When TCU moved into the Mountain West in 2005, the bar was set by BYU and Utah, the two consistent powers in the conference.
TCU coach Gary Patterson used those programs to measure how the Horned Frogs could compete for conference titles. Although the Frogs surprised many by winning the MWC title that first season in 2005, it took three more seasons before Patterson's blueprint for the league really kicked into gear. The Frogs finished their seven-year stint in the league with three consecutive titles from 2009-11, going a combined 6-0 against BYU, Utah and Boise State, which entered the league in 2011.
The move into the Big 12 raised the bar even higher, but it still comes down to two head honchos: No. 16 Texas (8-2, 5-2) and No. 13 Oklahoma (8-2, 6-1).
"If you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best," Patterson said Tuesday during his media luncheon. "If you want to win the Big 12 title, as a general rule, it's gone through Austin or Norman."
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Patterson has said repeatedly that TCU's first few seasons in the Big 12 would be a learning process. After a couple cycles through the league, the Frogs will tweak their recruiting needs, how they practice and how they travel for games. And on a talent basis, the Frogs' final four games -- especially the last two against Texas at 6:30 p.m. Thursday and against Oklahoma on Dec. 1 -- provide the best evaluation on what TCU needs to do in the off-season.
"If you want to win the conference title consistently, you better find a formula to be able to beat those two football teams," Patterson said. "Anybody who would argue different than that needs to go to the doctor because they're not right. It was going to be a measuring stick, and it is."
Patterson's first year as TCU's head coach was perhaps the most difficult transition, he said. The Frogs had a first-year head coach and were moving from the Western Athletic Conference into Conference USA. The two teams to beat then were Southern Mississippi and Louisville. Patterson said that was a bigger challenge because so much of the program's infrastructure was still just a pipe dream, including most of the new athletic facilities and the $164 million renovation to Amon G. Carter Stadium.
"It was a bigger challenge walking up a mountain in 2001 of where we needed to get to and what we needed to do than it is where we're at right now because we had no tools to be able to climb the mountain," Patterson said.
Patterson's natural inclination is to treat every loss as unacceptable, but he has referred to himself as a "pessimist realist" during a season in which he not only moved into one of the nation's toughest conferences, but also lost multiple starters that left him playing with the youngest roster of his tenure.
"We have to be patient, but we have to be able to keep our goals high," he said. "You have to understand where we're trying to get to, but you have to be realistic.
"We have a difficult task at hand, but it's not any different than it was going to West Virginia and winning an overtime game against a Tavon Austin and a [Stedman] Bailey or playing a Collin Klein at Kansas State. It's just a different animal."
How the Frogs (6-4, 3-4) finish this season will say a lot about what needs to be done to rebound in 2013.
"I said these last four ballgames would be a measuring stick for what we felt like we needed to do in the off-season to win, to get better and recruit. We're 1-1 so far with a really good football team ahead of us Thursday, and then you follow it with Oklahoma, who is not bad themselves," Patterson said.
But, he added, he's not naive about the challenge.
"I'm not also stupid enough not to think it's a pretty daunting task knowing Texas knows they have a chance, if things happen right, to still have a share of the conference title. Oklahoma has the same thing at stake."