Maybe it was our desire for order. If TCU was to lose, Playoff selection would be clearer. Maybe it was our desire for chaos; if everybody loses, who knows what might happen? Maybe it was our focus on last impressions; the last time we saw TCU and Texas, the Frogs were struggling to beat Kansas while the Longhorns were manhandling Oklahoma State. That means they're even, right?
Regardless, a lot of people picked Texas to beat TCU on Thursday in Austin. TCU had other plans. Despite shaky offensive moments, and despite only a plus-78 yardage margin, the Horned Frogs capitalized on every Longhorn mistake, hit the gas late, and headed back to Fort Worth with a 48-10 win and a 10-1 record.
1. The TCU defense is still the TCU defense
If Gary Patterson's Frogs make the Playoff -- and the odds are better now than they were 24 hours ago, since only Iowa State stands between them and 11-1 -- we will talk about the resurgent TCU offense. And it's been an incredible story. A year ago, TCU ranked 94th in Off. F/+, averaging 5.0 yards per play (national average: around 5.8) and topping 5.4 once against FBS competition.
This year, the offense headed into Week 14 ranked 14th. On Thursday, it had one of its least successful offensive outputs and still averaged 5.7 yards per play. So yeah, this is a massive turnaround.
Still, the Frogs' chances of winning the title stem from the defense. TCU is just about the only team to have mastered the 4-2-5 defense. The Horned Frogs force you to prepare for unique looks and know better than you do how you'll try to exploit them.
Some nickel teams can't defend the run. But despite losing star end Devante Fields in the preseason, the Frogs have one of the best front sixes in the country. On Thursday, Texas' Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray gained 29 yards in 21 carries, which forced young quarterback Tyrone Swoopes to make plays against a defense with five permanent defensive backs. He completed 20 of 34 passes (59 percent), but even including a 73-yard bubble screen to Armanti Foreman, Swoopes averaged just 10.0 yards per completion. He was sacked four times and picked off four times. Foreman's touchdown cut TCU's lead to 27-10 and gave the Longhorns life; TCU snuffed it out.
The last five times Texas touched the ball: three-and-out, muffed punt, three-and-out, pick six, three-and-out.
TCU logged 14 tackles for loss, forced two fumbles and intercepted or broke up seven passes. That's a Havoc Rate (TFLs, FFs, and PDs divided by total plays) of 33 percent, more than double the national per-game average. TCU is aggressive and gives up big plays from time to time -- something an Oregon or a Florida State could punish (if Texas can score on a bubble screen without Amari Cooper, think of what screen master Lane Kiffin's Alabama offense would try) -- but you have to take advantage of every opportunity to put yourself in position to outscore that offense.
2. Texas' defense is close
We know how Charlie Strong wants the Longhorns to play when they grow up. With a sound defensive line and plenty of speed in the back, Texas has allowed 4.7 yards per play and risen to 19th in Def. F/+. They have choked most of the spread offenses on the schedule, allowing 5.5 yards per play to UCLA, 4.7 to Baylor, 4.6 to Oklahoma, 4.8 to Texas Tech, 5.0 to WVU, and 3.7 to Oklahoma State.
TCU's Trevone Boykin has looked like a different quarterback in 2014. His ability to make quick throws and punish defenses with his legs have made TCU efficient enough to do the high-tempo damage offensive coordinators Doug Meachem and Sonny Cumbie want. But against the Longhorns, Boykin grew hesitant. After playing controlled ball early -- first 20 attempts: 15-for-20 for 129 yards -- Boykin finished playing risky. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford was able to ratchet up pressure and vary Texas' defensive looks, and Boykin finished completing five of his final 14, with two sacks. Two of those completions were jump balls that went for 32 and 40 yards. (While Boykin had a tough day, receivers Josh Doctson and Kolby Listenbee had fantastic moments, combining for 10 catches and 162 yards.)
This was a mostly ineffective Boykin, and Texas deserves credit.
This isn't the youngest Texas defense. The first and second string include seven seniors and five juniors, so we can't guarantee that Strong and Bedford will be able to pick up next year. In losing players like linebacker Jordan Hicks, cornerback Quandre Diggs, safety Mykkele Thompson and perhaps junior tackle Malcom Brown, they have key pieces to replace. Still, this defense has grown nasty and confusing. We don't know what the future holds for Swoopes, but playing Texas isn't going to be much fun for offenses.
3. TCU is just about out of chances to lose
Yes, Paul Rhoads and Iowa State have a history of incredible upsets: Nebraska in 2009, Oklahoma State in 2011, et cetera. But the Cyclones haven't beaten a conference foe that finished with a winning record since since October 2012, and they haven't beaten a conference foe, period, since last year. The Cyclones are 2-8, 0-7 in Big 12 play, and aren't likely to put up much of a fight in Fort Worth.
So of the seven primary contenders -- undefeated Florida State and one-loss Alabama, Oregon, Mississippi State, Ohio State, TCU, and Baylor -- TCU has the clearest path for winning out. Florida State has to beat Florida and Georgia Tech, Alabama has Auburn and the SEC East champion, Oregon has rival Oregon State and the Pac-12 South champion, MSU has Ole Miss in Oxford, Ohio State has (Michigan and) the Big Ten West champion, and Baylor has Kansas State.
But TCU has a short par putt, then they're in the clubhouse while everybody else scrambles to keep up.
That Mississippi State still holds the No. 4 spot in the Playoff rankings is surprising, and if the Bulldogs defeat Ole Miss on Saturday and Ohio State gets any sort of "conference champion!" bump, it might be difficult for No. 5 TCU to rise to fourth.
But teams stumble, and getting to the finish line upright gives you a chance. This being college football, the odds are good that another contender loses.