HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- Sleep easily, Texas. Sweet dreams, Washington State. Relax, Fiesta Bowl. TCU lost a game.
The skunk has been chased from the BCS garden party. The two-loss haves such as the Longhorns and the Cougars don't have to worry about the BCS bowls succumbing to political pressure to invite a 12-0 have-not.
The No. 9 Horned Frogs, like Howard Dean at a Democratic debate, inserted themselves uninvited among the leaders of BCS bowl candidates. Yet here among the people who really do have Confederate flags in the backs of their pickups, TCU's dream came acropper in a 40-28 loss at Southern Mississippi on Thursday night.
The Horned Frogs didn't surrender easily. TCU, trailing 31-6 early in the fourth quarter, scored 22 points in a four-and-a-half-minute span of the fourth quarter before running out of gas. A fourth Horned Frog turnover set up the touchdown that allowed the Golden Eagles to salt away the game and a share of the Conference USA championship.
Southern Mississippi can earn the league's automatic berth in the Liberty Bowl by defeating East Carolina next week. The Horned Frogs, who arrived in Hattiesburg with visions of the Orange Bowl in their heads, instead punched their ticket for the GMAC Bowl in Mobile on Dec. 18.
"The only way you ever get anywhere in life is you got to be able to dream," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "Somewhere, that and hard work and reality meet."
When the Horned Frogs ran into reality Thursday night, they didn't get the better of the collision. TCU played as if it didn't want to prove it belonged with the big boys. Southern Mississippi scored five touchdowns -- three off turnovers, one after a 52-yard punt return by Marvin Young, and a fifth when TCU defensive back Mark Walker fell down, allowing DaRon Lawrence to catch and run for a 50-yard touchdown without company.
Southern Mississippi proved it's possible to score 40 points while gaining only 278 total yards. By halftime, the Golden Eagles led, 24-6. Orange Bowl executive director Keith Tribble and Fiesta Bowl president Leon Levitt, watching the game from the press box, choked down the impulse to break out the champagne and spray each other in public.
Certainly the BCS bowl reps felt like celebrating.
"That's not true!" Levitt said.
"We wouldn't have been here if we weren't interested," Tribble said.
Levitt characterized the Fiesta Bowl's interest as "dead serious. If (they had) won out, you're going to make our decision very hard. I don't know if we would have taken them. But it would have been a really hard decision."
Say all you want, but none of the bowls wanted to invite TCU to their prom. As dates go, the Horned Frogs have a "real good personality." In an autumn in which the U.S. Congress conducted a hearing about the unfairness of the bowl system, when all of college football seemed to be Oklahoma and the 116 Dwarfs, TCU stood in position to capitalize on the controversy and make its return to the elite of college football.
Until Thursday night, when the Horned Frogs unpacked their gear and discovered they had left their efficiency at home.
A psychologist could bill a lot of hours analyzing TCU's play. Just as they had in the beginning of the season, the Horned Frogs played their best after everyone wrote them off. Trailing 31-6, TCU drove down and scored, recovered an onside kick, drove down and scored again, recovered another onside kick and scored one more time. With 6:25 to play, Southern Mississippi lead had shrunk to 31-28.
"You've got to take chances," Patterson said. "We didn't come into this game to lose it. I probably should have kicked another one (onside kick)."
The momentum and the percentages favored Patterson's decision to kick deep. The Horned Frogs regained the ball, trailing 34-28, with about 3:00 to play. On first down, quarterback Brandon Hassell looked downfield to throw. Cornerback Greg Brooks blitzed from Hassell's blind side and hit him just as he began to raise the ball to throw. Linebacker Rod Davis recovered the fumble at the TCU 11, and the BCS schools were safe for another year.
TCU will go to Mobile, perhaps to play No. 19 Miami (Ohio). That matchup would feature teams with a combined two losses, better than any game save the Sugar Bowl. Patterson knows that's a consolation prize. That's why he challenged his team after the game, telling them that no Horned Frog team had won 11 games in more than 60 years. TCU can reach that goal by beating SMU next week.
"You got to understand that other people dream, too," Patterson said. "Southern Mississippi had a dream of winning the conference title."
For the second time in four years, TCU took an unbeaten record late into the season only to see its BCS chances evaporate on the road.
"Someday," Patterson said, "we'll knock down that door."