For TCU, a potential berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff never has felt closer.
The Horned Frogs (8-1, 5-1 Big 12) climbed to No. 4 in Tuesday’s updated CFP rankings, inside the projected four-team mix of playoff participants.
“My thoughts? We need to finish the journey,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said after learning that the Frogs will play Saturday as the No. 4 team in the CFP rankings when they visit Kansas (3-6, 1-5).
But the Horned Frogs’ climb, which allowed them to pass No. 5 Alabama (8-1), should come with the same warning that drivers see when checking their rearview mirrors: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”
In TCU’s case, the most notable object to monitor is No. 7 Baylor. The Bears (8-1, 5-1), who share the Big 12 lead with TCU and defeated the Frogs 61-58 on Oct. 11, climbed five spots in Week 3 of the CFP rankings, released after two days of face-to-face committee meetings in Grapevine.
Unlike in past weeks, when CFP officials cited the Bears’ soft nonconference schedule as a reason to keep the Bears out of their top 10 teams, Baylor received praise Tuesday night from Jeff Long, the CFP committee chairman. Long cited Saturday’s 48-14 rout of then-No. 15 Oklahoma as a reason why the Bears are back in the national title mix following a week marked by losses for four of the top-10 teams in last week’s rankings.
Long stressed that Baylor, which has more challenging opponents left on its remaining schedule than TCU, could reel in the Frogs in the estimation of committee members if both teams finish with 11-1 records and share the Big 12 title.
“I’d say it’s possible, yes,” Long said during Tuesday’s teleconference.
But as things stand Tuesday, committee members identified TCU as a team with a better body of work than Baylor or Alabama. That thrust TCU into the middle of a shakeup that saw No. 2 Oregon (9-1) pass No. 3 Florida State (9-0), with No. 1 Mississippi State (9-0) remaining what Long called a “clear choice” as the nation’s top team.
TCU swayed committee members with its 41-20 victory over then-No. 7 Kansas State on the same night Alabama required overtime to outlast then-No. 16 LSU 20-13. Long said TCU and Alabama remain “so close, they’re almost indistinguishable” from one another in the estimation of committee members.
“That win and the way they won in comparison is what gave TCU an extremely slight edge over Alabama,” Long said. “Our approach is consistent. Strength of schedule and body of work are important.”
If Baylor continues building its body of work, which currently includes only one victory over a Top 25 opponent (TCU), Long acknowledged the separation between the Big 12 frontrunners could become small enough that the Bears’ head-to-head victory could serve as a tiebreaker in deliberations to finalize the playoff bracket on Dec. 7.
“Anything is a possibility,” Long said. “With more information, we can always arrive at a different conclusion.”
Baylor received one of Tuesday’s biggest bounces, climbing four spots to pass a two-loss team, No. 10 Ole Miss (8-2), and remaining ahead of No. 8 Ohio State (8-1), the Big Ten frontrunner. That represents a significant step because Baylor, like TCU, now finds itself among the nation’s top handful of teams with only one loss on its record.
And the Bears, like TCU, face a favorable closing stretch in efforts to post an 11-1 record and grab a share of the Big 12 title. How committee members compare the two teams over the final four weeks will be pivotal because Baylor can boost its schedule strength with late-season victories over Oklahoma State (5-4, 3-3) and No. 13 Kansas State (7-2, 5-1). TCU, meanwhile, will not face another team with a winning record.
TCU’s placement within Tuesday’s projected playoff bracket, as well as Baylor’s placement on the fringes of the playoff pool, is significant because several teams near the top of the bracket are guaranteed to lose in future head-to-head matchups.
Among them: Saturday’s Mississippi State-Alabama game; a Nov. 29 game between Mississippi State and Ole Miss; a Nov. 29 game between Alabama and No. 9 Auburn (7-2); and a Nov. 28 game between No. 6 Arizona State (8-1) and No. 14 Arizona (7-2).
In addition, second-ranked Oregon will probably face another ranked opponent in the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 5 in Santa Clara, Calif.
All of those matchups could trigger openings among the top four teams, with Baylor positioned to take advantage of other schools’ losses. TCU, at No. 4, has better control of its fate, although Long stressed that winning is not always enough to secure a team’s spot from week to week.
“We are not typical pollsters,” Long said. “We’re not just looking at who won, who lost, whether somebody lost ahead of them and moving them up. We’re evaluating them against each other, looking at many details. It’s not a polling process for us. It’s a ranking process.”
And TCU, for a third time in as many weeks, ranked favorably in the eyes of the CFP selection committee. But Baylor, for a change, is gaining ground.