FORT WORTH — TCU football has never had the opportunity to play in the Big 12 Championship Game.
The contest wasn’t played from 2011-2016, matching the stretch when the Horned Frogs joined the conference.
Now, Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs find themselves center stage with No. 3 Oklahoma in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday as the contest returns for the first time in seven years.
A win may or may not send TCU to the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history. But reaching the title game in itself is a major accomplishment for the Horned Frogs after a disappointing 6-7 record in 2016.
They now intend to savor every moment on Saturday.
All eyes on the Frogs
Any opportunity for the Horned Frogs to be in the national spotlight is a meaningful one — provided that TCU isn’t exactly a historical blue-chip college football program. Even three 10-win seasons since joining the Big 12 hasn’t quite given the Horned Frogs that allure.
With the Big 12 Championship Game being the lone Power-5 contest played on Saturday morning, TCU could find itself exposed to a national audience that it hasn’t seen in a long time.
TCU coach Gary Patterson said moments like the upcoming rematch with the Sooners can do wonders in building a football program — even when given a tough task on the gridiron.
“I think this is the best recruiting tool you can have — playing for the conference championship,” Patterson said. “It’s quite a task, a really good football team ranked in the top 4. We have a lot in front of us one more time.”
And players anticipate the chance to show what TCU can truly do after a misfire against Oklahoma on Nov. 11. The Horned Frogs allowed a season-high 38 points — all in the first half — during a 38-20 loss to the Sooners.
“Oklahoma’s a great team. But TCU, we’re on the map but one of the most physical teams in the Big 12,” TCU tackle Joseph Noteboom said. “We’re not a big brand team but we can play with anyone out there.”
Others say it will showcase what the Horned Frogs have built in recent years.
“It’s a great opportunity to show everybody what we’re made of and how hard we’ve been working through the year,” TCU linebacker Sammy Douglas said. “We have changed. We’ve come out more as a unit and that’s propelling us to win a lot more games than we would have.”
The TCU defense is among elite company in 2017 entering the title game. The unit has only surrendered 6 second-half points since Oct. 14, with five straight second-half shutouts occurring in that span. The Horned Frogs haven’t allowed a second-half touchdown since Oct. 7 against West Virginia.
Douglas said the unit’s success boils down to each man doing his assigned task — not focusing on the end goals.
“As a whole team, I’ve got to do my job, play my part and then the opportunities will come themselves,” Douglas said.
Coming off a Friday game, Patterson said he expects his team to be in better playing shape than for a typical Saturday-to-Saturday game.
“Our kids had a lot more energy on Sunday,” Patterson said. “For us to play on Friday, they had an extra chance to rest and clear their minds.”
The Oklahoma mulligan
Patterson said early in the season that the Big 12 Championship Game can provide a “mulligan” for the lower-seeded team in the contest. Sure enough, TCU is the one getting that newfound second chance in the conference title game.
“I’m excited for this ballgame because our kids are probably going to be healthier other than [Nick] Orr being out for a half,” Patterson said. “It’s been an emotional four weeks for us.”
Orr, one of TCU’s most productive defensive backs, was suspended by the Big 12 for the first half of Saturday’s game for his role in the brawl that took place along the Baylor bench in the Horned Frogs’ game with the Bears last week.
With all that TCU has encountered, players are eager to embrace the “chip on our shoulder” mentality. Noteboom said it may even give the Horned Frogs the edge.
“I think a rematch favors the team that lost — the team that lost has more motivation,” Noteboom said. “The loser has a lot more to fix so they’ll be a lot more focused in practice.”
Outplaying a Baker Mayfield-led Oklahoma offense won’t be a simple task, even for a defense that ranks among the best in the nation.
“Coach P. said they’re going to score points,” Noteboom said. “It’s inevitable. It’s up to us to match that. We have faith in the defense but we need to keep up, score points and keep the game going.”
Home away from home?
TCU has the benefit of playing a mere 20 minutes away from campus on Saturday, as AT&T Stadium in nearby Arlington will host the conference title game.
Playing at the home of the Dallas Cowboys is nothing new for the Horned Frogs. The team has taken the field at the stadium three times since it opened in 2009, posting a 2-1 record.
The Sooners have also played there three times, losing two of three games. Oklahoma dropped the opening game of the 2009 season to BYU, won the Big 12 title game over Nebraska the following year and were humiliated by Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in the 2013 Cotton Bowl.
But even with the game in North Texas, TCU isn’t expecting much of a homefield advantage.
“It’s not really a big advantage [to play in Arlington],” Douglas said. “They all come out. Oklahoma is so good, you take away one dimension and they have another one.”
Noteboom said the atmosphere will be unlike anything he’s ever experienced.
“I think it will feel like a bowl game but with a little bit more on the line,” Noteboom said. “There’s more focus.”
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