones' second upset of a top-five team in that span, it could really get crowded at the top of the standings. Iowa State won at then-No. 3 Oklahoma earlier this month.
But if TCU wins, the Frogs would remain the league's only undefeated team and no more than two teams would be tied for second place behind them.
Oklahoma State (6-1, 3-1) and West Virginia (5-2, 3-1) play in Morgantown, so one of them will get their second Big 12 loss.
Two-time defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma (6-1, 3-1) is home against Texas Tech (4-3, 1-3) before starting November with consecutive games against Oklahoma State, TCU and West Virginia.
In the past six seasons with the round-robin schedule, none of the Big 12's top two teams has had more than two conference losses. That means Texas (3-4, 2-2), which has lost consecutive Big 12 games after winning its first two under coach Tom Herman, may not be able to afford another loss if the Longhorns want to contend for a spot in the championship game. There's always one of the league's seven guaranteed bowl spots as long as the Longhorns get to six wins overall. That is also the case for Texas Tech and Kansas State (3-4, 1-3).
AT THE BOTTOM
Baylor (0-7, 0-4) has had a chance to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter in six of its games, even last week against West Virginia after trailing by 25 points. Kansas (1-6, 0-4) has suffered consecutive lopsided shutout losses on the road, 45-0 at Iowa State and 43-0 at TCU.
The Bears and Jayhawks play each other Nov. 4 in Lawrence, Kansas.