FORT WORTH, Texas -- TCU has gone from nearly a total bust to becoming a BCS buster -- after 12 seasons and some near-misses.
Now, finally, purple perfection with a 12-0 regular season that will send the fourth-ranked Horned Frogs into the Bowl Championship Series.
"Real cool. For me, this is 12 years," coach Gary Patterson said. "It's been a process. We haven't tried to do it fast, we tried to do it the right way ... so we could build it for a long time."
The Horned Frogs had just finished 1-10 in 1997 when Patterson arrived as the defensive coordinator with a new staff. They capped their first season with a win over Southern California in the Sun Bowl and had already had their first flirtation with the BCS by time he replaced departed head coach Dennis Franchione three years later.
There was a 10-0 start in 2003 and the one-loss team two years later, when the Frogs were left to wonder what might have been had they not lost at SMU the week after upsetting Oklahoma in the season opener. They won 11 games four of the past six seasons.
"We've been close three or four times," Patterson said. "We finally were able to do the things that we needed to do."
While leaving no questions about whether they belong in one of the big-money bowl games.
"Just our record, see how we won games, really should prove it," quarterback Andy Dalton said.
The Horned Frogs (12-0, 8-0) wrapped up their first undefeated regular season since 1938, their only AP national championship, with a 51-10 victory Saturday over New Mexico that clinched the outright Mountain West title.
Their 14th consecutive victory matched the seven decade-old school record, with the last seven wins all by at least 27 points -- a stretch including BYU and Utah, last year's BCS buster. The Horned Frogs scored more than 50 points three of the last four games, and four times overall this season.
"It's overwhelming," running back Joseph Turner said. "Think about everything we've done, it's just mind-blowing."
Dalton matched a career high against New Mexico with four touchdown passes, three in a 21/2-minute span early in the second quarter that made it 30-0, after he had already run for a score. His 29th victory as TCU's starter matched the school record set by "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh from 1934-36.
"Everybody wants flash. That guy is 23-2 in the last two years, won a lot of football games. He's been to some tough places. I'm sure glad he's only a junior," Patterson said. "A lot of this team comes back, so I'm very excited about that point too."
TCU has only six senior starters and has more freshmen on its depth chart (17) than seniors on the roster. Only eight FBS teams have fewer than the Frogs' 13 seniors.
Baugh led TCU to its only other 12-win season, in 1935, when the school claims another national title. The '38 championship team finished 11-0 with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Davey O'Brien.
No. 1 Florida or No. 2 Alabama (both 12-0) are assured a spot in the BCS title game, depending on who wins Saturday night in the SEC championship game. The pairings for the five BCS games will be announced next Sunday.
The only chance TCU has to become the first outsider to play in the BCS national championship game is for No. 3 Texas (12-0) to lose to Nebraska (9-3) in the Big 12 title game.
"There's a lot of relief coming after the way we finished, but there's going to be a lot of anticipation to see what happens," Dalton said.
"I was a big Aggies fan Thursday night. Now I'm a big Cornhuskers fan," said TCU receiver Bart Johnson, who caught two TD passes Saturday. "I feel we have a team that can play with anybody."
The Frogs have set school records this season for points (488) and total offense (5,613). Their 469 yards a game is fifth-best in the nation.
There is also their always dominating defense. TCU has given up only 233.2 yards per game this season, No. 2 nationally behind Florida, which has allowed only two total yards less over the course of the entire season.
"We don't think we're at the top of the mountain," Patterson said. "We're happy to be conference champions, we're happy we've done it the way we've done it. But the bottom line too is, our goal was the same 12 years ago, get to the national championship game.
"That's why I've stayed here," he said. "Because I believe we can do it here."