When TCU rolls into Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday night for the season opener on ESPN, everyone in the sold-out stadium will know that the Horned Frogs are the No. 2 team in the country.
Well, except for TCU, so long as the Frogs played their mental cards right.
“We try to approach it that way,” quarterback Trevone Boykin said. “That’s the only way we try to approach it, like our backs are against the wall. When you’ve got that bull’s-eye on your back and that ranking, you never play like that. We try to play like our back is against the wall.”
That is a traditional TCU approach, born of the Frogs’ days in the hinterlands of college football — when they were still trying to work their way back into a power conference.
Now they are there, starting the season as defending co-champion in the Big 12 and at No. 2 in the preseason AP and coaches polls. They are favored in a road game against another Power 5 team, they are a trendy pick for a spot in the College Football Playoff and they have a Heisman Trophy contender.
They are hardly little ol’ TCU anymore.
Except to themselves.
“How do we leave Minneapolis with a one-point victory?” coach Gary Patterson said Tuesday at the team’s weekly press conference. “If it can be 25 points, great. But we’re not trying to say we’ll live up to a No. 2 ranking. All we’re trying to do is win.”
If we get beat by Minnesota, it’ll be because they beat us. It won’t be because we thought we were something that we’re not.”
TCU coach Gary Patterson
A year ago, the underdog mentality helped propel the Frogs to a 12-1 record. This year, it will be a harder fit from the start.
The Horned Frogs defeated Minnesota by 23 points last season in Fort Worth. But they are still trying to think like underdogs — even as a two-touchdown favorite Thursday night.
“It’s going to be tough; they’re a very good team,” receiver Ty Slanina said of the Gophers, 8-5 a year ago but 30-7 losers to TCU in Fort Worth. “Very athletic, very smart, very good at disguising their coverages. They’re better than last year.”
Patterson and the Frogs have to walk a tricky line between “Prove Them Right,” the team motto this year, and “Prove Them Wrong,” the team motto last year.
They are at the top of their conference but have only been winners in the Big 12 one year.
“You use both sides of that every year,” Patterson said. “Because there’s a lot of people that don’t believe TCU belongs at No. 2 or that we can beat Minnesota or that we can win the Big 12 or any of the above.
“I don’t think you ever get to a situation where you’re just playing one side of that phrase. You’re trying to prove everybody right that believes in us, and you’ve got a whole bunch that you’re trying to prove wrong.”
Why doubt TCU?
Well, Patterson had to replace six starters on defense and will have to play freshmen at linebacker. He will also be missing two defensive players Thursday (although he didn’t say who or why).
Offensively, slot receiver Deante’ Gray is unlikely to play while he continues to recover from knee surgery. And there is the loss of veteran punt returner Cameron Echols-Luper, who unexpectedly transferred to Arkansas State two weeks ago.
“Any time you’re playing freshmen, it’s always hold on to your coattails,” Patterson said. “But I’ve also not limited them. I think we can be good with a freshman linebacker and maybe a freshman D-lineman or a freshman safety or a freshman cornerback playing.”
In that sense, Patterson sounds optimistic about this year’s team. He knows what the offense is capable of behind Boykin, and he is looking forward to the contributions of running back Shaun Nixon, who is back from an ACL injury, receivers Ja’Juan Story and Emanuel Porter, and others.
“It’s always the same; you just have to wait and see,” Patterson said. “One of the worst things you can do is put dampers on them and don’t allow them to become what they can become.
“We’ve pushed them to do everything that we’ve needed to do, to try and play at the level of a team that’s ranked where we are. Then we’ll see where we’re at when we get done with the ballgame, and then we’ll go forward.”
The last time TCU opened the season on a Thursday night was in 2004, when it defeated Northwestern 48-45 in double overtime in Fort Worth.
So for Thursday night, the game plan is simple: Think like an underdog trying to win any way possible.
“The worst thing that can happen to us is we worry that we have to play like a No. 2 team in the country,” Patterson said. “We only have to worry about that at the end of the season.”