TCU preparing for a defining Big 12 season

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Gary Patterson can only smile when he thinks back to 2004, fresh off a 5-6 season in Conference USA and preparing to join the Mountain West Conference when he started telling people that, one day, TCU would be booking tickets to the BCS.

He would draw smiles and the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head usually reserved for a toddler boldly declaring his intentions of becoming an astronaut or the next Tom Brady. Most would tell Patterson they loved his passion but that he sounded like a crazy person in need of some more realistic goals, lest he disappoint fans and boosters of his program.

"Now you’ve been to two, and you’ve won a Rose Bowl," Patterson told ESPN.com in a recent interview.

Understandably, nobody's laughing much anymore when Patterson talks about the program's next goals, even after a seven-win debut in the Big 12 in 2012.

"Now we’re talking about someday winning a Big 12 championship and someday playing for a national championship," Patterson said.

TCU's best chance is now, with a wide-open Big 12 devoid of a preseason national title contender and the Frogs looking likely to tote a status as one of the league's favorites in the 2013 season. The dividends could be enormous, and Patterson doesn't have to look far to see proof.

"You just look at A&M. Nobody said they were going to do very well, but it’s helped them in recruiting because they surprised people with what they did in their first year in the SEC," Patterson said. "There’s not any doubt that if you can go win big early, you can reap the benefits faster."

The line of thinking is this: TCU has been in the Big 12 for only a season, just like A&M hadn't seen a season in the SEC. Early success means few, if any, examples of failing at the higher level of competition. Show that to recruits and it's a convincing sell. Those convincing sells mean signed letters of intent from players who might otherwise not be heading to your campus, and suddenly you've snowballed into a power based on a big splash in a new, bigger pond.

Texas A&M looks headed for that territory. TCU would love to do the same in the Big 12. At least that's the plan, even though Patterson makes it clear he's treating this season like any other. In fact, with a more experienced team, he's implemented the exact same practice plan as he did for the 2010 season when the Frogs went undefeated and knocked off Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

"Do we have good players? Yes. Do we have the depth we need? No, but we’ve grown in it at some positions," Patterson said. "If we can stay healthy, unlike we did a year ago, who knows what could happen?"

A Big 12 title could definitely happen, and history tells us if you win the Big 12, you won't be far out of the national title race. Catch a couple breaks and you might end up playing on college football's biggest stage. For TCU, that could mean taking big advantage of the natural assets the program was unable to capitalize on without major conference membership.

"We’ve always known who the best players were in the state," Patterson said. "There’s a lot more kids that walk in our doors now that maybe didn’t walk in our doors before. We recruited them but couldn’t get them."

There's no guarantee, but it's hard to see Patterson's sell being a lot harder to turn down if he walks into a recruit's living room with a Big 12 title ring on his hand and a claim that he's won the league 50 percent of the times he's tried to do it. Add to that the offer of playing for a title just a short drive away from home and the weight of what's on the table for TCU in 2013 becomes clearer.

"Like Devonte [Fields], he’s got about 30-35 family members who come watch him play every game," Patterson said of his star defensive end.

Fields won the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year honor as a true freshman in 2012 after signing with TCU as the nation's No. 73 overall prospect and the No. 11 player in Texas.

"Then everybody’s bought in," Patterson said. "It’s not just your mom and dad come up from Houston. You’ve got everybody that’s here."

There's no guarantee TCU can count on winning Big 12 titles in 50 percent of the seasons it plays. Oklahoma has done that over the past decade, though, and Patterson is not in the business of lowering the ambition of the goals he sets for his program.

"The key is can you grow and become a top-20 or top-15 team and top-10 team and in the Big 12 and keep it, not do it once every seven to eight years?" Patterson said. "You’ve got teams in this conference who have been able to do it every other year. We’ve got to make decisions that put us in a position to do that. That’s our whole mindset."