Every fall, unheralded college football teams play their way into the national picture. Iowa made a shockingly deep run in 2015, for example, and Penn State turned the Big Ten upside-down last year. But many more teams who surprise early end up falling away. The trick is believing in the right teams and not getting sucked in by the rest.
TCU brought some clarity last week, drilling an over-hyped Oklahoma State team, 44-31, in Stilwater. The Cowboys were ranked as high as No. 6 in the Associated Press, favored by 12, and expected by many to unseat Oklahoma as Big 12 champ. That still could happen, but now there’s a third team squarely in the conference race.
TCU is no stranger to the playoff picture. In 2014, the Horned Frogs were Big 12 co-champions — the league will have a conference championship game for the first time this season — and in line for a playoff spot before the committee abandoned them in the final week. Could this team, which is entering its bye week and has No. 23 West Virginia up next, make a serious run? To make that assessment we need to consider team, schedule and field.
Coach Gary Patterson’s teams are best known for defense. Against Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph, the Horned Frogs gave up 9.5 yards per pass play, but managed to win the turnover battle and held the Cowboys 23 points below their season scoring average.
While the Frog defense has been about as expected this season (No. 18), their offense has surprised (No. 9). Kenny Hill, a fifth-year senior who began his career at Texas A&M, is a dangerous runner, and this season he also iscompleting 70 percent of his passes. Those 44 points weren’t only because the Cowboys’ defense is so soft.
Overall we grade the performance as the seventh-best of the weekend, enough to bump TCU two spots to No. 12 in our rankings. This slots the Frogs just below Wisconsin and Georgia and just above Miami and Virginia Tech. Like those teams, the Horned Frogs aren’t conference favorites, but given the right breaks, could pull it off.
The good news is that TCU has a clear path to the Big 12 title, as well as margin for error. Because the Big 12 now has a championship game, TCU can afford to lose a game and still play for the conference championship.
Of course the Horned Frogs’ big test will be in Norman. If the game were played this weekend, the Sooners would be favored by 11 points, according to our modeling. In the most favorable simulations, we see TCU arriving at that game undefeated, squeezing the line down to 8.5. But that is unlikely, and Oklahoma will be a major hurdle regardless.
We expect TCU to be favored against every other opponent, with tests on the road at Kansas State (66-percent chance of winning) and Iowa State (79 percent), and at home against Texas (74 percent). We project them to finish the regular season 10-2, with a 29-percent chance of getting to 11-1 and a nine-percent chance of going undefeated.
The Horned Frogs are the clear No. 2 in the Big 12 now, with a 23-percent chance to win the conference. While that’s far below Oklahoma (60 percent), it’s also far above Oklahoma State (seven percent) and the rest of the conference.
TCU’s chances of making the College Football Playoff rose from eight percent last week to 15 percent. If TCU can win the Big 12, and drop no more than one game in the process, they very likely will make the four-team field. That combination will be sufficient more years than not, from any conference. But it is also the only route for the Big 12. Without divisions, the conference has little chance to place a second team in the playoff.
Alabama remains our top team, head-and-shoulders above everyone else after crushing Vanderbilt 59-0 in the most impressive win of the season. The Tide has a 71-percent chance of making the playoff, aided by a down SEC. The only other playoff contender from that conference is Georgia, who delivered a big statement with a 31-3 win over Mississippi State.
Georgia’s playoff chances are hurt by likely facing Alabama in the SEC championship game, where they currently would be a 14-point underdog. But there’s an outside chance the SEC could send both teams to the playoff. We see a 1 in 4 chance of some conference doing that this year, and the Alabama-Georgia combination is the most likely.
Oklahoma, Clemson and Ohio State held steady this week. Washington jumped Pac-12 rival Southern Cal, moving up with a 27-point win over Colorado. Wisconsin continues their quiet but seemingly inevitable march to the Big Ten title game.
So do we believe in TCU? Sure, if 10-2 counts as belief. They’re a good team, with a giant to slay in their own neighborhood. Quite similar to Georgia in the SEC, and Miami and Virginia Tech in the ACC. Odds are against any of these unheraldeds. But don’t count them all out yet.
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Michael Salfino contributed to this article.