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As playoff hopes dim for Big 12, TCU sets pace in tight league race

During the wee hours of Sunday morning, while most of America slept, the Big 12 took another giant step toward removing itself from the College Football Playoff race.

That is when Texas joined forces with Oklahoma in surrendering a combined 95 points in late-night losses to notable nonconference opponents that say a lot about the quality of Big 12 football this season. And this is the message: The Big 12, as of mid-September, has no worthy contenders for college football’s postseason playoff bracket.

The Longhorns (2-1) and Sooners (1-2) reinforced those points in losses to California and Ohio State, respectively. Texas fell 50-43 and dropped to No. 21 in Sunday’s updated Associated Press poll. Oklahoma was pounded 45-24 in its own stadium and fell to No. 25.

The setbacks continued a three-week run of struggles by league members in September statement games that will have significant carryover during CFP deliberations in November. This ugly historic precedent also surfaced: Per ESPN research, this will be the first week the Big 12 has no teams ranked among the top 15 in the AP poll since the league began play in 1996.

As things stand, No. 16 Baylor (3-0) looms as the league’s banner carrier for playoff inclusion heading into Week Four games. And the Bears, in three victories over September softies, have not flashed much playoff mettle unless you’ve been watching videotape through green-and-gold goggles.

0 Weeks, until this one, that the Big 12 had failed to land at least one team in the top 15 of The Associated Press college football rankings since the league’s inception in 1996. That changed Sunday when No. 16 Baylor surfaced as the league’s top-ranked team.

That means it is time for Big 12 fans to take a hard look at the conference race, rather than the national championship chase, in relation to their teams. All signs point toward crowning a league champion that will be hard-pressed to finish better than 9-3 or 10-2 during the regular season.

That’s not playoff material but it should make for some entertaining Saturdays between now and Dec. 3. That brings us back to TCU (2-1, 1-0 in Big 12), which stands alone atop the league standings after Saturday’s 41-20 victory over Iowa State (0-3, 0-1) in the Big 12 opener for both schools.

The win did not trigger any glowing remarks from TCU coach Gary Patterson, who cited two areas where his team is falling short in efforts to secure a very winnable Big 12 title: emotion and execution.

Despite allowing season lows of 355 yards and 20 points to ISU, Patterson was not pleased that the Cyclones’ sluggish offense ran more plays (83) than TCU’s more polished attack (72). TCU’s defense took the field for five Cyclones possessions in the first quarter.

“You can’t win many championships when you have to play that many defensive series in the first quarter,” Patterson said. “We gave up too many yards. Against that offense, we probably should have played less than 60 plays.”

In berating his team for a lack of emotion, Patterson said: “The big games take care of themselves [emotionally]. You’ve got to get ready for the games you’re supposed to win. You’ve got to get ready if you want to be the Big 12 champs.”

There you have it: Two references to winning a Big 12 championship aimed at this team, which will be unranked when the Frogs meet SMU (2-1) in Friday’s nonconference contest in Dallas. Win or lose, TCU will carry league title hopes into its next home game, Oct. 1 against OU. So will the Sooners, the defending league champs who are idle this week.

So will every Big 12 team except Iowa State and Kansas (1-2), it would appear. From three weeks of evidence, the Big 12 includes eight teams capable of playing like a Top 25 squad on any given week but not every week. As long as all eight follow TCU’s lead and treat the Cyclones and Jayhawks as low-hanging fruit on the league schedule, we’ll have a fascinating race to the finish line for a Big 12 title.

The big games take care of themselves (emotionally). You’ve got to get ready for the games you’re supposed to win. You’ve got to get ready if you want to be the Big 12 champs. TCU football coach Gary Patterson

But not for a CFP berth. The league does not need a “13th data point” to illustrate that in 2016. Three weeks of data points have been enough. Only a marked improvement by the eventual Big 12 champion, coupled with backslides by playoff hopefuls from other leagues, can change that.

That happened for Ohio State in 2014. Don’t hold your breath, but the same could happen for a Big 12 champion that closes with steam in 2016.

Patterson knows he has two weeks to make the necessary improvements to give TCU an opportunity to be that team by beating OU. A return to health by three players who left the Iowa State game with injuries (receiver KaVontae Turpin, defensive end Josh Carraway, cornerback Jeff Gladney) would help but their availabilities remain unknown.

What is known: Patterson wants more energy from players than he saw against Iowa State. Running back Kyle Hicks, who rushed for 117 yards and scored two TDs against the Cyclones, predicted that will happen Friday night against rival SMU (7 p.m., ESPN).

“I would hope emotion’s not an issue. It’s a rivalry game,” said Hicks, who agreed that the TCU sideline was too quiet against ISU. “We have to come with it because we know they’re going to come ready to play. We’ll definitely be ready.”

There is, after all, a Big 12 title to be won by somebody. And TCU, for at least one more week, is leading that chase.

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