FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - After a conference-hopping journey that included two BCS games and three different league titles, TCU is finally where it always wanted to be.
The 20th-ranked Horned Frogs are in the Big 12, the league they were left out of when the Southwest Conference broke up in the mid-1990s.
Now comes the real challenge.
“Our group has to understand, you have not arrived just because we got to the Big 12,” coach Gary Patterson said. “Being in the Big 12 doesn’t make you special. Winning makes you special. That’s how we got back to this point - winning.”
TCU has won 24 conference games in a row, winning the last three Mountain West titles outright without a league loss since November 2008. The Frogs have won 50 of their last 55 games overall, including a 13-0 season two years ago when they were Rose Bowl champions and finished No. 2 in the final AP poll.
UNLV and New Mexico are no longer part of the Frogs’ conference schedule. Instead, they will now face on a regular basis the likes of Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia, like TCU a Big 12 newcomer that was a champion in a different conference the past two seasons.
“We have the talent, and we have the skill and the size to compete with any of those teams,” quarterback Casey Pachall said. “It’s just being able to deal with them week to week to week.”
The Frogs are the only FBS team with six 11-win seasons the past seven years. They have won 16 of their last 20 games against teams from leagues with automatic bids into the Bowl Championship Series.
Before making its much-anticipated Big 12 debut at Kansas on Sept. 15, TCU will try to take care of business in Saturday night’s season opener against Grambling State (0-1) at recently renovated Amon G. Carter Stadium. The Tigers are coming off a 22-21 loss at Alcorn State last Saturday.
Patterson has won 109 games in 11 seasons as TCU’s coach, matching Dutch Meyer for the most victories in school history. Patterson reached that mark in 62 fewer games than the coach who led the Frogs to their only AP national championship in 1938.
This is the season TCU was supposed to be joining the Big East. That changed last October with an invitation to be part of the Big 12, the group the Frogs were excluded from before going to the WAC, Conference USA and finally the Mountain West.
“Everything we’ve done to this point is great. But now the real work starts,” Patterson said. “It’s another way we’ve got to keep climbing the mountain. The higher you get on a mountain, the thinner the air, the harder it is. So for us we’re going to keep doing that.”
After taking over for Andy Dalton, the winningest quarterback in TCU history, Pachall threw 25 touchdown passes and broke Dalton’s single-season record with 2,921 yards as a sophomore. The Frogs averaged 440 yards and 41 points a game last season, when their only losses were 50-48 at Baylor in the opener against Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and an overtime loss at home against SMU.
Along with Pachall, two of their top three rushers and three of their top four receivers are back this season.
“We know what we can do, and we know we can put up a lot of numbers, and a lot of points,” Pachall said.
TCU, though, won’t have starting receiver Skye Dawson available after he was suspended for the game because of school policy. Patterson would not discuss details.
Dawson was the Horned Frogs’ second-leading receiver last year with 45 catches for 500 yards and five touchdowns.
Pachall won’t miss any games after admitting to police in February that he smoked marijuana and failed a team-administered drug test. Patterson said the quarterback completed drug and alcohol counseling mandated by the university for first-time offenders.
The quarterback’s admission came during an interview with police Feb. 15 when his roommate at the time, linebacker Tanner Brock, was one of four TCU players arrested with other students and former students during a drug sting. The police report containing details of Pachall’s interview was released earlier this month.
Brock, defensive tackle D.J. Yendrey, cornerback Devin Johnson - all likely starters this season - and offensive lineman Tyler Horn were kicked off the team after their arrests. They pleaded guilty to marijuana delivery charges and received probation.
Pachall apologized publicly for his actions the day TCU players reported to start practice.
“I know I’m not perfect,” Pachall said. “But I’ve learned from those mistakes and I’m still learning. It’s a day-to-day process for me of trying to be a better person.”