TCU coach Gary Patterson knew the Big 12 would be full of new challenges. Chief among them: close games.
The last time TCU had more than one conference game decided by one possession was 2008. That season, it was only two. Since then, the Horned Frogs have coasted through the Mountain West with three consecutive league titles and only three total conference games decided by seven points or fewer.
In the Big 12, it has been a whole new ballgame for the Frogs. Two of the past three games for TCU have gone to overtime, one in the Frogs' favor against West Virginia on Saturday and the other tipped toward their in-state rival Texas Tech two weeks ago.
"It just depends on whether you win or lose. After the Texas Tech game, nobody felt good," Patterson said. TCU led 14-9 against Oklahoma State in the week between the two close games and Patterson harped on his team to finish. It didn't, dropping a 36-14 decision to the reigning Big 12 champs.
He gave the team Sunday off to rest, and it paid off with a comeback victory against the Mountaineers in which the Frogs played their best ball late in the fourth quarter and in overtime.
That rest allowed TCU to get offensive lineman Blaize Foltz and receiver Brandon Carter back on the field, as well as defensive end Stansly Maponga. Even banged-up back Matthew Tucker returned to the field.
"He still wasn’t where we needed him to be last week, but we’ll need all of our bullets to have a chance against Kansas State because they’re a really good football team," Patterson said.
A 9-0 football team, to be exact. Still, the lesson was learned for TCU, which is still getting used to needing all its bullets every week in the Big 12.
"I feel like it helped us last Saturday at West Virginia. Both players and coaches, how do you manage the season? I think that’s one thing we’ve talked about," Patterson said. "To get ready for Kansas State you’ve got to be doing the same thing. You’ve got to be able to run and be able to get the soreness out of your body because they’ll make you play for three hours."
That's nothing new for the Cats, the reigning masters of the tight decisions. Since 2011, the Wildcats are 10-1 in games decided by one possession. Only two of those wins came outside Big 12 play and the only team to notch a win against K-State in one of those games won a Big 12 title in 2011.
"I’m probably like all coaches. Regardless of what the score is, they’re all tight games," Wildcats coach Bill Snyder said. "It’s never over until it’s over, and I think we’re all that way, but I can’t tell you in all honesty that there’s any great difference in how I am during the course of a ballgame. I don’t think it really has been all that different for me."
The Wildcats have shown the poise of an experienced team even when they didn't necessarily have that experience a year ago. The execution late in games provided them opportunities to consistently erase deficits and notch 10 victories. A year later, tight wins against Oklahoma and Iowa State on the road have the Wildcats right in the thick of the national championship race.
Can TCU give its players opportunities in practice to simulate the tight situations that haven't existed on the field with this kind of frequency in a long time around Fort Worth?
"We’re always trying to create adversity to get things ready to go," Patterson said. "When you’re in a conference where the competition level is so close, you’re going to have to get ready for those kinds of games. For as young a football team as we have, I think we’re building valuable experience, especially going on the road."
All three of TCU's Big 12 victories have been on the road this season, including last week's close victory at West Virginia -- the latest of many lessons for the Horned Frogs in 2012.
"There’s a lot of things that are being learned at this point by coaches and players. I don’t think it’s just the players," Patterson said. "The coaches, we’re trying to learn about our kids and how they play and how they handle things and we’ve got to do a better job on our side of getting them ready."