FORT WORTH, Texas -- Watching near-century-old rivals TCU and SMU sling it and slug it out under a pristine blue sky in a packed house of purple-clad fans couldn't stop the polluting freight train that is conference realignment from choking this purest of collegial experiences.
Here were two programs meeting for the 92nd time. Both have endured the depths of football despair -- no, TCU never served a death penalty, but ask their fans and they claim many a decade sure felt worse. Both programs have managed to pull themselves up -- yes, TCU far more so than their neighbors to the east, but SMU's claims of closing that gap gained credibility with Saturday's thrilling 40-33 overtime victory in the Frogs' once impenetrable house.
It wasn't always the most well-played game, but it was emotionally charged -- including a mini end zone melee in the second quarter -- filled with momentum shifts, big plays and botched ones, too. It predictably went down to the wire, no matter how many times the upset-minded Ponies tried to blow it open for good.
And just when it seemed the No. 20 Frogs had seized the last of the momentum tilts, rallying from a 33-17 deficit in the fourth quarter to tie and force overtime, the Mustangs (4-1) pulled out one final punch.
Quarterback J.J. McDermott lofted a strike to Jeremy Johnson on SMU's first OT possession. The Mustangs' defense, ranked 10th in the nation coming in, was battered and tired, but somehow shut down on four plays a TCU offense that churned out 273 yards in the second half.
When TCU quarterback Casey Pachall's pass attempt on fourth-and-2 fell to the ground and ended the game, the Mustangs flooded the chewed-up turf on which the Frogs had not lost since 2007, a span of 22 consecutive home victories.
As for the SMU players, they may have reaped more from this one win than anything the Big 12 -- their administration's conference of choice -- could offer over their careers.
"For a while now we've wanted to be looked at as a team to contend with in the country," said senior receiver Terrance Wilkerson, who caught three passes for 97 yards, including a 71-yard TD that put the Ponies up 14-0 nine minutes into the game. "This rivalry is bigger than any conference we could get moved to. That's a lot of hype. We wanted to prove we're a team to contend with, and we did it."
SMU senior safety Chris Banjo ran around the field screaming, "Where's the Skillet? Where's the Skillet? I want the Skillet!" It is his first.
A teammate's voiced answered, "They don't want us to have it."
Whatever happens in the conference shell game, TCU and SMU have no plans to extinguish the Battle for the Iron Skillet. Saturday's highly entertaining, four-hour grudge match is a good reason why.
The Big 12, the apple of SMU's eye, still can't trust who's in, who's out or even how many schools it wants to share its TV pie. Sadly for the Mustangs, and despite their public pleas for inclusion, they aren't even a blip on the Big 12 radar.
Meanwhile, the Frogs continue to stand by their new conference come 2012 -- if the crumbling Big East can last that long. In a halftime interview on the game's television broadcast, TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte repeated TCU's pledge of allegiance to the Big East even as pillars Syracuse and Pittsburgh slinked off in the middle of the night to the ACC, and even as it might appear that the Big 12 is running out of excuses to exclude the Frogs in potential expansion.
Del Conte discounts any talk of a Big 12 marriage as baseless Internet rumor. The Texas fight song that will blare on Del Conte's cell phone when the Big 12 calls has yet to go off, Del Conte said after the game.
Back on the field, the purple-and-black limped into the locker room black-and-blue, having lost the battles on the line for chunks at a time and an overall battle they've become so accustomed to winning, often with ease. But that changed last season when SMU put a scare in a TCU team whose players wound up undefeated and posing with long-stem roses between their teeth.
If TCU was looking ahead to next week's tough conference test at San Diego State or views Boise State in November as the ultimate rival, then maybe it forgot that it is SMU's measuring stick, a bona fide cross-town rivalry, if only in the Ponies' minds.
"Obviously it is now, because they hadn't beaten us really in this era. But now it is," TCU coach Gary Patterson said of the rivalry status. "I told them I read the papers. When a person tells you they hate you, I think you should probably take notice of it. But obviously we didn't."
It goes down as SMU's first win over a ranked opponent in coach June Jones' four-year resurrection, and second since the death penalty -- that one, too, was against TCU a week after the Frogs stunned Oklahoma in Norman six years ago.
This one felt painfully similar to TCU's other loss among their five games to date. The Frogs rallied from an enormous fourth-quarter hole at Baylor only to give up a game-winning field goal in the waning moments.
"It's a first. I had never been beaten by [Baylor coach] Art Briles and I had never been beaten by June Jones," Patterson said. "And now I've been beaten by both in the same year, so we might as well get it all out of the road."
The Frogs started an 11th new defender on the season, a sign that Patterson's defense, ranked 85th in the nation entering the game, is searching for players. SMU, meanwhile, had some new names burst onto the scene.
Receiver Darius Johnson, playing in place of injured top receiving threat Cole Beasley, finished with 12 catches for 152 yards and two TDs. And if anyone didn't know tailback Zach Line, get to know him. He pounded out 120 yards and made the strip on the second-half kickoff that went for a touchdown and a 24-10 lead.
"Bottom line in football," Patterson said, "is you've got to make plays."
On this pristine Saturday, SMU made more.
Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com.