TCU joined the Big 12 in 2012 with justifiably high expectations. After all, the Horned Frogs went undefeated and won the Rose Bowl in 2010, then won 11 games the following season.
Yet so far, TCU has been a big disappointment in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs have gone just 6-12 in the league in two seasons, which culminated last year with the worst record of the Gary Patterson era.
But Saturday in Fort Worth against fourth-ranked Oklahoma, TCU has a grand chance to establish its credibility in its new conference.
And prove it belongs in the Big 12.
“I don’t think ... as a whole team we are there yet,” said Patterson, whose club debuted in the Top 25 this week after a 3-0 start. “But I do believe we have good enough players to win Big 12 ballgames. I said it takes three to five years, and we are in our third year.”
So far, the Horned Frogs have looked like a different team in Year 3.
Its first two years in the league, TCU continued to field tenacious defenses. But it also endured total ineptness offensively, which stymied the Horned Frogs’ transition from the Mountain West Conference.
The offensive line struggled to pave running lanes or protect quarterbacks Casey Pachall or Trevone Boykin. The wide receiving corps failed to develop a consistent, go-to target for the quarterbacks. And the quarterbacks, well, they were part of the problem, too.
But after Patterson brought on coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie to install an up-tempo, spread attack, the Horned Frogs have begun to show a pulse offensively again.
After finishing eighth in the league in scoring in back-to-back years, TCU is third in the Big 12 at the moment with a scoring average of almost 45 points per game. The offensive line is deeper, stronger and more experienced. The Horned Frogs feature four of the top 25 statistical receivers in the league in Kolby Listenbee, Deante' Gray, David Porter and Josh Doctson.
But the biggest difference has been the improved play of Boykin, whose QBR is up 30 points from last season. Boykin has already thrown for eight touchdowns, one more than he passed for all of last season.
“Trevone has matured and has worked to get better as a quarterback, definitely,” center Joey Hunt said. “He’s got a really good understanding of this offense.”
Yet while the offense has shown improvement, TCU’s calling card again is its defense.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, TCU has allowed an FBS-low 0.31 points per drive this season, which is on track to be the lowest for any defense anywhere in the last 10 seasons.
Even without defensive end Devonte Fields, the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year who was dismissed from the team before the start of the season, the Horned Frogs have been overwhelming opposing quarterbacks. According to ESPN Stats & Info, TCU has sacked opponents on 15 percent of dropbacks -- three percentage points better than any other Power 5 defense.
"We're still not there yet," All-Big 12 safety Sam Carter said. "We've still got a lot of things we have to improve on. We still have to improve in the run game as well as the passing game definitely this weekend. Those guys (Oklahoma) run great.”
The Horned Frogs, however, seem to be getting closer.
And a win over Oklahoma would place them where they haven’t been before -- in the thick of the Big 12 title race.
“It would be a big win,” Hunt said. “It’s been a struggle for us. I came to TCU to win football games, and we want to get back to doing that. But the only way we’re going to establish our credibility is by winning games.
“Hopefully we can get over the hump.”