Josh Boyce and the rest of the TCU wide receivers were all sharing a laugh as they walked off the practice field.
Freshman offensive tackle Aviante Collins and others were chatting it up as they unwound, enjoying another practice being in the books.
And coach Gary Patterson was as serene as he's been in some time after that practice on Wednesday while discussing the Horned Frogs' task at hand, traveling to Oklahoma State for a 2:30 p.m. game today at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla.
TCU (5-2, 2-2 in the Big 12) is in the same spot it was a year ago after seven games, which also included a last-minute defeat (Baylor) and a loss in overtime (SMU). The Frogs finished with six consecutive wins, including a bowl victory in their final season in the Mountain West.
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But finishing similarly in 2012 is a much steeper mountain to climb. Not only are the Frogs facing Big 12 teams this year in the final third of the season, they're facing the best Big 12 teams, including three on the road.
That begins with the Cowboys (4-2, 2-1), who have dealt with injury issues similar to TCU's, but still boast many of the key players that helped win the Big 12 last season. The league's leading rusher, Joseph Randle, has 765 yards, including 6 yards per carry and eight touchdowns.
Patterson said he has tried to find the right balance with his young players, who in many cases have been forced into starting roles because of injuries and other player losses.
"You've got to push them to a point and then back up and ask them why they don't understand and how we [can] go forward," Patterson said. "Every week we've gotten better. They understand a little bit better."
So will the shortened Wednesday practice, which included taking the pads off halfway through, give TCU a lift? Was that the reason for the seemingly relaxed, but confident demeanor on display after practice?
"We'll find out Saturday. Practice just gives you a chance," Patterson said. "I thought we were a little tired [Tuesday]. We've been going for three months. It's no different than a year ago. We were sitting 5-2 right where we are. You have to go find a way to win."
Next week, TCU travels to No. 19 West Virginia, which prepares during a bye week. No. 3 Kansas State comes to Fort Worth on Nov. 10. The Frogs finish with a Thanksgiving Day game at No. 23 Texas and home Dec. 1 against No. 8 Oklahoma.
"Coach P does a fantastic job getting us fired up on the road," offensive lineman Eric Tausch said. "We're all we need when we're on the road. You don't have all the home festivities. You're just kind of more into the football game. But it shouldn't be the deciding factor in whether you win or lose. If you look at the film, one or two plays and we're undefeated. But then again, you can't look at it like that. I feel you learn more from a loss."
Patterson told his team that there's two ways of looking at an imposing crowd, such as the one today in Stillwater.
"You can look at it like they're going to bother you or you can look at it like it's part of the ambience of the gameday experience," he said. "You've got to enjoy the ambience. I've been called plenty of names before. I've had things thrown at me. It's not going to be the first time. You want to be hated."
Winning breeds the kind of "hate" Patterson is referring to. And TCU has done a lot of winning in his 12-year tenure, especially over the previous four seasons, when the Frogs went 47-5 and 30-1 in conference play.
In that stretch, TCU won plenty of huge road games against tough teams -- at Clemson and BYU in '09, at Utah in 2010, and at Boise State last season. TCU has already lost twice in the Big 12, both at home.
Despite all the changes to its roster, the Frogs were a few plays from starting 4-0, not 2-2, in the Big 12 and to Patterson and his team, "proved we can play in this league."
These final five games, in spite all of their roster issues, give TCU a chance to continue to prove what the program has always felt: We can play with the big boys.
"You can either walk out on the branch or hold onto the base of the tree," Patterson said. "You can hold onto the base of the tree your whole life and you'll know at the end of your run that you did. Or are you going to walk out knowing there's a chance of it breaking? But there's a lot of fruit out there."