FORT WORTH, Texas -- The winner of next week's Fiesta Bowl could be poised for a berth in the national championship game.
No, we're not talking about some sort of "plus one" scenario to finish off the 2009 season. If only we were. That would certainly be a better way to determine a champion short of an eight- or 16-team playoff.
But the winner of the TCU-Boise State game can take an important step toward positioning for an invitation to the BCS National Championship Game after next season.
Sure, the Frogs and Broncos are motivated by a chance to finish the season undefeated and secure a high ranking -- maybe even as lofty as No. 2 in the nation in TCU's case.
But the more critical ramification to the duel in the desert will come in August, when the preseason polls come out for the 2010 season.
The way the BCS works for non-automatic qualifying schools isn't complicated: The higher you start, the better chance you have for a high finish.
And in TCU and Boise State's case, the winner of the Fiesta Bowl will likely start ahead of the other in the top 5 before next season begins. That makes jumping into the top 2 a lot more realistic.
"It's an incredible opportunity," TCU center Jake Kirkpatrick said. "It's a chance to play an undefeated team and show the country what kind of football team we have. It also can set things up for next year. We feel like we can be a good football team then, too. But we have to show it."
TCU started the 2009 season No. 17 in the AP and USA Today coaches polls. As the Frogs piled up dominating wins, they slowly gained respect in the polls. Wins over BYU and Utah helped the Frogs make big jumps, ending the regular season at No. 3 in both polls and No. 4 in the BCS. That was realistically as far as TCU could have gone this season with an undefeated SEC and Big 12 team in front of them.
But what if the Frogs did it again next season?
TCU coach Gary Patterson has preached all season about building a reputation for his program. The more often you put together solid seasons -- see Boise State -- the more respect you receive from poll voters. TCU is starting to do that. A perfect 2009 season hasn't hurt, allowing the Frogs to knock down the BCS bowl door for the first time.
TCU came within a second, depending on how the polls would have ended up, of playing Alabama for a national championship. They've got their Frogs eyes -- yes, the same ones that can spit blood when agitated -- on becoming the first non-automatic qualifier to play in the BCS National Championship Game.
The first step toward achieving that historic goal is beating Boise State.
That's all Patterson will talk about. He acknowledges the significance of the outcome for next year, but doesn't want his team dwelling on it.
"We're just trying to win a ballgame," Patterson said last week. "We're trying to get ourselves to 13-0 and No. 2 in the nation. You have to be careful about implications for next year. We thought about it while we weren't practicing. But now that we are, the focus is winning."
Patterson doesn't want his players getting too tight and thinking too much.
"A clinched fist gets tired," Patterson said. "We're working out and doing what we need to do. We are getting ready to go."
TCU was ready last year, winning the Poinsettia Bowl over Boise State. And yet the Broncos still started the season ahead of the Frogs, based on TCU's losing some solid contributors on both sides of the ball. But strength of schedule and TCU's ability to beat up opponents on a fairly regular basis allowed TCU to get in front of Boise State.
Next year, though, is different. Boise State's nonconference schedule gets tougher. The Broncos play Virginia Tech at FedEx Field, home of the Redskins, and host Oregon State in a return game. They also go to Wyoming, which defeated WAC opponent Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl before Christmas.
TCU has nonconference games with Baylor, SMU and probably Oregon State at Cowboys Stadium. They still have to face highly touted Utah and BYU in conference play.
That means starting the season in front of Boise State in the polls is more critical for TCU in 2010 than it was in 2009. It's going to be tougher for poll voters to leapfrog TCU over Boise State since the Broncos' schedule stiffens.
Both teams will bring impressive résumés into the 2010 season. Both have coaches who are mentioned for nearly every top job that becomes available. And both will have a lot of talented players to work with in 2010.
Boise State returns all but one of its starters next season. TCU has 16 of its 22 coming back. The Frogs do lose some players at key positions, including defensive tackle Jerry Hughes. But most of the TCU offense remains intact, including quarterback Andy Dalton and electrifying kick returner Jeremy Kerley. So is nearly the entire offensive line.
The evidence suggests both teams have a good chance to go undefeated again. It sure would be a lot tougher for voters to keep either team out of the BCS National Championship Game after two consecutive perfect seasons.
That's why winning the Fiesta Bowl is more than just a nice finish to 2009 -- it's the start of a national title game campaign for 2010.