Sat Jan 01 11:28am EST
Nationally, TCU may be considered something of an upstart, but the reality is that it isn't accustomed to life as the underdog: The Horned Frogs have been favored to win 36 of their last 38 games, including every game this season. Even when they finally crashed the Bowl Championship Series for the first time last January, they were slight favorites against fellow overachiever Boise State in a battle of arrivistes.
Given the chance to play the role of David against Wisconsin's Goliath in this afternoon's Rose Bowl, then, the Frogs are playing it to the hilt. Defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas compared the match-up of his top-ranked unit against Wisconsin's thundering rushing attack to a ferrari in the path of a dump truck. Head coach Gary Patterson openly played up the program's humble roots on Friday, regaling reporters with tales of partitioning weight rooms for team meetings and walking a mile and a half to a non-existent practice field. "Since we started at TCU, everybody's been bigger and faster," he said. "After 10 years, we finally got to a point where all eyes of America are on them and getting the chance to prove what kind of program we have. … If only you knew where we came from."
Embracing the narrative is probably a healthier attitude than huffily pointing out that, in fact, oddsmakers have oddsmakers have installed the Frogs as a three-point favorite over the Badgers. Leave that part to me. TCU's presence in Pasadena today isn't only the pinnacle of an undefeated run through a limp schedule, but also of a decade-long rise that's clearly established it among the nation's heaviest hitters on an annual basis. True, the Frogs had just been exiled to the hinterlands by the crackup of the old Southwest Conference and were coming off a 1-10 disaster when Patterson joined new coach Dennis Franchione's staff as defensive coordinator in 1998. But they quickly rose to the top of the WAC, and then to the top of Conference USA after Patterson assumed the top job in 2001.
Since moving to the Mountain West in 2005, they've turned in five 11-win seasons, three conference championships, three straight top-10 finishes, two straight undefeated regular seasons and now a second consecutive BCS bid. They've spent 24 consecutive weeks in the top ten, and 14 straight in the top five. They bring in the nation's No. 1 total defense for the third year in a row. Next year, they'll be back with the big boys on a weekly basis. Is this really a program still playing to validate "the little guy," against an outfit with exactly the same number of wins over teams that finished in the top 25 (one) in the regular season?
For most of the non-football-obsessed country tuning in today for the ritual, yeah, probably. And even for many of the football-obsessed segments that haven't seen TCU (thanks again, crummy television contract), or remain determined to judge teams by the conference label, the "prove it" attitude against a rolling, 11-1 Big Ten co-champ is too ingrained to resist. It's possible, if things go really wrong, for one bad afternoon in the spotlight to undermine a decade of steady progress to the top.
Or at least, to very near the top: The two accomplishments that remain absent from the Horned Frogs' resumé under Patterson are a) A BCS win, and b) An undefeated season, including the bowl game. They missed their shot at both in last year's David-on-David loss at the hands of Boise State. This time, the opportunity to plant a purple flag on the summit is even clearer – and, with quarterback Andy Dalton and ten other senior starters set to move on after the game, the fall much steeper if they don't take advantage of it. TCU has built far too strong a foundation for one game to topple (even if that game is the Rose Bowl), but given what's at stake – a perfect season, a subversive claim on the national championship, and simply the biggest win in school history – the chance today in Pasadena is a logical conclusion that may not come again for a very long time.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.