FORT WORTH, Texas – No more questions about if TCU can make it to a BCS game. The Horned Frogs did that last season.
Yet, there was something less than fulfilling for the Frogs after accomplishing only part of their long-desired pursuit. The goal was to get to a BCS game — and win it.
"All last season, we were like, 'OK, we deserve to be in the BCS, we deserve to be there,'" receiver Curtis Clay said. "When we did get there, we didn't show the nation that we did deserve to be there."
After going 12-0 in the regular season with a bunch of lopsided victories, the Frogs lost 17-10 in the Fiesta Bowl to fellow BCS buster Boise State.
"That is motivation for us to get back and win again," said senior quarterback Andy Dalton, who had three interceptions in the bowl game after only five in the regular season.
With its highest preseason ranking, sixth-ranked TCU just might get that chance for a BCS do-over.
Dalton, TCU's career passing leader, is back for his fourth season as the starter. And he is surrounded by most of the skill players that helped set school records with 498 points and 5,937 total yards last season.
"I feel like we should be better this year," said Dalton, whose 29 career victories are tied with "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh for the most in school history. "Obviously the bowl game didn't go as well as we wanted, but that's not what defined the season. See everything we accomplished."
The only offensive starters gone are All-Mountain West left tackle Marshall Newhouse and leading rusher Joseph Turner.
All-MWC right tackle Marcus Cannon, who didn't allow a sack last season, is sliding to the left side. Turner was part of a trio of runners who had at least 600 yards, with sophomore running backs Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker both back.
And coach Gary Patterson, going into his 10th season as head coach after three years as the Frogs' defensive coordinator, always has good defenses — No. 1 nationally in total defense the last two seasons, and four of the last 10.
There were significant losses after All-American end Jerry Hughes and linebacker Daryl Washington were both picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, and a pair of four-year starting cornerbacks graduated.
But there are 24 of 30 defensive lettermen back on a unit known for constantly rotating players and having plenty of depth.
Wayne Daniels, the returning defensive end, had 5½ sacks last season. Greg McCoy and Jason Teague, the new starting cornerbacks, both had two interceptions and made starts as injury replacements.
Junior linebacker Tank Carder's 89 tackles trailed only Washington.
Before finally making it to a BCS game, there had been some near-misses for TCU under Patterson.
There was a 10-0 start in 2003 and the one-loss team two years later, when the Frogs' only loss was at SMU the week after upsetting Oklahoma in the season opener. TCU has won 11 games four of the past six seasons.
Last year was the Frogs' first undefeated regular season since 1938, their only AP national championship. They won their last seven games by at least 27 points, including against Utah and BYU.
Patterson says he changed his approach "a little bit" last year with a message that also applies again this season with a lot of returning players and big expectations.
"Coaches are really bad about telling you if you don't do this, you're never going to live up to that expectation," Patterson said. "Well last year, I didn't do that. I just finally decided at some point in time you get tired of talking negatives because pretty soon (players) listen to you and they follow suit. That's what they hear."
The adjusted message?
"I just told them, here's what we have in front of us, here's the level of talent that we have," he said. "You live up to it, you've got a chance to do this."
That doesn't mean TCU has abandoned the underdog, chip-on-its-shoulder mentality.
Senior center Jake Kirkpatrick said the Frogs went through one of their toughest summers ever because the coaches aren't going to let them "just be mediocre."
The Frogs' season opener is Sept. 4 in a nationally televised game against 24th-ranked Oregon State at Cowboys Stadium, the $1.2 billion NFL palace only about 20 miles from the TCU campus.
That provides a quick opportunity for TCU to prove it is indeed one of the nation's best teams.
"For the longest time, we were saying we deserve to mentioned with those top-tier teams," Clay said. "I think now that we are being mentioned, it's very important this season to show that we deserve to be here.
"We were always trying to prove everyone wrong, and now I think our goal is to prove everyone right."