TCU, WVU, Utah gain footing in new leagues
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) Two years after TCU and West Virginia received a warm welcome into the Big 12, they've become the rude arrivals.
The 10th-ranked Horned Frogs (6-1, 3-1 Big 12) and 20th-ranked Mountaineers (6-2, 4-1) are on a tear and making their conference neighbors nervous.
Through building depth and experience, they're chasing a league championship and one-loss TCU is battling to land in the four-team College Football Playoff. TCU is No. 7 in the CFP rankings, West Virginia is 20th.
''It's been fun, honestly,'' said TCU coach Gary Patterson, ''because there's been so many critics as far as both of us coming into the conference. It's positive that both of us have been able to show that we can compete.''
The newest Big 12 kids meet on Saturday in Morgantown with a chance to show how far they've progressed.
''It really is pretty neat to be able to have this matchup this weekend against them,'' said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. ''They're winning games on all three sides of the ball - very similar to what we're doing.''
Also on the rise is No. 18 Utah, which experienced growing pains after leaving the Mountain West Conference after the 2010 season. The Utes are 6-1 (No. 17 CFP) and in a first-place battle in the Pac-12 South.
Let's not forget how good these teams were before arriving in their new leagues.
Utah was an original BCS buster, beating Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2004 season. Four years later the Utes shocked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
In the four years before moving from the Mountain West, TCU went 47-5 and won the Rose Bowl in 2011.
Before leaving the Big East, West Virginia won two straight conference titles and won the Sugar, Fiesta and Orange bowls over a seven-year span.
Those resumes were good enough to get TCU and West Virginia into the Big 12. But they meant nothing once the competition began.
Both played more than a dozen freshmen in 2012. The young plays were knocked around while they gained experience. TCU and West Virginia went 11-14 overall and 6-12 in conference play in their first two seasons.
Patterson recalled some fans telling him during those rough times to `''come back and talk to us when you finally become relevant.'
''That's been kind of our battle cry: How do we get to a point where we can become that?'' Patterson said. ''I think both programs are showing signs that we can be that now.''
Cornerback Ishmael Banks was a redshirt freshman in West Virginia's final season in the Big East. He said there were some major adjustments playing in the Big 12.
''Team's put up points so fast,'' Banks said. ''It takes a lot more discipline on the defensive end. All the teams are capable of winning. You've got to be prepared every week.''
This year, Patterson hired two new co-coordinators to retool an offense that had struggled. TCU is now second nationally in total offense.
The Horned Frog's uprising started by beating No. 19 Oklahoma, the Big 12 preseason favorite. After surrendering a 21-point lead in a loss at No. 12 Baylor, TCU defeated Oklahoma State and Texas Tech by a combined score of 124-36.
''It's just hard work every day. No days off,'' said TCU defensive tackle Chucky Hunter, who played as a freshman in 2011. ''We're older. So everybody knows what hard work takes to get to the promised land.''
West Virginia has made several changes to improve its defense.
Holgorsen named the team's fourth defensive coordinator in four years, brought in longtime Penn State assistant Tom Bradley to oversee the defensive line and switched to a 3-3-5 alignment. The changes are having an impact: The Mountaineers are allowing 66 fewer yards per game than they did a year ago.
After early losses to Alabama and Oklahoma, West Virginia knocked off Kansas, Baylor and Texas Tech, then held Oklahoma State to its fewest points at home in nine seasons.
Former Texas coach Mack Brown said Patterson and Holgorsen have made the biggest leaps in the Big 12 this season.
''Both those guys were considered hot-seat guys when the season started, to a degree,'' Brown said. ''And all of a sudden, here's them playing at a very high level.''
So is Utah, which had lost its starting quarterback to injury in each of their first three seasons in the Pac-12 when it went a combined 18-19.
Utah leads the nation with 35 sacks and is second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and rushing defense.
Coach Kyle Whittingham likes his team's mental toughness in close games. The Utes' last three wins have been decided by 6 points or less.
''We definitely have outstanding leadership,'' he said. ''This year's group has really taken ownership of the team.''