TCU's undefeated season disappeared in swath of offensive ineptitude in a 14-7 loss at then-No. 25 Iowa State last week. But it would be foolish to count out the No. 10 Horned Frogs from the playoff picture.
While TCU struggled on offense against the Cyclones, especially in the red zone in the second half, it played well enough on defense to beat any of the opponents on the four-game final stretch of the regular season.
That stretch begins Saturday when the Horned Frogs (7-1, 4-1 Big 12) host Texas (4-4, 3-2) at Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth.
An appearance in the Big 12 title game is still in the offing for TCU, which would be a big step up for a team that was 6-7 in 2016 and picked in the preseason to finish fifth in the league.
Entering play on Saturday, TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State are tied atop the Big 12 standings. It's a sprint to the finish, and the first two to the tape get to go to the Big 12 championship game in Arlington, Texas.
"We've got goals that we're climbing to get," TCU cornerback Jeff Gladney said. "We're just looking up, never looking down. Everything we need to get is up."
The Horned Frogs' defense allowed no points in the second half against Iowa State and surrendered just 40 yards.
"The guys did a better job of tackling, and we defended the pass," coach Gary Patterson said. "We started doing what we said we had to do. We contested shots."
TCU quarterback Kenny Hill had by far his worst game of the season in the loss to Iowa State,
passing for just 125 yards, throwing two interceptions and fumbling in the red zone. Hill had not thrown an interception in more than 100 pass attempts entering the game.
Kyle Hicks and Darius Anderson were the lone bright spots on offense against Iowa State, as the dynamic running back duo combined for 175 yards on 24 carries.
"Everybody's struggled throwing the football against Iowa State," Patterson said Monday during the Big 12 coaches conference call with reporters. "Bottom line to it, we need to put Kenny in better situations. We didn't find ways to win. It wasn't so much Kenny's deal as everybody's. I think you can put the load on everybody."
The continuing rise in confidence for the Longhorns comes on the heels of a 38-7 win at Baylor last Saturday. Before then, Texas had played five games in which the opponent was ranked at the time or has since been ranked.
Texas won just two of those games, against Kansas State and Iowa State, but lost the other three (at USC, vs. Oklahoma in Dallas, and at home against Oklahoma State) by a combined 11 points.
"Our guys are very confident with where we're at," coach Tom Herman said Monday at his weekly media availability. "They're very confident in the lessons we've learned in even the close ones against the teams from Oklahoma."
Freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who has started five of Texas' eight games, has been cleared from concussion protocol and has resumed practicing with the team.
Herman said Monday he has no intention of announcing in advance if Ehlinger or sophomore Shane Buechele, who started at quarterback last week and led the Longhorns to victory, would be the first one behind center on Saturday against TCU.
"Probably the only silver lining to having those guys banged up and both of them having played very well at times is that we don't have to name a starting quarterback," Herman said. "Unless college football has gone to the NFL, we don't have to say anything about our depth chart. By Wednesday or Thursday we probably should know internally, but that's for (TCU) to figure out."
Texas leads the series between the teams 62-24-1. TCU has won the last three, one shy of its longest win streak from 1935-38. The teams have been playing since 1897 and squared off every year from 1927 to 1995, the last season of the Southwest Conference. They played a nonconference game in 2007 in Austin, won 34-13 by Texas.
In Big 12 meetings, TCU is 4-1. TCU's 50-7 victory two years ago in Fort Worth marked its series-high point total. In the last three meetings, TCU has outscored Texas 129-26.