Spotlight shines on TCU football

FORT WORTH, Texas -- TCU is a national player.

Take the preseason rankings -- No. 6 and No. 7 -- in the two major polls, the highest in program history. Two BCS automatic-qualifier conference schools are on the September schedule and the Horned Frogs don't have to travel more than 15 minutes on a bus to play either.

That short ride comes Saturday to Cowboys Stadium to face No. 24 Oregon State. ESPN arranged the matchup for national television, a game that will be broadcast right there on the mother network, not ESPN2 or ESPN3 or ESPNU, and, by golly, on an All-American college football Saturday, not Tuesday at 10.

Officially, it is a road game for the Frogs, but the Beavers, who will make the four-hour flight from Corvallis to the fertile recruiting soil of North Texas, will wear their visiting whites while TCU will debut its latest Nike-outfitted concoction as one of just 10 programs that the shoe giant will outfit with its special duds.

Oregon State was not the first Pac-10 team courted by ESPN to play TCU, but it was the first apparently to accept the risk-reward that comes with playing the Frogs these days. The Beavers, so close to making the Rose Bowl last year, are the third-highest ranked team in the Pac-10 to start this season. They'll roll into Cowboys Stadium as nearly a two-touchdown underdog.

"Two touchdowns?" TCU coach Gary Patterson asked rhetorically. "Early in the season, how could you know anything like that?"

It's called respect. Yes, TCU is a national player.

"People are really starting to buy into TCU. We've gotten a lot of national attention," senior quarterback Andy Dalton said. "People are really starting to see us and see how we play football."

Talk about role reversals. This is no longer the story of the cuddly underdog. Except, while TCU has entered the elite level as a program, it will remain a second-class citizen as long as the BCS rules college football's postseason.

The Mountain West Conference appears destined to remain a non-automatic qualifier, meaning its champion does not earn a berth into a lucrative BCS game. It leaves teams like TCU with one unsavory path to the BCS, and that is to run the table. That's what the Frogs did last season for the first time in modern history.

"The ultimate goal is to get back to where we were, but you have to work your way up there. It all starts with the foundation, that's why those things are at the bottom: attitude, chemistry, all that stuff that's down there," said Dalton, referring to Patterson's famed pyramid that begins at the bottom with each new season and works its way up, step-by-step, to the top -- playing for a national championship. "There's so many different games that play a big role in the season, so we have to take it one game at a time because we obviously know that not being in one of the automatic qualifying conferences, that you can't slip up."

That's the peculiar situation this senior-laden TCU finds itself: A top-shelf program that will be favored in both of its games against AQ conference teams (Baylor plays in Fort Worth on Sept. 18), yet it receives none of the benefits.
That's the pressure the Frogs face Saturday night, as does No. 3 Boise State on Monday when it takes on No. 10 Virginia Tech in Washington, D.C. One slip against a Top 25 team in the first week virtually extinguishes the ultimate goal just as the season starts.

"The thing that we have to do is we have to take care of TCU," Patterson said. "First ballgames, usually people lose games instead of getting beat."

There are no second-chances for non-AQs, not like the big boys. It's been proven year after year that a one-loss team, even a two-loss team can still play for a national championship. One loss not only eliminates TCU from any national championship scenario, and most likely a BCS game as well.

If the Frogs lose to Oregon State, how far do they tumble in the polls? Without another opponent currently ranked in the Top 25, how difficult does it become for TCU to reposition itself for BCS consideration?

"I don't talk about BCS bids. I don't talk about being 12-0. That's where you make mistakes," Patterson said. "Also, that's how you never get your team to grow up to be the best it can be. It starts with attitude, chemistry, family and accountability. That's why that pyramid is there. It starts at the bottom and doesn't have anything to do with wins and has all to do with you: What kind of football team do you have and how do you grow up? Then as you climb the [pyramid] it has to do with wins."

With a team that has 27 seniors and 19 returning starters, Patterson has already colored purple the bottom two levels of his pyramid, the foundation. He believes his team is grounded to start the season; that it won't stray from the pyramid and gaze too far ahead into the bright lights of the BCS that can so easily burn a team like TCU.

While the Frogs' strong starting position in the polls might -- might -- afford it the ability to rebound from an early loss and still make a run at a BCS game, it could also lock the fate of a one-loss Frogs squad to the Las Vegas Bowl. Even another undefeated record offers no guarantee. Egad.

"After Saturday night, win or lose, we'll have to redefine because we'll have a next game and, win or lose, you'll have to work on getting better," Patterson said. "And then you'll have to redefine your goals, if you win or you lose, of how you're going to do so you can have the best football team you can possibly have to win as many games going through the season."

It's all an elite underdog can do.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.