Of all Gary Patterson's standby lines, none has been more prevalent in 2012 than the importance of getting to six wins, to earn that bowl eligibility so coveted by players and coaches.
After TCU's 4-0 start, that goal, which he repeated after every game, seemed to be low-balling what the Horned Frogs were capable of doing in 2012.
But then more injuries occurred and starting quarterback Casey Pachall left the team. Six wins suddenly didn't seem so attainable anymore, especially with the toughest stretch of the Frogs' schedule still ahead.
After splitting road games at Oklahoma State and West Virginia, TCU's "Custer section" of the 2012 schedule, as Patterson called it Tuesday, begins Saturday with No. 2 Kansas State and Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Collin Klein coming to town.
The Wildcats (9-0, 6-0 Big 12) are trying to stay unbeaten and earn their first BCS National Championship Game berth. The Frogs (6-3, 3-3), already having crossed off Patterson's first goal of bowl eligibility, can now play spoiler and affect the entire BCS landscape with a victory on a nationally televised prime-time game at 6 p.m. Saturday on KFDW/Ch. 4.
It's the first time TCU has played consecutive games broadcast on one of the major networks, and Kansas State is the highest-ranked team to play at Amon G. Carter Stadium in 42 years. "Going over the hill," Custer-style, Patterson said, continues with a Thanksgiving night game at No. 17 Texas and a regular-season finale against No. 12 Oklahoma.
"On three Saturdays, you have to be the best team on that day, that's all you have to be," Patterson said. "There's a lot of different intangibles that go into all three of those ballgames. It's what makes it fun."
Winning last week at West Virginia in double overtime was huge for the Frogs for more than just halting a two-game slide. Clinching bowl eligibility, which offers not only the obvious benefits and perks for players, coaches and fans, gives Patterson 10 to 15 more practices in December that he'll get to coach up his well-documented young team. TCU can, perhaps, play looser than it would have with that sixth win still to be had.
"One of our goals was to get bowl eligible," Patterson reminded the media Tuesday. "We got to six wins. Not probably the way everybody would have liked us to, or myself, but we did. We have three really big ballgames coming down. We all knew what these last three were like before the start of the season. But I'm glad we got to six [wins] before we got to these three."
No doubt Patterson meant what he said, but he's also far from conceding defeat Saturday. He compared the situation to 2001, his first year as TCU's head coach and the school's first year in Conference USA. His team was 4-5 with games against 17th-ranked Louisville and at Southern Miss left to play. Two wins earned the Frogs their first bowl trip under Patterson. Including this season, he's led TCU to 11 bowls in 12 years.
"The odds of winning then probably are not much better or worse than winning the next three ballgames," said Patterson, partly as a matter of fact and partly as a potential motivator for his team. "Our kids like it. Our kids don't know any different."
Senior offensive lineman Blaize Foltz acknowledged the importance of earning the bowl berth after the game Saturday. "It's huge," he said. "We've had kind of a down year compared to our standards. This was big for us. I know coach is happy for us."
But by Tuesday, bowl eligibility, like it seemed early in the season, was an afterthought for Foltz, who grew up in Kansas and has friends playing for the Wildcats.
"Coming off this big win, I think we're going to have a good shot," Foltz said of the KSU game. "This is a big game. It's going to be fun. Prime time, against Kansas State, it's my hometown team. I'm getting pretty excited for it. It's a big win if we can pull it off."
For Patterson, who was a walk-on at Kansas State in 1980-81 after transferring from Dodge City Community College, and later a graduate assistant for the Wildcats' first bowl team in 1982, there's a "dilemma" over facing his alma mater.
"You love to see them come so far and being so close to playing for a national championship," he said. "But also, on our side of it, trying to win seven. We've been in this situation before. Last year against Boise [State], if they win our ballgame they're going to a BCS game."
TCU crushed Boise State's BCS dream with a gutsy win on the road. Saturday, against the Wildcats, the Frogs try a third time to win their first Big 12 game at home.
"Things haven't changed," he said. "We're still going to be underdogs ... It's a dilemma, but this is what they pay me to do."
Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760