Perhaps it’s the challenge of replacing quarterback Max Duggan, the Heisman Trophy runner-up and heart and soul of everything Texas Christian University accomplished during a magical 2022 season. Or maybe it’s attempting to match the production of three TCU wide receivers taken in the NFL draft. Or it could be the cynical view that TCU was a one-hit wonder and that the program will ride off into one of those beautiful Fort Worth sunsets and then disappear for another few decades.

Coaches and players routinely play the disrespect card. No one believed in us. We proved a lot of people wrong. No college football team in recent memory has been handed a chance to use that motivational tool more than TCU after the Monday release of the Associated Press’s first Top 25 of the season. Fresh off a 13–2 season in which the Frogs got all the way to the national championship game, TCU checked in at an underwhelming number seventeen in the poll.

Two Big 12 schools—Texas (ranked eleventh) and Kansas State (ranked sixteenth)—are ranked higher than TCU, and a third, Oklahoma, is close behind the Horned Frogs at number twenty. Yes, the same Oklahoma that TCU blew off the field in a 55–24 rout in Fort Worth last season. Yes, the same Oklahoma that lost six of nine Big 12 contests on its way to a 6–7 season. 

TCU’s blowout of Oklahoma in the fourth game last season was an early sign that first-year coach Sonny Dykes was constructing something special. That he did in crafting a 12–0 regular season that included wins in Austin and Waco and a stretch of four straight wins over ranked teams (Oklahoma, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State).

In the end, TCU’s 13–2 season appears to have earned the Frogs little respect. Perhaps it was the team’s six wins by one score or less. Or maybe a 65–7 loss to Georgia in the national championship game made everything else TCU accomplished easy to discount. Whatever the reason, a dream season in Fort Worth appears to have been met with a collective yawn. You did it once? Show us you can do it again. TCU was picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 this season in a poll of media members that cover the league. That amounts to progress, since the Horned Frogs were picked to finish seventh a year ago.

Texas, mostly irrelevant over the last decade, is the Big 12 favorite, getting 41 of 67 first-place votes. Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech were also picked to finish ahead of TCU. It’s not that the Horned Frogs have been completely overlooked for the last seven months. They’re penciled in for the most compelling Week 1 matchup of the 2023 season, but that’s because they’ll be on the opposite sideline for Deion Sanders’s head coaching debut with the Colorado Buffaloes on September 2.

If Dykes or the TCU players are upset over the apparent disrespect, they’re not showing it. “We want to fly under the radar,” Dykes said at Big 12 Media Days. “Our goal is to overperform and underpromise.”

The coach seems as optimistic as ever, in part because he appears to have worked the transfer portal masterfully, adding three players from Alabama (running back Trey Sanders, wide receiver JoJo Earle, and offensive tackle Tommy Brockermeyer). He added receivers Jaylon Robinson from Ole Miss, JP Richardson from Oklahoma State, and Jack Bech from LSU. In addition, TCU’s freshman class was ranked nineteenth by ESPN, the highest ever for the program, and starting quarterback Chandler Morris had won the job over Duggan last season before an injury created the opportunity for Duggan to step in.

“I think talent-wise, this year’s team will be on par with last year’s team or maybe better, top to bottom, just looking at the roster,” Dykes told ESPN. “But can you do those little things that allow you to win those games? And do you have that same type of leadership? I think we’re trending in the right direction.”

Now, about the polls. Fans love ’em. Fans discount ’em. And everyone pays attention to ’em. Texas coach Steve Sarkisian downplayed the significance of rankings last week. “I’m always fascinated by preseason polls,” he said, “that guys can predict how good a team is going to be, but yet never see them practice and never see them play.”

But, he added: “I love preseason polls as a fan of college football because it gives us as fans of the game something to talk about, something to read about, something to write about. That’s the beauty of it. Man, I remember as a kid, I couldn’t wait for the Sports Illustrated article with their preseason number one on the cover and the top twenty-five and reading about every team. The preseason polls are synonymous with college football, and I love that side of it.”

The Associated Press poll, particularly this week’s season-opener, also serves as a barometer for how the rest of the country views each program on the list. Sarkisian said he tries to keep his players grounded by showing them articles in which the Longhorns are considered nationally relevant again alongside those predicting they’ll fall on their faces.

No program has done less with more than Texas, with all the recruiting advantages and financial might in the world, but no conference championships and one top-ten finish to show for it since 2009. During that stretch the Longhorns have had four different head coaches. Sarkisian is 13–12 after two seasons.

But the Texas brand is strong as ever, and Sarkisian, despite his team’s performance so far, has strengthened the program with two consecutive top-five recruiting classes, according to Texas returns ten of eleven offensive starters, including all five offensive linemen, and Sarkisian believes his quarterback, Quinn Ewers, once the nation’s number-one recruit, is about to do great things. “I think Quinn is a championship-level quarterback,” the coach said. “I think he’s a first-round draft pick quarterback.”

Ewers will be surrounded by so much talent this season that it’s easy to buy into the hype, but Texas will face an early reality check when the Longhorns travel to Tuscaloosa to play number-four Alabama on September 9. If Texas passes that test with a win, a fan base that struggles mightily with humility will probably be ready to crown the Longhorns champions after Week 2, and every other fan base in the Big 12 will yearn to take them down. “We’re the University of Texas, we get it,” Sarkisian said. “We can sit there and be a punching bag, or we can go attack the people we’re going to play.”

Last season, it was the Texas Aggies dealing with over-the-top expectations, having been ranked sixth in the last two AP preseason polls. This year, the Aggies open the year at number 23, which still might be generous after a 5–7 campaign that included a loss to Appalachian State and the program’s longest losing streak in fifty years.

But Texas A&M is positioned to succeed with gobs of talent, and second-year quarterback Conner Weigman could prove to be the best player the Aggies have had at the all-important position since Johnny Manziel’s departure ten years ago. A&M’s schedule is soft at the beginning of the year, before Alabama comes to Kyle Field on October 7, followed by a stretch that includes road games against three ranked teams—Tennessee, Ole Miss, and LSU.

No program in the state has as much unadulterated enthusiasm around it as the Texas Tech Red Raiders. That’s a byproduct of high-energy second-year head coach Joey McGuire, who announced after last season’s win over Texas: “I’m telling y’all right now: The country’s gonna find out that everything runs through Lubbock.” Texas Tech finished an eyelash out of this week’s Top 25, and there’s no doubt McGuire will be using that snub to motivate his players.

The Red Raiders are returning 18 of 22 starters, and McGuire is especially excited about turning his offense over to quarterback Tyler Shough from the start of the season. Injuries have kept Shough from completing full seasons over the past two years in Lubbock, but the quarterback is 8–0 in games he has started and finished. “I feel like we have as good, if not the best quarterback room not only in the Big 12, but in the country,” McGuire said in July. “Tyler is such a leader for this team, and he’s going to have a great year for us.”

Texas Tech will also face a big early test, with number-fifteen Oregon coming to Lubbock on September 9. The Raiders finish the regular season in Austin the day after Thanksgiving in what will be the final Texas–Texas Tech game for the foreseeable future, with the Longhorns leaving for the SEC next year. That game could be McGuire’s chance to establish Texas Tech high in the pecking order of the post-UT Big 12. Don’t be surprised if TCU also makes a run at the conference’s upper echelon.