LOS ANGELES -- TCU is proudly carrying a banner at the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.
"We're not just representing TCU," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "We're representing all the non-AQ schools."
The Horned Frogs are taking that responsibility very seriously this week, saying they have to play well for all the schools who might never get a chance to make it to this stage. As far as crusades go, though, this won't be a long one. TCU will soon be leaving that torch for someone else to pick up.
It is the first team from outside the six automatic-qualifying conferences to reach two consecutive BCS games, and it came the hard way as TCU has gone 12-0 the last two regular seasons. In 2012, the team will have much more margin for error as it joins the Big East and can still make the BCS just by winning the league.
"I'm actually a little envious of the younger players," said cornerback Greg McCoy, whose eligibility expires after the 2011 campaign. "We all worked hard for the future, and I know there's a lot of envy among the upperclassmen. But when you work hard, things get better. And we all know we contributed to this."
TCU's senior class played a major role in making the program attractive to the Big East, winning 35 games the previous three years. Many of those seniors are stars on this team, like four-year starter Andy Dalton, center Jake Kirkpatrick, receiver/returner Jeremy Kerley, safety Tejay Johnson and defensive end Wayne Daniels.
But the program has shown that it can reload. Last year's team lost All-America defensive end Jerry Hughes and linebacker Daryl Washington to the NFL. Daniels elevated his game, and redshirt freshman Stansly Maponga stepped in to replace Hughes' production at end. Sophomore Tanner Brock took over for Washington at middle linebacker and kept that position strong.
"We have a great coaching staff and the athletes to continue to be successful," senior right guard Josh Vernon said. "We don't rely on just one guy on offense or defense."
Can TCU keep this going? It's unrealistic to think the program will keep piling up undefeated regular seasons. But who's to say they can't become the top frogs in the Big East and turn into the next Virginia Tech, Miami or Florida State -- programs that went from humble beginnings to consistent national powers.
They're not far from that level now.
"I don't feel like we're the small guy," head coach Gary Patterson said. "We've only lost three games the last three years. We lost to Oklahoma that played in national championship game. We lost to Utah that beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and then Boise State a year ago (in the Fiesta Bowl). So we've been in big games and we've proven we can play on a big stage. "
As long as Patterson stays in Fort Worth, the team should remain highly competitive. The school is in the midst of a $105 million renovation of Amon Carter Stadium, funded through private donations. Patterson's staff knows how to recruit and develop Texas talent.
There might not be many more Rose Bowls in the Horned Frogs' future, but Big East membership will allow them to compete for BCS games on an annual basis.
"Obviously we've done something right to get to go to the Big East, and hopefully we'll make that league better," Dalton said. "I can't see us dropping off. I think we'll just keep getting better."