The biggest question when two-time BCS buster TCU made the move to the Big 12 was whether the Horned Frogs could handle the week-to-week grind of playing in a major conference.
Well, coach Gary Patterson and his young, bowl-bound Frogs (7-4, 4-4 Big 12) have done just fine in their inaugural Big 12 season, even though they won't win at least 11 games for the fifth year in a row, claim their fourth consecutive conference title or be part of the Bowl Championship Series.
They can finish in the upper half of the only league sending 90 percent of its teams to bowl games (nine of 10) and have won four Big 12 road games, including Thanksgiving night at Texas. All while playing an FBS-high 28 freshmen, plus 20 sophomores, having to make an unplanned quarterback switch a month into the season and with only one senior starter on defense.
"Very, very proud of this group of kids the way they've fought, the way they've played, how they've done things, found ways to win," said Patterson, TCU's winningest coach at 116-34 in his 12th season. "Now you're looking at having a chance to be 8-4 and get to a bowl game and do the things you need to do and kind of get a jump start for next season."
TCU plays its regular-season finale Saturday at home against 12th-ranked Oklahoma (9-2, 7-1). The Sooners can clinch at least a share of the Big 12 title with a win, and then would be headed to a BCS game if seventh-ranked Kansas State loses later that night at home against No. 23 Texas.
The Sooners were already set to play at TCU this season in one of the first games at the Frogs' completely redone stadium. That instead became the regular-season finale for both teams when they became conference foes.
"Gary's done a great job for a long, long time. They've been a good football team," Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. "What was it, just two or three years ago they win the Rose Bowl, beating Wisconsin over there? Gary is an excellent coach. His guys play, you can see, with great technique, discipline, all of that. He's been building that program for quite a while and done it in a great way."
That Rose Bowl victory came two seasons ago, when the Horned Frogs finished 13-0 and No. 2 in the final AP poll.
The Frogs won their 2005 opener at Oklahoma, a year after their only losing season under Patterson. The Sooners won four years ago in their only other game against TCU under Stoops.
Patterson's name, as has been the case around this time of the season the past few years, is at least being mentioned for pretty much every major coaching vacancy.
"My actions show that I love this job, and right now I'm trying to beat Oklahoma," Patterson said. "I can't control what other people do. It's pretty simple."
TCU entered the Big 12 as the only FBS team with six 11-win seasons the past seven years. They had won 16 of their last 20 games against teams from leagues like the Big 12 with automatic bids into the Bowl Championship Series.
The Frogs won their four September games, including the Big 12 debut at Kansas for their 25th conference victory in a row. Then second-year starting quarterback Casey Pachall was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and withdrew from school to enter a rehabilitation program.
Redshirt freshman Trevone Boykin, the dual-threat quarterback who was practicing at running back to fill in for injuries there, was suddenly thrust into the role as starting quarterback only two days before the Big 12 home debut against Iowa State.
That 37-23 loss to the Cyclones ended the FBS' longest winning streak at 12 games and was the Frogs' first conference loss since November 2008, a span when they won three consecutive Mountain West titles.
They bounced back to win at Baylor before a triple-overtime loss to Texas Tech. After blowing a halftime lead at Oklahoma State, the Frogs won the meeting of Big 12 newcomers with a 39-38 double-overtime victory at West Virginia. Before going to Texas, they lost 23-10 at Kansas State, which then briefly took over the No. 1 spot in the BCS standings.
"We knew what it was going to be like at the end of the season. ... The last four (games), we're 2-2," Patterson said. "Probably if everybody here was a betting person, they probably wouldn't bet we were 2-2. Because I listened to (media) talk at the beginning of the season about, 'Well, you had a chance to be 7-0, but I don't think those last five, you win any of them.' ... We've gotten better, we've still got a long way to go."
TCU will end its first Big 12 season playing in a bowl for the eighth consecutive season, and the 14th time in 15 seasons — since Patterson arrived as defensive coordinator with coach Dennis Franchione's staff in 1998. The Frogs will open the 2013 season at Cowboys Stadium against LSU.
"We have so many young guys, so many freshman playing," senior tight end Corey Fuller said. "It's going to be amazing the next couple of years watching them grow up, and they've been doing a phenomenal job with that they've accomplished this year."