TCU is the best college football team in the country you barely know. While the top three teams—Florida, Alabama, and Texas—enjoy sold-out stadiums and nonstop television exposure, the fourth-ranked Horned Frogs have played out their season in front of small crowds and on second-tier cable networks. But the tide appears to be turning the Horned Frogs’ way.
With nine wins and no losses this season, Texas Christian University is one of only six teams in the country with an unbeaten record, and dating back to 2007, the Horned Frogs have only lost twice in their last 25 games. They hope to avenge one of those losses on Saturday when they play the University of Utah. Last year, the Utes scored in the game’s final minute to dash any chance the Frogs had of making it to a Bowl Championship Series game and a huge postseason payoff.
It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of Saturday’s game. A win over the No. 16 Utes would clear a path for TCU’s best season ever. They close the season against Wyoming, a sub-.500 team, and winless New Mexico, and by winning out, they would assure themselves a spot in a BCS bowl game. There’s even a possible (if unlikely) scenario that would land TCU in the national championship game should the teams ahead of them lose before the end of the season. A loss, however, knocks the Frogs out of their current elite status and back into a crowded pack of one- and two-loss teams. There’s also a huge financial incentive for the school. Teams who make it to a BCS bowl game bring in $17 million for their conferences; the payout for TCU’s most recent bowl game, the Poinsettia Bowl, was $750,000.
TCU’s success on the field begins with their defense, and with good reason: the Frogs are coming off a four-game stretch where they’ve allowed a total of 25 points. Their best player is All-American defensive end Jerry Hughes, who is the prototype for Coach Gary Patterson’s system of taking players who were good players on offense in high school and unleashing their speed and quickness as defensive stars in college. While at Stephen F. Austin High School in Sugar Land, Hughes rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior. Some colleges recruited him as a running back; others saw him as a linebacker. But Patterson saw Hughes playing defensive end during an Austin High practice in 2005 and knew he had found his man. Four years later, Hughes has grown to 6-foot-3 and 257 pounds and has become the most dangerous player that opposing offenses face.
But their offense has been effective this season as well, thanks to dual-threat quarterback Andy Dalton. The junior from Katy can beat you throwing or running the ball, and his cool head under pressure ensures TCU is always in the game. Now in his third season as a starter, Dalton has a 26-6 record as a starter and is closing in on the school record of 29 victories held by Sammy Baugh.
Baugh is one part of a rich football history at TCU, which includes such famous names as Davey O’Brien, Bob Lilly, and LaDainian Tomlinson. Baugh and O’Brien were both on the legendary 1938 squad that went unbeaten and won the Sugar Bowl, with O’Brien taking home the HeismanTrophy that year. A lot has changed in college football since then but author and sportswriter Dan Jenkins says this year’s Horned Frog squad is certainly the best he’s seen in a long while. Jenkins would know better than anyone. He was nearly six years old when he crowded into the upper corner of the stands at Amon Carter Stadium on November 30, 1935 to watch TCU play SMU in one of the biggest games in school history. For more than 70 years, the man Larry L. King called “the best sportswriter in America” has watched his beloved Horned Frogs compete. He says the 2009 version is one of his favorites, and really piles on the praise when it comes to coaching.
“Patterson,” Jenkins said, “is TCU’s greatest coach since Dutch Meyer [the winningest coach in school history and one of the founders of the modern passing game]. He lives and eats football, he’s a defensive genius, and this will be his fifth 11-win season since 2003.”
Indeed, since taking over the head coaching spot, Patterson has the best winning percentage over his first 100 games of any TCU coach, and trails only Meyer in total victories. He’s guided the Frogs to two conference championships and four straight bowl victories. With so much going for them, then, why can’t TCU seem to break into the national sports consciousness?
Part of the reason is the burden of being a small private school vying for attention amongst the big boys. With an enrollment of less than 7,500 undergraduates and a small alumni base in a town teeming with former Longhorns and Aggies, the school struggles to fill up 44,000-seat Amon Carter Stadium. This year’s biggest crowd was 37,130 for cross-town rival SMU. As part of the Mountain West Conference, TCU also fights an uphill battle for television exposure, as the big-name networks like ABC, ESPN, and CBS opt for games from the larger state school conferences like the Big 12, Big Ten, and SEC. TCU’s games this season have been broadcast on one of those network’s little-brother specialty outlets, like ESPNU or CBS College Sports, or on upstart cable networks like Versus. Ivan Maisel, senior writer for ESPN.com, explained that the biggest reason, however, is that TCU has to battle for attention with one of the most media-hungry pro sports executives around, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
“They have the classic dilemma that has remained unsolved by virtually every other school in an NFL town, which is how to gain traction in the sports pages and on TV and with the ticket buyers when the NFL is there,” Maisel said. “And especially to try to survive in the same metropolitan area as Jerry—they have less than no shot in terms of getting any oxygen in the marketplace. They’re a real trick-box in terms of getting anybody in that area to pay attention to them. If they’re not going to attract ticket buyers in this season of all seasons, I don’t know what else they can do.”
With three games remaining in the regular season, there are beginning to be some signs of progress. Saturday’s game with Utah is sold out, only the second time in the last 25 years they’ll play in front of a sellout home crowd. ESPN’s signature football preview show, College GameDay, will be in Fort Worth for the first time. And Nike announced that they’re providing TCU special uniforms for the game. Designers covered the helmet and dark gray pants in a horned frog skin print and embroidered the team’s “Don’t Back Down” mantra on the inner collar of every jersey. Nike says the red lines down the center of the new helmet represent “the blood that shoots from a horned frog’s eyes when under attack.”
The new uniforms probably don’t mean a whole lot to TCU veterans like Jenkins but the impact of Saturday’s game is undeniable.
“If they beat Utah this Saturday, I’m willing to say that they’re as good as any team in the country,” Jenkins said. “And perhaps even the best.”