Gil LeBreton

For Frogs, it’s a make-or-break date with Oklahoma

A holding penalty here, a pass interference call there.

A would-be game-winning touchdown catch gets nullified because the receiver first stepped out of bounds. A would-be game-winning field goal gets blocked.

And next thing the TCU Horned Frogs knew, they were off the college football radar. Down there with the Central Michigans and the San Diego States. Down in “also receiving votes” limbo.

A solid second half at SMU last Friday night allowed the Frogs to climb back into the national polls this week. TCU is 21st in The Associated Press rankings.

But there’s a lot of lawn still to mow and a lot of hills to climb.

Might as well start against the Big 12’s perennial measuring stick, Oklahoma.

“Conference title-wise, most years you have to go through Norman,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said Tuesday.

But therein lies the Big 12 Conference’s dilemma this season. A balanced conference usually comes at the expense of Oklahoma and Texas.

In the AP poll, the Longhorns are ranked 22nd, right behind TCU, this week. The Sooners are listed among the “others.”

The national perception, therefore, is that the Big 12 is again in disarray. Oklahoma’s losses to Houston and Ohio State underscored that perception.

On a national radio network this week, the commentators were discussing who, if anyone, could still emerge as a title hopeful from the Big 12.

There was an awkward silence, before one of the radio guys said, almost apologetically, “Baylor?”

The Bears, indeed, are 4-0 against a schedule of teams with a combined record of 4-12. Baylor’s likely defining stretch will come soon enough, when four weeks from now the Bears will face, in order, Texas, TCU and Oklahoma.

I have little clue how good Baylor is. The Bears’ strength of schedule is just too thin.

But TCU can insert its foot back into the national playoff picture Saturday with a victory over the Sooners.

“They’re a very talented football team, obviously,” Patterson said. “They’re very well coached. Coach [Bob] Stoops has been there a long time and does a great job.”

Typically, it was as close to bulletin board material as Patterson could give.

In his 16th season, though, he realizes how pivotal Saturday’s game will be. A victory over Oklahoma would be a stunning, early-round knockout of the conference’s preseason favorite. It could also vault the Frogs back into the national discussion.

When he was asked on Twitter this week whether he envisioned any Big 12 team fighting its way back into the College Football Playoff picture, my old friend Kirk Herbstreit answered with this:

“Be very surprised. Although I think TCU still has a shot if they win out. Don’t see anyone else winning out.”

Say this for Herbie: He does his homework. I’d probably be napping on that chartered jet he takes each week.

Herbstreit watches the games. He has the proper feel for the Big 12’s dilemma. He also is the rare TV guy who can mentally measure the weekly trends — who’s hot, who’s not.

And Patterson’s team is getting warmer by the week.

“You can tell our guys are better now than they were four weeks ago, trying to get ready for South Dakota State,” Patterson said Tuesday.

“It’s taken us a little while for our guys to grow up and start playing together. But we seem to have played defensively a little bit better every week. Last week we tackled better.”

Under Patterson, the TCU defense often ripens as the season goes on.

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