As Baylor scuffled, TCU blossomed

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Saturday's 106th meeting between TCU and Baylor, just the third since the demise of the Southwest Conference, offers the inevitable dissection of two old rivals: one that thought it got what it wanted, but plummeted; another that thought it got the shaft, yet flourished.

TCU faithful have never digested Baylor's inclusion in the Big 12 and their betrayal; Baylor backers scoff at TCU's success as a byproduct of playing in a lesser conference.

And, oh yes, Saturday's Bitter Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium is down to standing-room only.

So, what about that lesser-conference theory? Did TCU's hard-fought berth in the BCS's Fiesta Bowl last year and its long climb to the nation's No. 4 ranking entering Saturday's game come because of its winding path through mediocre competition during stops in the WAC, Conference USA and Mountain West?

Would TCU be no better off than wayward Baylor, still searching for its first bowl berth since 1994, if the Frogs had stayed in the Big 12 and the Bears had been banished? The tired argument goes like this: If TCU -- or Boise State -- is thrown into the Big 12 or Big Ten or SEC today, the grind of brutal conference schedules week in and week out would chew them up and spit them out.

"Here's the difference," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "When you put us in there, then your depth is a lot bigger. If you put us in there, maybe not the first year, but in three years, if you're doing the things you need to do [recruiting-wise]; because obviously we've shown that we can play with those people.

"People have asked me, 'Would you recruit differently?' No. I like the players I have. Now, would I have more depth? Would I have more good players? Yeah. There's a difference there."

Since 1998, when Patterson arrived at TCU as defensive coordinator, the Frogs are 18-8 against teams from conferences with automatic BCS bids. Since 2002, TCU is 14-3 against those teams, including 4-0 against the Pac-10. In 2006 and 2007, TCU beat Baylor twice by a combined score of 44-7. In its last seven games against the Big 12, TCU is 5-2, including victories at Oklahoma and at home against Texas Tech, in which the Frogs' defense held Mike Leach's air attack to a field goal.

Consider this: Patterson has two more Big 12 victories than third-year Baylor coach Art Briles, just two fewer than Guy Morriss won in the five previous seasons and four more than Morriss' predecessor, Kevin Steele, won in four seasons.

For this game, Patterson's Frogs are a three-touchdown favorite.

Patterson continually cites the commitment TCU made to football and athletics in general after the devastating disappointment of being booted by the Big 12.

Former athletic director Eric Hyman, who now holds the same post at South Carolina, is credited with having the vision and setting a plan in motion for facility improvements and new construction across the board.

His successors, including current AD Chris Del Conte, have also made the commitment to pay the price that's kept Patterson in Fort Worth for a decade now as head coach.

"One way or the other," Patterson said, "the thing that you needed from TCU is commitment, and we've gotten that."

No matter conference affiliation.

That seems to be a lesson Baylor learned late in the game. The Bears are now playing catch-up with sparkling new facilities and a coach who appears to be a terrific fit and who can recruit Texas and handle the heavy lifting it will take to awaken the program over the long haul in the Big 12.

Clearly, the roster has been upgraded with speed and athleticism, starting with exciting dual-threat quarterback Robert Griffin III, who missed nearly all of last season with a knee injury.

Patterson admits that he misses out on some players that sign with Texas, Texas A&M or Texas Tech because of the natural allure of playing in the Big 12. Texas plays practically every game on ABC, ESPN or Fox Sports Southwest. TCU can boast national television, too, but on the far more obscure and less accessible The Mtn., Versus and CBS College Sports. Patterson has a much tougher sell to players who want to hear that they have as good a shot as anyone to play for a national title.

But, what Patterson has mastered is the ability to recruit hard workers who've been overlooked and are willing to be coached up.

"Things could be completely different if we were in the Big 12, but I think Coach Patterson has done a great job recruiting," senior quarterback Andy Dalton said. "You see how he takes these guys that aren't the five-star recruits and puts them in the right position, and next thing you know they're getting drafted in the first round.

"You see what they did with Jerry [Hughes]. I think he's done a great job recruiting, and who knows what would have happened."

Dalton referenced Hughes, the tremendous defensive end who was selected 31st overall by the Indianapolis Colts, but he could have referenced himself. His mom and dad both went to Texas. His sister and a cousin went to A&M. He followed both teams as a kid and attended football camps at both schools.

"I got offers from UTEP and Memphis," Dalton said.

And, of course, TCU. Dalton might not be a first-rounder, but he did pass Slingin' Sammy Baugh in the season opener as the school's all-time winningest quarterback, and he is on every major award watch list.

The irony of TCU's ascension is that the Big 12 has never wanted TCU less. A Big 12 moving forward with 10 teams has absolutely no interest in a Frogs squad currently ranked higher than any Big 12 team.

This series with Baylor was a done deal prior to Briles' hiring. Who knows if it will continue? Think Texas or A&M or even Tech is eager to sign up the Frogs? How about Oklahoma, which will complete its scheduling with TCU at a freshly renovated Amon G. Carter Stadium in 2012?

"Now that you've added all the facilities that we have, and now a new stadium, new weight room [is in the works], everything across campus is new," Patterson said. "As another person, you'd be worried about letting them in the Big 12 or doing any of those kinds of things because we have now built ourselves up to be different."

TCU has indeed made itself the BMOC in a so-called lesser conference and is reaping all the benefits except the big checks that come with playing in an automatic-qualifying conference. But, could any of it have been possible if TCU had remained a small fish in the Big 12?

"There's a possibility as long as there was commitment to get better," Patterson said. "I think they've [Baylor] gotten better with their new facilities, the new indoor [practice facility] and practice fields and all the things that they're doing. The key to it is the commitment and how soon the commitment would have come.

"For us, it's taken 13 years now to be where we're at."

Baylor backers should interpret that as hope.

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