Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson
The four had spent a lot of time together during their few days in Las Vegas, got to know each other and even got to like one another. But even as they were laughing and talking about seeing each other in October, they had to know that when they met again, it wouldn’t be nearly as cordial.
TCU will travel to BYU this week in what is the biggest game in the Mountain West season so far. The winner not only will have a jumpstart on the race for the Mountain West title, but also in the BCS standings. At No 8 and undefeated, TCU has the best chance of reaching a BCS bowl should it stay undefeated, but it needs to boost its strength of schedule and voter confidence by beating a ranked team. BYU is No. 16 in the standings, but with one loss, it has only an outside chance of earning a BCS bowl berth.
“I think the only way that our conference will end up having the BCS bid is if someone’s able to remain undefeated,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “So, TCU has the best chance of that bid. Again, I don’t think our league has the respect yet of a one-loss team, however, our conference is stronger than the WAC and I don’t think there’s any argument about that. The teams that the top three teams have lost to or might lose to should all be good football teams. So, it might be the year and I could be surprised, but I’m still of the opinion you’re probably going to have to go undefeated to get in.”
A year ago, the roles were reversed. BYU was in a similar position as TCU in the BCS standings and TCU was the one-loss team. The Cougars came into the game 6-0, thriving off the national attention and ready to earn their first BCS bowl berth. But from the opening kick, TCU pounced on BYU. It jumped out to a 26-0 lead and finished with a 32-7 win. The game was devastating to BYU because it had come into the contest with the nation’s longest win streak and there were so many expectations for the program.
Those same expectations have been levied against TCU this year, but coach Gary Patterson said he anticipated them coming in. That’s why, when the Horned Frogs had an open date this season, he opted to play at Clemson instead of taking an easier game. He wanted to give him players a taste of a sold-out crowd, all wearing one color and all yelling against them. He wanted to see if his team could handle that environment and that adversity and they came away with a 14-10 win in the rain.
“The line is small between winning and losing, especially when you have to go on the road and play, and I think our kids learned from it,” Patterson said. “That’s one of the reasons I said 'let’s go play Clemson.' I wanted to be in that kind of environment. They made it their orange-out, which they only make for special games and they gave us their greatest effort and we found a way to win. That’s something we didn’t do a year ago.”
TCU knows how hard it is to play on the road in the Mountain West. Last season, Patterson’s team had a chance to upset Utah and perhaps steal a BCS bowl bid, but the Horned Frogs played their worst game of the season in Salt Lake City and lost out on both their first Mountain West Conference title since 2005 and perhaps their first-ever BCS bowl berth.
The Horned Frogs had four major road tests circled on their schedule and Saturday is the fourth and final challenge. For the second consecutive season, TCU has practiced this year with a BYU helmet on its blocking dummy.
But Patterson knows his team won’t be the only one fired up for this contest.
“Just reading the articles, [BYU’s] been talking about this game since last spring,” Patterson said. “We’re going to have to go play. We can’t worry about BYU. They’re a very mature team, they have some good senior leadership and we know they’re going to come play.”
It’s been hard for BYU players to articulate the effect the loss to TCU had on the BYU program, but "embarrassment" and "disappointment" are two words that often come up. It left the Cougars broken and forced Mendenhall to re-examine not only his program, but himself as well.
This season, Mendenhall said he’s done a better job of not allowing the pressure to get to his team and allowing it to have fun. While they’ve already lost to Florida State in Provo, Utah, this season, BYU hasn’t gotten down about it because this weekend’s game, especially after the way it affected BYU a year ago, could make a lot of things better.
Mendenhall said he sees the drive in TCU this year that he was hoping to get out of his players a year ago, and he’s hoping his team has learned from last season and is able to come out and match it.
“I don’t think they rose to the occasion, which they needed to because that was a big football game against a very good team,” Mendenhall said of last year’s loss. “I think they treated it just simply as another game without maybe the edge necessary. I think when you have success over a long, long time, it’s difficult to maintain success with these young men at any level or put strings together. So, I wasn’t able to do that at a high enough level last year and TCU is certainly doing that this year.”