TCU is setting its sights on new goals now that it has held onto the Iron Skillet and gone through nonconference play undefeated.
"For me, it's always try to get to six wins, then you become a qualifier for bowl games," coach Gary Patterson said when asked what's next for his 10th-ranked Horned Frogs, drawing chuckles when he then mentioned bowl bonuses and refused to predict if TCU would accomplish that.
The idea that the Horned Frogs (4-0) would be satisfied with six wins and just any bowl game is laughable. The team with four 11-win seasons since 2003 still has dreams of becoming the next BCS buster.
After a 39-14 victory Saturday night over SMU (2-2) in the Dallas-Fort Worth rivalry known as the "Battle for the Iron Skillet," the Frogs moved up a spot to No. 10 in the new Associated Press poll Sunday. It is only the second time in 50 years they have reached the top 10 during the season.
"We know where we're at. There's people who believe we're not good enough to be there, and others who believe that we are," said Patterson, the ninth-year head coach who was the defensive coordinator for three seasons before that. "Our whole goal is just to keep winning one more and keep proving people wrong. It hasn't changed since I started here."
TCU was No. 7 in the final poll last season after a 17-16 victory over Boise State in a Poinsettia Bowl matchup between two of the top teams from conferences without automatic spots in the Bowl Championship Series. The Frogs were 17th in the preseason poll, and already up a spot by their opener Sept. 12, when they were one of only two teams (Florida International) to play their first games so late.
Except for a two-week span late in 2003, when they were 10-0, the Frogs haven't played a game as a top 10-team since 1959.
The sixth-ranked Broncos (5-0) are the only non-BCS team ahead of TCU in the latest polls. Boise State is also sixth in the USA Today coaches poll, where TCU is ninth. The first BCS rankings come out in two weeks, but only one of those teams will likely get a chance to finish the season in one of the major bowls if both remain undefeated.
Most experts expect Boise State to make it unscathed through the Western Athletic Conference, where Idaho (4-1) is the only other squad in the nine-team league with a winning record.
TCU faces a more difficult task in the Mountain West Conference, which also has No. 18 BYU (4-1) and Utah (3-1), the original and only two-time BCS buster. The Frogs' league opener is Saturday at Air Force (3-2, 2-0 MWC), which beat TCU at home two years ago.
"They've got us circled," linebacker Daryl Washington said. "We've got to get ready to play."
The Frogs shook off three first-half turnovers against SMU and finally took the lead on Jeremy Kerley's 71-yard punt return for a touchdown 5 minutes before halftime. Freshman Tanner Brock delivered a bone-rattling block even while losing his helmet to take out two defenders, helping spring Kerley for TCU's first punt return for a touchdown since the 2002 season opener.
That made it 12-7, part of a string of 25 unanswered points after SMU scored first. The Frogs put the game out of reach in the second half when Andy Dalton threw two touchdown passes to go along with scoring runs by Matthew Tucker (11 yards) and Joseph Turner (1 yard).
TCU avoided a repeat of 2005 against SMU, when a week after winning at then-No. 7 Oklahoma, TCU was upset by its closest rival. The Frogs were coming off another significant nonconference road victory last week, 14-10 at Clemson, and responded with their seventh win in the last eight games against SMU.
"Right now, we're at a good pace," said All-America defensive end Jerry Hughes, whose 1½ sacks pushed his season total to six. "But we gave up 14 points. We know we made some careless mistakes we have to correct."
The much-improved Mustangs came in averaging 432 total yards, but TCU held them to 224 (240 passing and minus-16 rushing). SMU got 190 yards on only five plays, and 34 yards combined its other 51 offensive snaps.
"Well, that's how you play bad and win 39-14. Outside of that, we are 4-0," Patterson said. "I guess we finally got to that place where we have a high enough standard where everybody believes you have to blow people out to be great."