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He Said, She Said: Beating a Dead Horse

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Hawkeyed Frog and Coach Melissa sat down to discuss the state of the Iron Skillet: is it time to take this rivalry off the stove, or are things finally heating up?

The SMU debate has raged on for years, as the Ponies have been pretty awful for the last few seasons, including a 1-11 debacle in 2014. As SMU’s cache has dwindled, so has the strength of schedule of their opponents, most notably that of their longest rival: TCU. For the Frogs, who have played their Dallas neighbors 94 times overall and for the past nine years in a row, the Battle of the Iron Skillet has become a point of contention - do you hold on to one of the longest rivalries in college football history, or drop the game in favor of a more well-regarded opponent? And when you factor in that TCU has won 13 of the last 15 meetings, can you even call it a rivalry anymore? Hawkeyed and Coach debate - is playing SMU just beating a dead horse?

QUESTION: The SMU-TCU home and home agreement expires in 2017, and after ten straight years of playing the Battle for the Iron Skillet, the debate rages on whether it should continue past that date. The Ponies have a young, exciting coach with a new, up tempo style and early reviews on their season seem to point to a much improved offensive team. SMU may be trending upward, but is that good enough to continue the series?

Coach Melissa - There are a few things that make college football different - and frankly, better - than the professional game, but none is bigger than the pure emotion involved in it. Much of that emotion is derived from how connected you feel to the athletes - students live with them, go to class with them, eat with them… they aren’t the hidden away professional athletes that we only see on TV, they are right there next to you. But another major aspect of that emotion comes in the form of rivalry games. In conference or out, knowing you are going to have to face the same team and the same fans year in and year out builds a true animosity between the fan bases - and that makes it all the more fun. While it may not be the most prestigious trophy in college football, it is one of the oldest, and taking the Iron Skillet out of the annual rotation would be a big mistake. While yes it’s true that SMU hasn’t been, well… competitive lately, they do seem to be on the rise. They play in a decent conference and play an exciting style - the kind that has already drawn interest from high level recruits throughout Texas. There’s no doubt that there is more than enough talent in the Metroplex to support TCU and SMU thriving, and if you add in the budding recruitment rivalry to the on the field one, you have the makings of something special. Who cares if they are a drag to our strength of schedule - are they really doing more damage than say, Southeastern Northern Dakota Carolina State University College or whatever scrub team we have on the schedule? And if that really is the concern, why not drop the FCS games and keep SMU on the table - at least until the Ponies can field a competitive team again? Fort Worth v Dallas is a great rivalry in and of itself - if you add the two adopted teams of those two cities? Things get really fun. These two programs have played 92 times since 1915, and there have only been three seasons in which both schools fielded teams where they did not meet up. Let’s not let this incredible tradition - and once again budding rivalry - die on our watch.

Hawkeyed Frog - First of all, I’m not saying that we should never play SMU again.  It’s a game that does mean something to some generations of fans and I wouldn’t have an issue with agreeing to play SMU either once every four years (in Fort Worth) or two of every six years in a home and home arrangement just to keep the Skillet in circulation (well, as much circulation as it ever gets these days).  However, the grim reality facing the SMU game now is that- much more often than not- they are an anchor on our strength of schedule that will continue to drag us down as we continue to be a contender for Big 12 championships (and consequently, playoff berths).  Since the death penalty, SMU has been the worst team in college football far more than their fair share of times. We’ve all heard the stories of saviors coming to resurrect the program in Dallas, only for them to end up leaving with their tails between their legs to go on to coordinating for other historically inferior programs (How’s it going, Phil Bennett?) while SMU remains, very much, a dead horse.  So why is it an issue that we continue to play SMU?  I explained a few of the reasons in the offseasons- the fact that it means that we can’t schedule two P5 opponents in the non-conference is a big one and the fact that they get a 1-1 home game agreement (despite being a G5 team) is another and the fact that they will occasionally beat us despite being terrible because they’re a rival is also a concern- so I’ll focus on another tack in this argument.  As a non-historical power, TCU will always have one strike against it when it comes to playoff seeding (If a team with TCU’s record had a name like "Texas", "Michigan" or "Notre Dame", they would have been in and OSU would’ve been out last year), and the fact that the Big 12 lacks a conference championship game means that we have one less opportunity to impress pollsters by beating a highly ranked opponent than other teams- two strikes.  As a result, TCU has to work harder to secure a place in the championship game and should do everything possible to make our strength of schedule as big a strength as possible.  Playing SMU, even if they become a perennial bowl team in the AAC, will never have the cachet that a win over an Arkansas, a Minnesota or even a Northwestern team would have, for the simple reason that the playoff committee selectors are all connected in some way to P5 conferences, and they consider a win over even a bad P5 team to be worth more than one over a decent G5 team.  It’s time to stop beating this dead horse- unless they’re prepared to give us a 2:1 home/road arrangement.

QUESTION: SMU has lived somewhat of a charmed life in the conference realignment age, despite putting up consistently poor performances on the football field- from the WAC to Conference USA to the Big East/AAC, SMU has risen high despite never winning a conference championship in the past 30+ years.  Is SMU going to be able to get over that hump in the next five years?

Hawkeyed: At this point I have a hard time seeing SMU getting over the hump and competing for a conference championship in the AAC.  Either the Ponies will have some growth and success under new coach, Chad Morriss and he’ll leave for a better job, or they’ll remain the same, moribund mess they’ve been for my entire lifetime.  Though no current recruits were alive for the death penalty, its aftermath, ingrained the culture of losing at SMU and their program hasn't grown with the increase in competition as they’ve been dragged into harder conferences.  This is a CUSA level program now competing with programs that earned their place in CUSA by actually winning conference championships now and then- Every member of the AAC has won either a CUSA title or an AAC title in football apart from the upjumped for no reason USF, the formerly independent Navy and, of course, SMU.  SMU has a lot of work to do to build a winning mindset, and that’s going to take a lot longer than five years- or even Chad Morris's’ tenure there.

Coach M: If anyone is going to pull SMU up out of the pit of despair they have been camping in the past several years, it’s Chad Morris. The former Clemson OC and longtime Texas high school football coach has built up an impressive cachet of support in DFW and beyond, dating back to his time roaming the sidelines on Friday nights. He is well-liked, well-respected, and just plain good at his job. Even through two games, it’s easy to see improvement from his Ponies, who have gone from being hapless to having the potential to upset somebody each week. He has a legit star at QB in Matt Davis - a kid our own Gary Patterson calls the hardest QB he’s had to defend since Trevone Boykin - and Davis has lived up to the billing so far in completing 70% of his passes. This won’t be a one win team in the AAC, but predicting a conference championship in the next five years is a bit more difficult. For all their offensive success early, this is still a… well… frankly, kind of terrible defense. Through two games, they have allowed 70 points, surrendering nearly 500 yards per game to their opponents - and about 75 more than they are racking up. Until that defense improves markedly, it will be hard for them to catch Memphis and Houston in their division. They also have to deal with an East Carolina team that is always competitive, a Cincinnati squad who has been, or been right on the verge of being, a BCS buster for most of the last decade, and a Temple squad that played world beater against Penn State. The AAC might be the best of the non-Power 5 conferences from top to bottom, and the Ponies have a long way to go to catch those at the top. All that being said, I think Chad Morris is a heck of a recruiter and is capable of catching lightning in a bottle, so I think he finds a way to get it done and get his team to the top before that five year period is up. The biggest thing for SMU will be keeping him in Dallas for that long.

QUESTION: The Battle for the Iron Skillet has had some contentious matchups through the years, with both teams having the opportunity to play the other with a lot on the line. There have been some incredible upsets through the years, as well as some absolute pastings - none more thorough than last year’s 56-0 beatdown in Big D, which is the largest margin of victory on either side in the 100 year history of the game. Which game stands out to you as the most memorable - for the right, or wrong, reasons?

Coach M: For me, there is really only one game that really sticks with me for the right reasons, and that was the November 20, 1997 game at Amon G Carter. I was a freshman at TCU, still not 100% sure about this whole college football thing, and just starting to buy in to what was then a god-awful program. The Frogs were winless through their first 10 games, and Pat Sullivan was on the chopping block the moment the final horn sounded. With a win, the Ponies would be bowl-eligible, and they rolled in to town expecting to throttle the hapless Frogs. But it was not to be, as the troops rallied behind their dead man walking coach and pulled off the unlikely upset. Frog fans stormed the field and took down the goalposts, braving the pepper spray and billy clubs of Fort Worth’s finest. Then freshman, LaDainian Tomlinson, recalled being tempted to transfer as his team piled up loss after loss, but decided to stay true to his school in aftermath of that singular victory in that darkest of seasons. One of my first sports-related memories at TCU and the start of something truly special.

Hawkeyed: The game that stands out the most to me will always be the 2005 game for the simple reason that it brought me down so hard after the elation of the OU game.  2004 was a miserable experience, and it was easy to write off TCU’s chances in Norman, but the Frogs pulled off the upset and got one of the program defining moments that we so desperately needed and finally looked prime to break through to the BCS for the first time- then we went to Dallas and they ruined everything.  It’s not the last time that SMU has ruined what could’ve been a special season, but it came at a moment where I personally didn’t think SMU would ever beat us again, only for us to be dragged back down to the mobs of the unranked thanks to one bad night in Gerald Ford Stadium.  Of course, in typical SMU fashion, the ponies did absolutely nothing with what could’ve been a turning point for their own program as well, and missed a bowl for the umpteenth time.  That is what SMU is to me- a team that exists only to screw things up (either by being a strength of schedule blight or an upset minded rival) without taking advantage of any success that they have.

That's all for this week's edition of 'He Said, She Said'. Check in next week for a new topic ahead of TCU's first Big 12 game of the season!