FORT WORTH, Texas -- TCU coach Gary Patterson finally let himself celebrate a little. The intense coach, who rarely thinks about anything but the next game after victories, let his guard down -- only slightly, of course -- on the Amon G. Carter Stadium turf shortly after Saturday's 51-10 win over New Mexico.
Patterson, wet from a Gatorade shower, hoisted the Mountain West Conference championship trophy high above his head and smiled. His TCU team is 12-0, undefeated for the first time since 1938.
"I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart," Patterson said over the public address system to the fans remaining after the game, who were nearly all of the 41,738 in attendance. "Come join us at a bowl game."
The Frogs should be headed to a BCS bowl game, though the official announcement won't come until next weekend. Until then, the Frogs won't know where they are going for the postseason. They hold slim hopes of appearing in the national championship game, but probably need Nebraska to knock off Texas in the Big 12 title game next Saturday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington for that to happen.
Will Patterson be pulling for the Huskers?
"I have to stay unbiased," Patterson said. "I am in the state of Texas. I'll let them decide that on the field."
The coach has avoided politicking all season. But he didn't shy away from pumping up his team Saturday.
"We can play with anybody," said Patterson, restating his belief that TCU can win a national title someday. "I don't care who you are. We look forward to the challenge. I can tell you this team can play with a lot of people."
Saturday's win and the Frogs' fans impressed bowl representatives on hand from the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar Bowls. All of them said they were impressed by the team and were confident TCU would bring plenty of fans to a BCS game. Alan Young, the Fiesta Bowl chairman of the board, likes TCU's all-around game.
"In a bowl game, that's what you like to see is a well-rounded team playing another well-rounded team for a good matchup," said Young, whose bowl hands out 17,500 tickets to each competing team. "We know that TCU would be a good football team no matter who they played."
For Patterson, the 2009 season was the culmination of a building process that began when he came to TCU before the 1998 season as defensive coordinator under Dennis Franchione. They turned a 1-10 team in 1997 into a bowl winner the next season. But getting over the hump of going undefeated and claiming a spot in one of the top bowls hasn't come easy.
The Frogs were on their way to a perfect season in 2000 with LaDainian Tomlinson in the backfield before San Jose State beat them in November. Southern Miss ruined the Frogs' attempt at an undefeated campaign in 2003 with a late-season win. And TCU fell to SMU one week after beating No. 5 Oklahoma on the road in 2005. The Frogs finished with one loss and were left out of the BCS bowl party.
But this year's TCU team is different. It has a potent offense and big-play capability in special teams to go along with its typically stingy defense.
"It's a dream season, really," said legendary sportswriter and TCU alum Dan Jenkins, the school's unofficial historian. "This is the best TCU team I've seen in the modern era. The 1955 team was good with Jim Swink, but that was a different world with guys playing both ways."
In terms of record, it's TCU's best team in seven decades, dating back to 1938, when Davey O'Brien won a Heisman Trophy in leading the Frogs to a national championship. It was the team's second in the 1930s, a decade where full crowds and national championship discussions were the norm.
TCU had seven seasons of nine wins or more in that decade and won two Sugar Bowls and a Cotton Bowl.
"In 1938, TCU was so highly regarded then that four teams -- TCU, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Duke -- were undefeated and TCU outpolled them all," Jenkins said.
The Frogs got 55 of 77 first-place votes in The Associated Press poll to win the national championship. "Can you imagine that happening now?"
No. But TCU is getting closer. It has already achieved heights in the regular season BCS standings -- No. 4 -- only matched by Boise State at one point this season. And depending on what happens in the SEC championship game, the Frogs could be No. 3 after next weekend. TCU has done it despite competing in the shadows of Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and other Big 12 schools.
Jenkins is still upset that quarterback Andy Dalton was not a semifinalist this season for the Davey O'Brien Award, given to the top quarterback in the country.
"I resigned as a voter for that award because of it," Jenkins said. "He's very underrated and overlooked. But he's been the biggest thing for this team this year."
Dalton has piled up nearly 2,500 passing yards and rushed for more than 500 this season. On Saturday, he tied Sam Baugh for all-time wins as a TCU quarterback with 29. He also passed Baugh for second in school history in career touchdown passes with 43, including four in the Frogs' win over New Mexico.
It took TCU some time to get going against a one-win New Mexico squad. Patterson said his team "messed around" for eight minutes in the second quarter despite a 30-10 lead at the half, and he challenged the Frogs in the locker room to play like champions. TCU came out and scored 21 points -- 14 of them by the defense -- to win by a comfortable margin.
Dalton, like most of his teammates, returns for the 2010 season. TCU celebrated its seniors on Saturday, and it's been the winningest group in TCU history with 42 wins. The Frogs must replace key cogs, including defensive playmakers and future NFL draft picks Jerry Hughes and Daryl Washington. But TCU has a stockpile of talent and should have a great chance to once again make national purple-colored waves next season.
Of course, a win in a BCS bowl would only help TCU in its quest to play for a national title in the future. A victory and a 13-0 season could put the Frogs in the preseason top five in 2010, making it a little easier to climb all the way to the top.
But that's next season. Now, TCU will wait and see where it's headed for postseason play.
"I can't wait to play in a BCS bowl," said junior wide receiver Bart Johnson. "It's just a fun team that has so much chemistry and we can't wait to try to finish this season off. We feel like we can beat anybody. We're not scared."
Richard Durrett covers college football for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.