For one hour in early June, quarterback Andy Dalton and defensive end Jerry Hughes were captivated by the words of retired coach Lou Holtz. They listened as Holtz, now a well-traveled motivational speaker when he's not providing analysis on ESPN, shouted advice on how to become a champion: Work hard. Set goals. Ask yourself, What's important now? With Holtz's recorded speech concluded and his message absorbed, Dalton pushed the eject button on the CD player in his SUV, and the players returned to the quiet solitude of a dark Texas highway late at night. "The big thing Coach Holtz emphasized was, What's important now?" Dalton recalls.
What's important now for the Horned Frogs is to finally get to a BCS bowl. Despite five seasons with 10 or more wins and a Mountain West title in 2005, they've yet to get a bid. (Utah is the only MWC team to be awarded one—in 2004 and '08.)
With 13 starters back from a team that went 11--2 and ranked seventh in the nation (both losses were to top 10 teams), TCU has a shot to be this season's Utah—if it get can past the Utes and BYU in another Mountain West scramble. The most significant player back is Hughes, a 6'3", 257-pound attacking left end who had a breakout season as a junior in 2008 with a nation's best 15 sacks and six forced fumbles. After rushing for 1,412 yards and 19 TDs in his senior year at Sugar Land (Texas) Austin High, Hughes signed with TCU intending to play running back. But on the day freshmen reported in 2006, he was assigned jersey number 98. "I knew then," Hughes says, "that my running back days were kind of numbered."
The move has worked out well for the Horned Frogs and Hughes, who has the quickness to beat tackles off the edge and the agility to drop into coverage when the coaches call one of their favorite zone blitzes. Led by Hughes, TCU ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense (217.8 yards per game) last season, the third time in nine years it has led that category. "I think we have a chance to be a faster team defensively," coach Gary Patterson says. "But I don't know if we can be as good because some of the guys who just graduated had been playing together for four years."
If the defense needs time to gather itself, the offense shouldn't miss a beat coming off a season in which it set school records for points (437) and touchdowns (56). The Frogs bring back six of their seven top rushers, two starting receivers, three linemen and Dalton, who is 17--6 as a starter.
They all understand what's important now: shedding that BCS monkey.
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TCU'S HAD THE NO. 1 DEFENSE THREE TIMES SINCE 2000.
COACH: Gary Patterson (9th year)
2008 RECORD: 11--2 (7--1 in MWC)
FINAL AP RANK: 7
RETURNING STARTERS: 10 Offense 6, Defense 4
12 at Virginia
19 Texas State
26 at Clemson
10 at Air Force
17 Colorado State
24 at BYU
7 at San Diego State
21 at Wyoming
28 New Mexico
The Horned Frogs can make a BCS statement with victories at Virginia and Clemson, but the first priority should be winning the Mountain West. Utah has beaten TCU three straight times and five of the last six.
Call them Big 12 busters. The Frogs were left out when schools from the Southwest Conference (of which TCU had been a member since 1923) and the Big Eight formed the Big 12 in 1996. But since joining the MWC in 2005, TCU is 5--2 against Big 12 programs.
After leading the nation in sacks, Hughes wants to take down a BCS bid.