Commentary

TCU-SMU rivalry alive and well

Battle resumes for Iron Skillet as other matchups fade amid conference realigment

Updated: September 28, 2011, 4:16 PM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- Wailing is reverberating across this great nation as the rude awakening of conference realignment threatens to rip the heart out of the very fiber of college football tradition -- the rivalry game.

Nebraska-Oklahoma is history. Texas-Texas A&M, a rivalry born in 1894, is headed the way of the turkey on Thanksgiving Day. The backyard brawl pitting bitter neighbors Pittsburgh and West Virginia is headed for the hills.

BYU and Utah played this season as non-conference rivals for the first time in 113 years and in September as opposed to ski season for the first time in 53 years. After 2012, the game goes dark until 2016.

[+] EnlargeJake Kirkpatrick
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezTCU beat SMU last season in the teams' 91st meeting to take home the Iron Skillet.

Ah, but find solace and reason to rejoice college football fans. All is not lost. The great rivalry is not dead.

The near-century-old Battle of the Skillet, TCU vs. SMU, is on and is as heated as ever, which many know hasn't always been all that heated.

Both schools reluctantly entered the WAC after the grand old Southwest Conference dissolved and over time parted ways and trajectories. Still, the two religious-based private schools 40 miles apart keep making the cross-town trek to knock heads.

The rivalry resumes at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Fort Worth between two 3-1 teams prior to crucial conference games for each. It is the 92nd meeting of a once moribund series that is growing in stature and local interest on both ends of the Metroplex thanks to TCU's national emergence and next season's membership into a BCS conference, and SMU's deep-seeded desire to do the same.

The evolution of the two programs -- TCU over the past 13 years with Dennis Franchione turning the corner and Gary Patterson putting the pedal to the medal, and SMU's waddling since the Death Penalty -- has produced a big brother-little brother dynamic.

"This is like the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry to me," said SMU's bruising junior tailback Zach Line, a native of Oxford, Mich. "I grew up liking Michigan State, but I'm learning to hate TCU. This is becoming a smaller-scale rivalry to me. This is one of those games you want to win. We're not going to treat it like it's a bigger game, but it is and everybody knows it."

The 20th-ranked Frogs have played only two other schools more than SMU, with this season's loss at Baylor marking the 107th meeting against the Bears. Saturday's game will match the 92 meetings TCU has played against Texas A&M.

And if two schools ever needed one another, it's these two. Since the end of the SWC in the mid-1990s, both teams have gone virtually rivalry-less. Both schools have bounced through multiple conferences covering vast expanses of the country, yet offered no built-in rivalries to excite either fan base.

When SMU held its kickoff luncheon in early August, four players sat on a stage in front of hundreds of alumni and answered questions about the upcoming season. Asked about the game they most look forward to, the consensus answer wasn't C-USA foe Central Florida, which beat SMU in last season's title game.

TCU quarterback Casey Pachall, a first-year starter, has witnessed two previous games against SMU from the sideline, said it doesn't surprise him that the Frogs sit alone on the Ponies' hit list.

"I would probably say so. They give us their best shot every year," Pachall said. "As Coach P has said before, they come out and give us their best shot and we sometimes have struggled a bit because of how high their intensity is, and we didn't come ready to match it."

Since 1925, TCU and SMU have played every year except 1987 and 1988 -- when the NCAA-punished Mustangs did not field a team -- and 2006, when TCU officials said the schools' schedules just didn't mesh.

Last year, the Mustangs put a scare into the then-No. 4 Frogs before being outmanned, 41-24, in front of a rare, standing-room-only crowd. After the game, TCU coach Gary Patterson proved testy as questions focused on exactly what he was thinking. When the polls came out the next day, TCU had slid to No. 5, potential BCS dynamite for a little-sister school in a non-AQ conference.

Had Nevada not upset Boise State in overtime in late November, the Broncos likely would have leapfrogged the Frogs in the BCS rankings and gone on to the Rose Bowl.

TCU would have looked back longingly at an unsatisfying win -- a term only relevant in college football -- on a Friday night in September at Ford Stadium.

The Frogs' season-opening loss at Baylor likely ended its BCS hopes this season, but this rivalry game has meaning beyond ownership of the fabled Iron Skillet. A TCU loss would likely end its school-record and third-longest current run in the nation of 46 consecutive weeks in the polls.

For the Ponies, yet to knock off a ranked opponent under June Jones, it would begin to attract the voters' attention.

Only a limited number of tickets remain for the game at TCU's under-renovation Amon G. Carter Stadium.

"We've gotten better over the years, so it's a much more appealing game to the fans than it was previously with them kind of beating up on us," SMU quarterback J.J. McDermott said. "I think we've got a good shot this year and we're going to go out there and try to make something happen."

Some rivalries die, some fade away and some rekindle.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com.