A prevailing preseason sentiment among TCU fans and media members alike had the Horned Frogs starting their season 7-0 before playing their final five games.
But after losing their leading rusher, their starting quarterback and other key players, those predictions seem to be wishful thinking. It almost seemed unfair to expect them to keep winning, playing with freshmen in key roles in a new and tougher league.
Despite all the challenges, however, 23rd-ranked TCU (5-1, 2-1 in the Big 12) has managed to arrive at this date with No. 17 Texas Tech just a game behind schedule. Those preseason prognosticators figuring on a Frogs' win over a Texas Tech team coming off a 5-7 season didn't expect a Red Raiders resurgence.
And surge Tech has. The Red Raiders (5-1, 2-1) meet the Frogs at 2:30 p.m. today at Amon G. Carter Stadium on the heels of their 49-14 thumping of West Virginia. Not only is Tech's effective pass offense back with a vengeance, its defense, which ranked 114th out of 120 FBS schools a year ago, enters today's game fourth in the country. Today is the first time TCU and Tech have met as conference rivals since 1995, the Southwest Conference's final season.
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"You'd have to say they've played, up to this point, better than we have," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "The common opponent is Iowa State and they beat them on the road."
TCU lost at home to the Cyclones in quarterback Trevone Boykin's first start, but the Frogs rebounded last week with an impressive win at Baylor as Boykin passed for 261 yards and four touchdowns.
"They're very physical," Patterson said. "It's going to be an interesting thing to see how [Boykin] grows playing a defense like Tech. And it's going to be very interesting to see us as a defense play an offense like Tech."
Yes, interesting is one word for it. Season-defining is another option. Today's winner remains a viable candidate to contend for the Big 12 title. The loser is likely to be, at best, relegated to a third- or fourth-place finish. Both still play first-place Kansas State, Tech next week in Manhattan, Kan., and TCU on Nov. 10 in Fort Worth.
"I really love playing in this conference," TCU cornerback Jason Verrett said. "Anybody can beat anybody."
The way TCU beat Baylor last week offers a blueprint for today. The Frogs, who lead the nation with 14 interceptions, picked off four passes and forced two fumbles. Conversely, TCU's offense had no turnovers and controlled the clock by more than double.
Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege is in the top 20 in total offense and is seventh in passing efficiency. But he's thrown seven interceptions, including six in Tech's past three games.
"I think the team that can create takeaways and get stops will be critical," Patterson said. "Playing in these kinds of games you're down to not giving up big plays and how you play in the red zone. We have a tough challenge on our hands. We're playing a good football team. They're running the ball better, they're physical up front. Their quarterback is doing a great job. He doesn't make bad decisions."
Patterson has tried to rally fans to be especially vocal today for the type of game that many envisioned when TCU was invited to join the Big 12 -- a Texas neighbor coming to Fort Worth with the season, in some ways, in the balance.
Other big home games are ahead with Kansas State and Oklahoma, but today's meeting is the lone home state opponent to invade Frogs turf in 2012.
"It's a really big game and it's going to be packed," TCU receiver Skye Dawson said. "We have to come out just like it's any other game and ignore all that hype."
Patterson is trying his best to take the long view with such a young, inexperienced roster and in light of the rash of injuries. Last year, injuries contributed to Tech's troubles after a 4-0 start. The Red Raiders lost their last five games and only one of them was close.
"Well, I hope we learned from last year because we are pretty much around the same part of the season," Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville told reporters this week. "We did something nobody else thought we could do and we didn't win another game. We're a better team than we were last year, but we're also a target. When you're ranked as high as we are now and people see what you've done, you're going to get their A-game."
Said Patterson: "Last year they lost running backs, had injuries, kind of like we have. It's almost like we're on probation without scholarships right now."
So far, a patch-work collection of talented freshmen and older players have stuck together and kept the Frogs in the hunt. Today's outcome is likely to indicate how long that will last.