Horned Frogs closing in on MWC title

Gary Patterson doesn't need a refresher course on mid-major survival skills. He practically wrote the guidebook.

Patterson, the fifth-year Texas Christian coach, knows exactly where he stands with an 8-1 squad. It's a place where the ground is eternally shaky, where the warm glow of fame spontaneously vanishes and where leases rarely run for more than a year.

It's also a place where Patterson and TCU hope to stay a while.

"Gary and his staff have built a winning program," athletic director Danny Morrison said. "To me, there's a big difference between a winning program and a winning team."

For the third time in four years, TCU is one of the nation's top mid-majors. After a bipolar start that featured a historic win at Oklahoma and a historic loss at Southern Methodist, the 20th-ranked Horned Frogs have won seven straight and clinched at least a share of the Mountain West Conference title in their inaugural season in the league.

While mid-major flag bearers such as Utah and Marshall have fallen off this season, TCU can secure its third 10-win season since 2002, a credential few of its perpetually underappreciated colleagues share.

"You just keep everything in perspective," Patterson said. "If you don't, you become forgotten. Don't let the outside distractions bother your team because they're always going to be there. If you win, they'll stay there and if you don't win, then they'll go away.

"But you like keeping them around."

They are back this week, as TCU prepares to host second-place Colorado State, which can win the league title by sweeping its final three games. Though the Frogs are soaking in media attention and stirring the annual debate over college football's imperfect postseason system, Patterson is already rehearsing his "You Become Forgotten" speech for Friday night.

For a defensive-minded coach like Patterson, why not stick with what works?

"Through the years we've played a lot better with our backs against the wall," said Patterson, who last June signed a contract extension through the 2008 season. "Every time we've been an underdog, we've won. Every time we haven't, we've lost. I guess that's probably my personality, to motivate from the bottom up."

His mission was easy after the 2004 season, when TCU lost three of its final four games to post its first losing record (5-6) since 1997.

"Our kids knew we had a lot more talent than what we showed a year ago," Patterson said. "We just didn't have enough chemistry, maturity and consistency to be able to do it overall."

Even those essential qualities appeared insufficient for TCU to get through a six-game opening stretch that Patterson called the toughest he's seen at the school. The Frogs had just one September home game, against league favorite Utah no less.

TCU's upset at Oklahoma marked its first win over a top-five team since 1961, when it knocked off No. 1 Texas. But a week later it traveled to Dallas and lost to SMU, whose players said the Frogs didn't respect them nor acknowledge a rivalry that had become one-sided.

But TCU's letdown didn't last into the league opener, when it ended Utah's 18-game win streak with a 23-20 overtime win.

"That was a springboard," Morrison said.

Added Patterson: "If you ask me which of the first three I'd lose if I had to lose, it'd be [SMU]. One [Utah] had conference implications and the other one [Oklahoma] had national implications."

TCU reached a junction the next week when senior quarterback Tye Gunn injured his throwing shoulder in the third quarter at BYU. In stepped Jeff Ballard, a junior with one career pass attempt. Patterson considered Ballard the third stringer before fall camp.

But there were no missteps, as TCU and Ballard prevailed 51-50 in overtime. Since then, the Frogs have five more wins behind Ballard, who likely will remain the starter even though Gunn could return to practice this week.

Ballard is just the latest TCU backup quarterback to come through. In 2002, Gunn, a redshirt freshman, replaced Sean Stilley and led the team to three wins before injuring his knee. The next year, Brandon Hassell replaced an injured Gunn and the team went 11-2.

"In our system we don't ask the quarterbacks to win ball games for us," Patterson said. "We just want them to manage the game. … Fortunately with Jeff, he'd been in this program for four years. He knew the system. He was ready."

When TCU entered the Mountain West, Patterson looked to teams like Utah and Colorado State as models for his program. Now the admiration is being reciprocated.

"Everyone has respect for the football program at TCU," Colorado State coach Sonny Lubick said. "[Patterson has] carried it on and taken it to another level. I hope that we can match him. He passed us up."

The Frogs are the highest-rated mid-major in the BCS standings (No. 18), but a Utah rerun seems unlikely this season. Still, TCU's BCS prospects improve next year, when the series expands to include another game.

"We feel like we're deserving of an automatic BCS berth," Morrison said, "and over the next few years we've got a great opportunity to be in a position to capture one of those."

In the meantime, Patterson will continue to lead TCU down a path he knows well.

"We had a BCS run in 2003," he said. "If anything, it taught me to keep your nose down. Every week, if you don't take care of your business, it's over."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.