Reports are out that TCU AD Chris Del Conte expects that TCU will play at UT for Thanksgiving this year, and some are speculating that TCU will just roll in from out of the Mountain West and lock up the coveted Thanksgiving date with the Horns in perpetuity- ignoring the rumors that have been flying around since August that Texas' long term plan is to replace the Aggies with Notre Dame as their Thanksgiving day foil. And I'm okay with that. One of the most successful (and as a result, the most hated) programs in college football can do better in terms of securing a name opponent or a hated rival for their end of season showdown. Texas is a blue blood, one of those programs that you automatically put in the top ten all time and never question, TCU is not.
Rather than dwell on that though, I'd rather think about the rest of the Big 12 schedule and who TCU will end up playing in the last week of the Big 12 season (for seasons beyond 2012). Let's run through the candidates, Big 12 members and frequent TCU opponents who could make for interesting matchups (and who don't have other things going on in the last week of the season- See Bedlam, etc.). It's really nice that after playing New Mexico and UNLV to close the season for years on end that we now have several quality options for how to end our season.
The in-state contenders are:
Baylor (sucks)- Despite the ten year gap in the rivalry, this is still one of the most played rivalries in college football. If we had somehow kept playing the bears after the demise of the SWC it would be the fourth most played rivalry in the game (and in position to pass Texas/A&M in one year). The Bears are our historic rival, and over the century plus of play both teams have managed the same number of wins. Baylor (sucks) is always going to be a big deal to the frogs on account of the Ann Richards/Big 12 controversy, even if the Bears fall back into their bowl-less cave without Griffin to guide them to a second rate bowl in San Antonio, and that makes for a mighty fine end of season rival- throw the records out and all that wonderful cliche nonsense! I know some Frog fans will fight tooth and nail against any suggestion that someone other than SMU is TCU's biggest rival, but to me there could be no other archrival than Baylor (sucks), and the biggest bad guy is always saved for the end.
Do they have anything better to do at the end of the season?: No, not really. Back in the SWC days Baylor (sucks) would cut its schedule early by playing Texas in the last week of the season, but the longhorns would move on to one of their real rivals the week after and play A&M. Though the Big 12 brought change to the bear program (mostly a lot more losses), Oklahoma State has been the bear's most frequent closing foe in the Big 12 era (nine times since '96), one thing remained the same: it meant an additional bye week during thanksgiving week, because Okie State was busy the last week of the season (not that it mattered to the bears, with no bowl game to look forward to it just meant they could start the offseason early!). Oklahoma (three times) and Texas Tech (three times) have also been Big 12 season enders for the bears, and this year they took advantage of the Big 12 playing games during championship game week to snag Texas' last slot once more. That said, the Bears would benefit from a season ending rival that you build towards all year almost as much as the Frogs would. Likelihood: 9.
Texas Tech- Tech is always a game that gets the Frog faithful fired up because so many Tech fans live in Fort Worth (unlike Baylor fans, of which there are none) that you invariably know a few Techsters, you see the numbers on their houses spray painted in red and black with the double-T, you see their flags hanging in the front yard, you may even have them over for Thanksgiving dinner. And you've had to hide your loathing of these fine folks' university of choice at the Thanksgiving dinner table for too long. Spending Thanksgiving day talking smack about a game that will follow on Saturday? I'm good with that. Additionally, though it's not Baylor (sucks) levels of even, the overall series is quite close, with Tech holding a narrow 28-23 edge, which would indicate that we can expect the games to be pretty even going forward. And finally, Tech has some history with TCU during the month of November, with 32 of the 54 total contests taking place in the final month of college football's regular season that the bears do not- we've historically played the folks from Waco in October.
Do they have anything better to do at the end of the season?: Texas Tech has recently ended their season by playing either the Bears (twice since 2002), the Sooners (four times since '02), the Cowboys (twice since '02) or some non-conference folks like Houston or a FCS cruiserweight. The problem with playing Oklahoma last is that it means an additional week of layoff before the bowls, as the Sooners always play Oklahoma State last. That leaves Baylor as TCU's competition for Tech's ideal end of season opponent, but the difference is recent competitiveness. Baylor's win over Tech this season was their first win over the Raiders since the dissolution of the Southwest Conference. That's 15-1 over the past sixteen games, not exactly the kind of parity you would look for in an end of season rival. Meanwhile, the Frogs are 3-4 against Tech in their last seven tumbles, and the high level the Frogs have been playing at now (without so much as a once in a lifetime player to pull out a miracle win) would indicate that the Frogs are more likely to give Tech their money's worth. Likelihood: 8
SMU- The rival who never left, SMU is a constant on the TCU schedule for better or worse, and they're the only rival that some generations of Frog fans ever remember us playing with regularity. The series is fairly even (Frogs lead 44-39-7), the enmity definitely goes both ways and even though their coach doesn't really want to be there they're the most competitive that they've been since their program got nuked. The problem? Honestly, we can do better than the ponies now. I'm not saying we should stop playing SMU all together, but let's face it: they get a good deal more fired up about us than they do about anything else (we're the only thing that gets their student section to turn up for games) and we don't need to stoke that fire by giving them a spot at the end of our schedule where they can frag a good frog season by turning their effort up to eleven. There is no upside for the Frogs to play SMU at the end of the season- if we win, great we're the BCS team beating the non-BCS team. If we lose, a great season can end with an absolute thud. And given we've seen what turn out to be pretty darn good frog teams lose to what turn out to be pretty inferior SMU teams twice in the Gary Patterson era, I'd prefer to take the upset (if it comes) up front and tear through Big 12 season rather than have a great run through Big 12 season spoiled by losing to the frickin' Ponies.
Do they have anything better to do at the end of the season?: Nope. The Ponies have been historically noncommittal to any sort of season ending game, with TCU, Rice, Houston, UTEP, Nevada and Central Florida all taking the spot here and there. In the tail end of the SWC the ponies ended with Arkansas as the season capper most often and the ponies haven't seen the Hogs grace their schedule since '99 (and they haven't seen Arkansas in Dallas since '95), so they're free for whatever. That said, I don't think we want them, so the likelihood is significantly down. Likelihood: 3.
Of course, the Big 12 could easily stick us with a rotating end of season opponent as they have Baylor and Tech, or we could be tapped to fill in the season ending slot for a team that's losing their season capper as a result of realignment (West Virginia losing Pitt, Kansas losing Missouri) but I think it's far more likely that Del Conte tries to build up one of our old rivalries by putting it in the season ending spot every year. Who do you think will be TCU's regular end of season opponent?