Before playing West Virginia last week, TCU coach Gary Patterson surveyed the four games remaining on the Horned Frogs' schedule.
All four opponents were ranked in the BCS Top 25 at the time, including the Mountaineers, whom TCU beat on the road in double overtime.
"You see the stretch of teams we have to play," Patterson told his team. "Have you shut your eyes and imagined if you ran out and you won them all? What would people say?"
TCU (6-3, 3-3 in the Big 12) would not only shake the BCS landscape, but would turn its up-and-down first season in the Big 12 into a rousing success with a head-turning set of performances in the next three weeks. But it's perhaps the most difficult three-game stretch the Frogs have faced in Patterson's 12-year tenure and it begins at 6 tonight before a national television audience at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
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No. 2 Kansas State (9-0, 6-0) rolls into Fort Worth with Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Collin Klein and a stingy, senior-laden defense led by linebacker Arthur Brown.
The Frogs have fared well against highly ranked teams under Patterson, winning the past three against teams in the top five. Tonight's showdown is similar in nature to recent season-defining November games for TCU -- a 2009 blowout win of 16th-ranked Utah, a 40-point demolition win at No. 5 Utah in 2010, and a heart-stopping win at fifth-ranked Boise State in 2011.
The one difference this year is TCU is unranked and untested against an elite team. That changes with Kansas State, No. 17 Texas and No. 12 Oklahoma left to play. The Wildcats have proven to be one of 2012's elite teams under coach Bill Snyder, in his 21st season at Kansas State.
It's a team filled with experienced upperclassmen who rarely make mistakes and make opponents pay for theirs. Kansas State has scored 111 points off 24 opponent turnovers and allowed no points on only four turnovers of its own. Yes, four -- two interceptions and two fumbles (including one on a muffed punt snap).
"It's a proven fact against Kansas State, if you lose the turnover battle against them good things are not going to happen to you," Patterson said with equal parts admiration and consternation. Patterson described how a team such as KSU can lull a foe into thinking it's playing well, hanging tough through three quarters. "Pretty soon you look up and you think we didn't play very bad, but we're down 40," he said.
Kansas State has outscored teams 124-52 in the fourth quarter and has only been tested twice -- both road wins -- at Oklahoma, 24-19, and at Iowa State, 27-21. In those games the KSU offense was held to its two lowest outputs of the season: 362 and 364 yards. The Wildcats have scored more than 50 points five times.
"They're real consistent and don't make too many mistakes," TCU cornerback Jason Verrett said. "Their quarterback is real patient. We're just going to have to be real physical. Try not to make too many mistakes and try to capitalize on any mistakes they make. We're not really too focused on the ranking at all."
The Frogs, playing with redshirt freshman quarterback Trevone Boykin and a host of other new faces, have struggled at times with 23 turnovers. Boykin has thrown seven interceptions in his five starts, including six in TCU's three losses and one in two wins.
"I just keep telling him when you throw down the middle, make sure," Patterson said. "Like all young quarterbacks he throws to the outside real well and down the middle it's always interesting. Plays, in a year's time, I think he'll make. When he starts scrambling, [he's] got to have peace. It can't be out-of-control scrambling, it has to be under-control scrambling. Right now, it's a new week every week with him."
Part of that is on the Frogs' offensive line. Boykin took multiple hard shots in the pocket against West Virginia. Protection is something senior offensive guard Blaize Foltz said needs to be better, especially against a smart, physical defense such as KSU's.
"Their defense is their backbone, they're outstanding," Foltz said. "We have to do a lot better, become more physical. When they hit us in the mouth, we need to strike back. They're hard-nosed. I think it's what this program always strives to be. They have the same mentality; I think that's something we have in common. There are definitely some similarities."
Snyder praised Boykin earlier this week, mentioning his ability to hurt defenses with his feet. His own quarterback, Klein, has rushed for nearly 700 yards and leads the team with 17 rushing touchdowns.
"With the young QB getting more and more experience, he's getting better as he goes," Snyder said of Boykin. "I think that's been a tremendous asset for them. He's got the capacity to do so many different things, and he's good in both arenas."
Earlier this week, Patterson got a big laugh at his luncheon comparing the Frogs' final three games to George Custer charging over the hill at the Little Bighorn. It didn't end well for Custer and his men.
"The only difference between Custer and us is we know what's on the other side," Patterson said.