STEPHEN HAWKINS, AP Sports Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – Maybe it was impossible to really comprehend just how close TCU was to being a legitimate contender last season when the Horned Frogs were losing four Big 12 Conference games by a combined 11 points.
And not only how close they were to winning those particular games, but also setting themselves up for a real shot this season at getting into major college football’s first playoff.
“We just want to finish strong. I think this one thing that we didn’t do, that we showed we can do, is finish,” safety Chris Hackett said. “I think that’s a steppingstone of what we can do now.”
The Frogs (8-1 overall, 5-1 Big 12), who began this season unranked in every poll, are now ranked fifth in the weekly AP poll and on Tuesday cracked the top four in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. In only its third season as a member of a power-five league, TCU would get into one of the national semifinal games if they are still ranked fourth, or higher, when the 12-person selection committee puts out its final rankings Dec. 7.
“We’ve a got a lot of work to do, and a short time to do that,” coach Gary Patterson said. “But I’m excited for our kids. … From where we were a year ago – and all the frustration of being so close – to win a couple of the close games this year and being 8-1, giving ourselves an opportunity to at least tie for the conference title, to me is a great thing. And we’ll look and see how everything else falls.”
There is that notable setback a month ago when 8-1, 5-1 Baylor (AP No. 6, CFP No. 7) erased a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Frogs 61-58 on a game-ending field goal. But TCU is still three spots ahead of Baylor in the playoff rankings.
The Frogs won four other games against ranked opponents in a six-week stretch that included the trip to Waco. They had an interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to beat Oklahoma 37-33 and won 31-30 with a field goal on the last play at West Virginia two weeks after Baylor lost by two touchdowns there.
“That definitely is a big part of this season,” cornerback Kevin White said. “Now we’re starting to see us finishing this year.”
Last season, the Frogs scored 10 points in the final 3:01 of regulation to force overtime against WVU before losing 30-27, and later had consecutive close losses to end the season at 4-8. TCU made a go-ahead field goal with 2:13 left at Kansas State before the Wildcats got a field goal of their own with 3 seconds remaining for a 33-31 win. In last year’s now typical wild game between the Big 12’s private Christian schools, Baylor beat TCU, 41-38
TCU, which plays at bitterly cold Kansas on Saturday, is coming off a 41-20 win over No. 13 Kansas State (7-2, 5-1, No. 13 CFP), which is still in a three-way tie for the Big 12 lead but is most likely out of playoff contention.
Frogs senior receiver David Porter said two or three plays were costly in each of those close losses last year, and that the team went back to look at the small details to make sure not to repeat those errors.
“We still have the same people that we had last year, so it wasn’t about the personnel or anything. It was more on us, not protecting the ball, or making little mistakes,” Porter said “We just took that to our advantage and moved forward with it.”
All the way to the verge of the playoffs.