When the Southwest Conference broke up after the 1995 season, TCU set out on an undesired conference-hopping journey.
Half of the Texas teams from the old SWC -- Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and even Baylor, a private Christian school like TCU -- were invited into the Big 12, which has grown into one of the nation's best leagues.
The Horned Frogs, bitter about the snub, bounced from the Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA to the Mountain West over the next decade. They won or shared titles in all of them.
Those nomadic BCS outsiders have found a home in the MWC and are now in national championship contention, without the benefit of automatic access to the Bowl Championship Series.
"Everybody likes a Cinderella story," coach Gary Patterson said. "But we're just trying to get to the ball."
Or big bowl in this case. One of the long-stated and unfulfilled goals for TCU (9-0, 5-0) is to get into a BCS game and win it.
The Frogs are fourth in the latest Associated Press poll, their highest ranking since 1956. They're also in fourth place in the BCS standings, the highest a team from a conference without an automatic bid has reached.
Trailing only SEC powers Florida and Alabama, and former SWC rival Texas, that puts TCU in position to possibly do more than just be this season's BCS buster. They could become the first to play for the national title.
Heading into a sold-out home game Saturday night against No. 16 Utah (8-1, 5-0), this is the closest TCU has been to a national championship since winning its only one in 1938, the undefeated season when Davey O'Brien won the Heisman Trophy.
TCU also claims another national title in 1935, when Sammy Baugh was the quarterback of a 12-1 team.
The Frogs won four Southwest Conference titles from 1951-59, but there hadn't been any sustained success since then until recently.
In the past six years, TCU has four 11-win seasons and two more 10-win seasons since 2000. That's a long way from 1-10 in 1997, the last season for coach Pat Sullivan and the freshman year for LaDainian Tomlinson.
When Dennis Franchione replaced Sullivan, he brought Patterson as his defensive coordinator. They capped their first season with a victory over Southern California in the Sun Bowl, then shared back-to-back WAC titles before Franchione left for Alabama and Patterson was promoted to head coach.
Ask Patterson how the Frogs have reached this point, and he'd rather not talk about it.
"That will scare you. It's kind of like climbing the Eiffel Tower, which I did in the summer," said Patterson, 82-27 in his nine seasons. "You go up that deal and get to the top, I'm glad I didn't look down on the way up. Just keep looking ahead, look up. That's where all the work is. Nobody gets scared looking up. It's always when you are looking down that it always bothers you."
Looking back, there are reminders that before Utah became the original BCS buster in 2004, the Frogs had chances to grab that distinction.
TCU won its first seven games in 2000 and was ninth in the AP poll before losing at San Jose State in early November for its only regular-season loss in Tomlinson's senior year. The Frogs made it to 10-0 three years later before a loss at Southern Miss dashed BCS hopes.
Then there was 2005, when coming off the only losing season in Patterson's tenure they upset then-No. 5 Oklahoma in the season opener. They lost a week later to SMU, didn't lose again and were left to wonder what might have been.
Still, by getting close, it has helped bolster recruiting. TCU used to get players the Big 12 schools didn't want, but now is starting to compete for some of the same prep standouts.
"We're getting kids that normally would have gone to (Texas) Tech or A&M, starting to get kids that are looking at Texas and at Oklahoma," said Frog Club director John Denton, a former TCU player who has been part of the team's radio broadcasts for 21 years. "If this program takes the next step, or the second step, then there's no more negative recruiting saying TCU can't get there."
Saturday night's game will be the first sellout at 44,358-seat Amon Carter Stadium, and the biggest home game in 25 years, since 12th-ranked TCU played No. 10 Texas in 1984.
TCU has an 11-game overall winning streak, trailing only Florida (19) and Texas (13), since losing 13-10 last season at Utah, last season's BCS buster and Mountain West champion. The Utes went on to complete an undefeated season with a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama.
The Frogs have won 12 in a row at home since a 27-20 loss to Utah two years ago.
"If you don't know this is a big game," said quarterback Andy Dalton, realizing it wasn't even necessary to finish his thought.
"If we don't get it done, then everybody will forget about it," Patterson said. "My goal in the next three weeks is try not to break Fort Worth's heart."