The way Gary Patterson sees things, his TCU football team remains in “prove-it” mode after getting a sniff of college football’s inaugural playoff last season.
The context of that objective, however, has shifted 180 degrees.
“Last year, we had to prove people wrong,” Patterson said. “This year, we have to prove people right.”
The Horned Frogs are no longer a defense-centric program trying to find their footing in a power conference. That’s so 2013.
Their focus now revolves around larger ambitions: To show that 2014 — a season that included a 30-7 home victory over the Gophers in September — wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and that they’re legitimate contenders for a national championship.
The Horned Frogs have made a quantum leap on the field and in national perception. They went 12-1 last season — an eight-win improvement from the previous year — and came within a controversial vote of securing a playoff berth.
The Horned Frogs tumbled out of the Final Four in the playoff committee’s final poll, sparking legitimate questions about the selection process and whether the Big 12 Conference’s lack of a championship game should have hurt TCU’s résumé.
“I thought the whole thing about going to a playoff was that they picked the four best teams,” Patterson said.
Frustration over that snub was natural, but Patterson said the lesson learned is that his team must perform even better to get rewarded.
“We’ve got to work toward having a plan: We’re going to get in there and they won’t have any say about it,” Patterson said. “We’re undefeated, or you prove as a football team that you deserve to be there.”
TCU’s path to validation starts with a road test against the Gophers on Thursday night. The Horned Frogs begin the season ranked No. 2 nationally, their highest preseason ranking in program history.
TCU earned trips to the Fiesta Bowl and Rose Bowl in recent years so the program already had national credibility. Except now the motto in Fort Worth should read: playoffs or bust.
“Our team goals have not changed since I stepped on campus,” star quarterback Trevone Boykin told reporters at Big 12 media day.
A seismic shift in Patterson’s coaching philosophy sent his program on this path after a crossroads 2013 season. The Horned Frogs went 4-8 that season, giving them an 11-14 record in their first two seasons as Big 12 members.
The program needed a jolt.
Patterson is a defensive coach to his core. TCU has led the nation in total defense five times since 2000 under Patterson, who built his program on that bedrock.
That alone wasn’t enough, not in the Big 12 where teams play offense at warp speed and win shootouts on a weekly basis. TCU’s offense was too methodical and outdated for its new league.
Patterson loosened his collar by hiring Mike Leach “Air Raid” disciples Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham as co-offensive coordinators tasked with installing a wide-open spread attack. The result: The Horned Frogs became the nation’s most improved offense in total yards and scoring last season. They finished with the second-highest scoring offense among FBS schools at 46.5 points per game, up from 25.1 points per game in ’13.
They set school records for points, first downs, passing yards and total offense.
Not bad for a team, and coach, known for defense.
“I was kind of a fan last year watching because I don’t have years to compare it to,” Patterson said. “Everyone says it takes another year or two in this offense. I’m interested to see what Year 2 looks like.”
Opposing defenses probably don’t share his enthusiasm. TCU returns 10 starters on offense, led by Boykin, a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite.
The run-and-gun scheme perfectly fits Boykin’s talent and skills. He thrived in his first season in the new offense, setting school records for passing yards (3,901), touchdown passes (33), total touchdowns (42) and total offense (4,608). He wasn’t spectacular against the Gophers last September, missing his target on 19 of his 46 throws, but his 350 total yards were more than enough.
Boykin’s breakout campaign launched his national profile and created anticipation over his encore.
“We can get a lot better,” Boykin said.
Patterson applauds the manner in which Boykin has handled the Heisman hype. Boykin turned down offers to work with several independent quarterback gurus this summer — only accepting an invitation to the Manning Passing Academy — in favor of staying on campus to prepare with his teammates.
“Sometimes you can get lulled into everything, especially if you went from where we were to where he is now,” Patterson said.
That sentiment applies to Patterson’s entire program. Yet, they still believe they have something to prove.
“Last year, they were telling us what we didn’t have, what we couldn’t do,” Boykin said. “It left a bad taste in our mouth. We knew we had the talent. Nothing has really changed for us.”
And yet everything feels different.