Gary Patterson and TCU keep climbing uphill in college football title race

31 December 2014: TCU Horned Frogs fans cheer on the team in first half action of the Mississippi Rebels v TCU Horned Frogs in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, GA. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Gary Patterson isn’t worried about the daunting month of November he’s about to face. This Saturday, TCU, ranked eighth in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, travels to play 14th-ranked Oklahoma State. Then, after a breather at home against Kansas, the Horned Frogs play at No. 15 Oklahoma before finishing at home against sixth-ranked Baylor in a game that might decide whether the Big 12 is represented in the College Football Playoff.

“I would hope,” Patterson said earlier this week, “that the league will be in the playoff this time around.”

A year ago, the Big 12 was the one Power Five conference left without a chair when the music stopped. TCU was ranked No. 3 in the CFP poll going into the season’s final weekend, beat Iowa State 55-3 and then dropped to No. 6 in the final poll — left out of the four-team playoff.

“You can ask all the questions and you aren’t going to get the answer you want,” Patterson said, thinking back to last season. “I told our guys we were playing in one of the big New Year’s Day bowls [the Peach] against a quality opponent [Mississippi] and that’s what we had to focus on.”

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They focused just fine, hammering Mississippi, 42-3. This fall, the Horned Frogs are 8-0, but once again face an uphill battle with the committee. On Tuesday, TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma State were left out of the top four. All are unbeaten. Two one-loss teams — Alabama and Notre Dame — were ranked ahead of them.

“In the end, it’s up to us,” Patterson said. “We’re the only [power] league where everyone plays everyone before all is said and done. I know what our schedule is this month but I also know if I think about anything beyond Oklahoma State, we’ll be in trouble. I’ve approached it that way from the start and it’s worked for us. So, I’m not going to change now.”

It has worked in the sense that Patterson has a record of 140-45 since succeeding his longtime friend and mentor Dennis Franchione at the end of the 2000 season when Franchione left to take the Texas job. It hasn’t worked in the sense that regardless of what league TCU has played in — first the Western Athletic Conference, then the Mountain West, now the Big 12 — the school seems to always get short-changed.

“I’ve always said we just have to do things twice,” Patterson said laughing. “We had to play the Fiesta Bowl first before we got a chance at the Rose. We got left out of the BCS and then the CFP and now we’re back giving it another shot. I’m fine with it.

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“To be honest, I think having to work that much harder to get recognition has given us a lot of our edge year in and year out. We all know that nothing’s going to be handed to us.”

That doesn’t mean he’s always been happy with it. In 2009, TCU and Boise State finished the regular season unbeaten and the powers-that-be decided to match them against one another in the Fiesta Bowl to ensure that neither would have a chance to embarrass a power conference team. A year later, TCU was 12-0 and ranked third in the Bowl Championship Series poll when it appeared Alabama was going to knock off top-ranked Auburn the day after Thanksgiving, leaving the BCS committee no choice but to match TCU with Oregon in the national title game. But Cam Newton rallied Auburn to a 28-27 win.

“I turned off the TV, didn’t say anything to my family and just went out for a long walk,” Patterson said. “There just wasn’t very much to say or do at that moment. Of course the Rose Bowl was a pretty good consolation prize.”

TCU beat Wisconsin in that Rose Bowl to finish 13-0 and then began looking for a conference from which it might be treated with a little more respect. It landed in the Big 12 and promptly went 11-14 in its first two seasons against more consistently tough competition.

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“I told people it would be five years before our recruiting fully kicked in,” Patterson said. “But I hoped by the third year we’d be able to compete.”

Last year was the third year and TCU’s only loss was at Baylor, a 61-58 donnybrook won by the last team with the ball. Patterson knows, especially after seeing the first CFP poll, that any loss in the next month will make it impossible for his team to make the coveted top four.

Even so, the fact that his major concern these days is making that top four is a sign of just how far Patterson and TCU have come. Patterson was a coaching nomad during his first 15 years in the business, landing in 10 places during that time. One of his stops was in a spring football league, where he was defensive coordinator for the Oregon Lightning Bolts — a team that never set foot in Oregon.

“The league was located in Arizona,” he said. “We played six games there, then the league folded.”

He spent the 1995 season at Navy and then was hired by Franchione, who had coached him at Kansas State, as defensive coordinator at New Mexico. When Franchione went to TCU, Patterson went with him, then succeeded him three years later.

“Ten places in 15 years, then one in 18,” Patterson said, laughing.

Patterson is still only 55 and, while he is amazed to find himself coaching a team that regularly puts up 40 and 50 points a game, he still believes defense is ultimately the key. “The way this conference is, you can start to feel as if you need to hold serve whenever you have the ball,” he said. “I’ve really pushed our kids to not think that way this season. The key is still getting stops, no matter how hard that is to do.”

TCU’s closest brush with defeat this fall was a 55-52 win at Texas Tech, the game decided by a fourth-down deflected pass for a touchdown in the final seconds. Now comes an Oklahoma State team that just put up 70 on the Red Raiders. Even with a win there, TCU will still have a ways to go to get to the promised land of the CFP. Whether it gets there or not, one thing is certain: Patterson will keep coming back to take another crack at it next year — and undoubtedly for a long time to come after that.