Texas fought hard to get bowl-eligible in coach Charlie Strong's first season. After a humiliating 48-10 home loss to No. 6 TCU, the Longhorns now have to fight just to avoid a losing season.
Trevone Boykin passed for two touchdowns and ran for another, and the Horned Frogs (10-1, 7-1 Big 12, No. 5 CFP) dominated the Longhorns in forcing six turnovers — five by quarterback Tyrone Swoopes.
Already up 20-3, TCU poured it on with a 28-point fourth quarter that was both a message to the College Football Playoff committee and a reminder to Texas (6-6, 5-4) that the Longhorns are a long way from returning to Big 12 title contender status.
"We have to get better," Strong said. "You can't look at 6-6 and say you've made an improvement. ... We have to get better. We know this."
The win kept the Horned Frogs in the hunt for their first Big 12 title. The question is whether it was impressive enough to impact the playoff standings, where they sit one spot out of contention for a national championship.
TCU made Texas pay for every mistake, as turnovers led directly to 24 points for the Horned Frogs.
Defensive end Terrell Lathan scored the game's first touchdown on a 40-yard fumble return. Boykin's 10-yard scoring run in the fourth came after a muffed punt return. Defensive end Josh Carraway returned an interception for the final touchdown.
"I knew I wasn't playing well," Swoopes said. "Turning the ball over is never good. It just kind of got to me a little bit."
TCU plays Iowa State, the last-place team in the Big 12, to end the regular season on Dec. 6. The playoff pairings will be announced the next day.
"You want style points? The style points tonight were defense, turnovers, doing the things you needed to do," TCU coach Gary Patterson said.
The move to the Big 12 was supposed to end the national debate over whether the Horned Frogs deserved a place among college football's elite if they were in position to win the league. The prospect of winning the Big 12 title and still getting left out of the playoff would be a bitter pill for the Horned Frogs.
Their major problem? A 61-58 loss at Baylor in which they squandered a big fourth-quarter lead.
And the Horned Frogs left plenty of room for doubt when they struggled to beat a struggling Kansas team two weeks ago. They came to Austin facing plenty of national skepticism and a surging Texas squad that had won three in a row behind one of the Big 12's best defenses.
"If you didn't know anything about us, you'd have thought we were a 5-7 team," Boykin said. "They were talking about us like we hadn't done anything. It kind of ticked us off."
TCU's defense came up with the huge plays to carry the Horned Frogs to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter.
Texas then seemed to turn the momentum until Boykin connected on two big passes late in the second. The first was a 38-yard throw on third down to Josh Doctson, who used his 6-foot-4 frame to out-jump Texas' 5-9 Quandre Diggs at the Texas 6.
Three plays later, Boykin zipped a pass to David Porter, who was trailing across the back of the end zone for a 20-3 lead.
Texas, which didn't score a third-quarter touchdown in 10 games this season, never threatened to make a game of it in the second half.
After Swoopes threw his third interception, Boykin connected with Doctson for another jump-ball pass over Diggs for a touchdown early in the fourth.
Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks insisted the loss didn't wipe out the progress the Longhorns had made over the past month.
"This team continues to fight," Hicks said. "Obviously tonight we didn't really show that, but I don't expect us to lay down at all."