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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Forget the expected matchup of Mountain West front-runners playing for a big boost toward a possible Bowl Championship Series run.
No, Utah vs. TCU on Thursday night won't be the game many thought it would be. Or should have been.
Instead of a midseason matchup for conference supremacy and national recognition, the preseason favorites to win the league (both 4-3, 1-2 MWC) are trying to avoid virtual elimination in the Mountain West race.
"Every game, you set your goals differently, based on how it turns out and how you do things. Right now, our opinion is to keep ourselves in the race," Frogs coach Gary Patterson said.
"History tells you that if you have three losses, it's tough to win a league championship," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Both got off to a slow start, for different reasons, but the two teams have started to gain their momentum."
Before any games had been played, Utah-TCU stood out as one to watch.
Utah was the original BCS buster with its undefeated 2004 season. TCU had three 11-win seasons in a four-year span, including the 10-0 start in 2003 that had the Frogs poised to become the first non-BCS team to break into a big-money bowl.
Plus, the Utes lost their last road game against TCU in 2005 -- 23-20 in overtime to snap their 18-game winning streak. (Utah has played on TCU's campus since, winning 25-13 in the Armed Forces Bowl over Tulsa last December.)
None of that matters now. This is a game of survival.
While Utah has won its last three games, the only one against a conference opponent was 23-7 last week over San Diego State when the Utes had 517 total yards.
Their winning streak coincides with the return of quarterback Brian Johnson from a separated shoulder sustained in the season opener after he missed all of 2006 following knee surgery, and 100-yard rushing games from Darrell Mack. Before that, Utah was shut out for the first time in 14 years by UNLV.
"Stability," Patterson said when asked what sparked Utah's turnaround.
The Horned Frogs have won three of their last four games, rallying to win 38-36 last week at Stanford, which was coming off its upset of Southern Cal.
But that doesn't mean all the problems have been solved for the Frogs, whose recent winning span included SMU (1-5) and Colorado State (0-6). Their much-heralded defense, without standout defensive end Tommy Blake for most of the season and again Thursday night, has allowed 60 points and 402 rushing yards the past two games.
At least the Frogs can look forward to a break, with their next game after Utah coming 16 days later when they play at home against New Mexico.
Utah and TCU have already lost to Air Force (5-2, 4-1) and have November games at BYU (4-2, 3-0) -- likely the only MWC team with even an outside chance to get into the BCS.
"Every week's a big game for us," Whittingham said.
"Anytime you're around the .500 mark," Patterson said, "every week becomes critical."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press