Commentary

Stakes at all-time high for TCU vs. Utah

Mountain West powers face off with potential national title game berth in the balance

Updated: November 6, 2010, 8:32 AM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Purposefully or not, intelligent TCU senior quarterback Andy Dalton never let the words "national title game" slip from his lips.

"There's been a lot of talk about all that stuff, but none of that matters if we don't win this week," Dalton said. "Our goal is to end the season undefeated and hopefully get an opportunity for that.

"But that's not in our control and that's nothing that we're focused on. We're focused on Utah."

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesQuarterback Andy Dalton says the Horned Frogs are worried about this week's opponent, not the national championship picture. "We're focused on Utah," he said.

So is the entire college football universe. It might not be Alabama versus Auburn, but when these two non-automatic qualifiers -- BCS No. 3 TCU (9-0, 5-0 Mountain West) and No. 5 Utah (8-0, 5-0) -- tangle in Salt Lake City on Saturday afternoon, the result will have just as much significance on the national-title scene as that day-after-Thanksgiving SEC brawl.

And everybody's taking notice.

ESPN's "College GameDay" will be in Salt Lake, headlining this game for a second consecutive season. Not only has the game been sold out for weeks, but now even the press box at Rice-Eccles Stadium is over capacity. These two programs are highlighting the golden age for the Mountain West Conference, ironic because its success is ushering its demise.

The Utes leave next season for the new Pac-12 and the lure of an automatic bid to the BCS party they're trying so hard to crash as unwanted outsiders. The Frogs?

The Big East and its AQ-status are knocking on the door. Not quite the allure of the sunny Pac-12, but all that matters is the big AQ and the millions of BCS dollars that currently aren't being funneled to schools like TCU.

But on Saturday, both programs remain the little engines that could, and everybody recognizes the monumental possibilities here. This matchup between two programs virtually unknown on the national scene five years ago is threatening to tear down the BCS wall.

"This game is more than just about winning and losing. ... It's about recruiting," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "It's about all the things we're trying to get accomplished as a program that ultimately gets to the top of that pyramid -- which means try to play for a national championship."

Maybe the college football gods want it to happen this way. All season, TCU has been told not to take its eye off the rear-view mirror. Somebody -- Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, LSU, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa -- would leap it in the end.

[+] EnlargeGary Patterson
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesGary Patterson has No. 3 TCU in the middle of the national championship race.

In fact, it was the Frogs doing the leaping in the latest BCS rankings. Aided by the momentum of No. 21 Baylor, the Frogs, who routed the Bears in Week 3, pulled past Boise State for the first time this season to gain the upper hand among the trio of non-AQs.

"I obviously follow all that stuff just because I'm a football fan and I love to see who's winning and who's playing well," Dalton said. "But, it's nothing I've paid too close attention to just because we still have three more games."

As Dalton knows, one by one, the major powers have fallen. Alabama, with a win over Auburn, might yet make the leap, but a TCU win at Utah (followed by must-wins over San Diego State and New Mexico), coupled with a loss hung on either BCS No. 1 Oregon or No. 2 Auburn, would now seem to present the inevitable: TCU playing in the national championship game Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz.

If Utah beats TCU for a fourth consecutive time in Salt Lake, the door swings wide open for the Utes or the Broncos from the WAC.

"Two years ago, basically, Utah was playing TCU for a BCS spot, not a national championship," Patterson said. "Last year, [TCU and Boise State] end up going to that place [BCS game], but we didn't get a chance to [play for the national championship].

"Now," Patterson continued, "because we all started higher [in the rankings], now we're all sitting in a situation where [the national title game is] a conversation."

The argument that TCU, Utah and Boise State do not face the weekly gauntlet that the major conference teams do is undeniably true and will always exist. But it doesn't mean that for this season, the Frogs, Utes or Broncos aren't the best team in the nation regardless of difficulty of league schedules.

None of it might matter when the BCS computers spit out the final standings if the right scenario for the non-AQs plays out in November and early December.

Will it happen? Maybe not. Can it happen? For the first time since the creation of the BCS machine, yes, it can happen.

Oregon and Auburn can end the dream and the drama by winning out. But if one stumbles, the next two teams in line -- either TCU or Utah will be eliminated Saturday -- belong to non-AQ conferences.

"When Boise is sitting at [No.] 4 and we're sitting at [No.] 3, anything can happen," Patterson said. "Only time will tell. To talk about it right now makes no difference."

Leave it to the even-keeled Dalton to keep the horse before the cart.

"The big thing that we can't do is we can't put too much pressure on ourselves," Dalton said. "We just have to go play like we've been playing all season, practice like been practicing this whole season. We can't focus on everything else that's going on. We can focus only on what we can control."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.

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