It was the most bittersweet of results, a simultaneous welling of pride as this site’s resident BCS Buster guru and pangs of agony as a lifelong Badger fan.
When TCU’s otherworldly linebacker Tank Carder stuck up a meaty paw and deflected away Scott Tolzein’s on-target two-point conversion attempt as it floated on a line toward wide-open Jacob Pederson, it sealed the 21-19 win for the Horned Frogs in the historic confines of the Rose Bowl. For the fourth time since Utah’s landmark win over Pitt, the clock struck perfection for the little guys of college football and another venerable venue witnessed the further dissolution of the myth that non-AQ status is a signifier of second-class skill.
It was yet another blow against the Establishment. The oldest bowl game in existence, and the third of the four BCS sites, watched a BCS Buster walk into its hallowed confines and knock off a blueblood of the sport. Wisconsin made the Big Ten the fourth of the six BCS conferences to fall to an undefeated non-AQ school — only the Pac-10 and ACC have yet to lose one to the little guys on the big stage, and it isn’t a matter of if it happens but when it eventually takes place. Just look at how Boise State has handled recent games against those conferences’ champs, Oregon and Virginia Tech, for proof that the threat is omnipresent.
But this is a story about TCU, not BCS Busters in general — for the Horned Frogs are a team with one foot in the door of the Establishment. Like another former Buster, Utah, TCU is about to desert the Little Sisters of the Poor to join a BCS conference. But while the Utes head west, the Horned Frogs’ near future resides firmly East. Soon they, just like the 11-1 Wisconsin team they knocked off in Pasadena on New Year’s Day, will be able to sustain a loss or two and still dream BCS dreams.
But one more season still exists in the minor leagues of college football for the boys from Fort Worth. TCU has a prototype, as do all BCS Busters past and present, in former conference rival Utah. The Utes, undefeated yet with one eye turned toward the Pac-12, set up a top-five Mountain West matchup this year for the Horned Frogs’ visit to Salt Lake City. Patterson’s crew killed the home team’s 21-game winning streak at Rice-Eccles, 47-7, setting themselves on a collision course that would end amongst the roses of southern California. Utah, all conference and BCS dreams lost for the year, went in the tank — losses to Notre Dame in South Bend and Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl aren’t in themselves shameful, but the way they came really was.
TCU already became the first non-AQ team to earn consecutive BCS berths with this trip to the Rose Bowl on the heels of last year’s Fiesta. The real trick, the only trick, left for Gary Patterson’s team now will to try to win 26 in a row and become the first BCS Buster to win consecutive bowls. To get there next year they will have to do direct battle with Boise State — no longer will we have to worry about that BCS Buster debate being settled in the polls. And while Utah might be gone, the Broncos almost provide a scarier matchup for the Horned Frogs.
The fact is, at no point in TCU’s past or future are we going to feel this much mutual, nationwide pride for what they can accomplish. (And remember… I’m saying this as a Badger fan still rueing the lost opportunities. And a Wyoming fan whose Cowboys still have one more year against TCU on the schedule. Thank goodness they’re not moving to the Pac-12 or I’d have every reason as a fan to loathe them. But loathe I just can’t, not this team.)
That is, only if they one-up this feat next year — only if they’re raising the crystal football overhead in January 2012 as national champion in their final game as a Mountain West member — will we be as impressed with what the Horned Frogs do on the field as we are seeing them knock off the Badgers. And they’ll have to pull off the feat without offensive MVP Andy Dalton, he of the 42 victories at quarterback as leader of TCU’s offense. It will be a tall task, but it is the only thing that could possibly top the smell of roses at this point.
Because as soon as they eschew the little-guy label and become the Dallas Cowboys of the Big East, they no longer hold that lovable Cinderella sway over the general public. Then they just become what we expect and they hope will be a big fish in a little pond. Some years TCU might look less challenged as a Big East member than they ever have in the Mountain West — remember, it was 8-4 UConn tossing the basketball aside and donning the pads against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl as conference champ this year. Even with the slide 10-3 Utah was a better team than the Big East champ. And Boise, lest we forget, was a 12-1 team that started its season defeating the Orange-bound Hokies.
The truth is, should TCU win the title three, five, ten years down the road it will be no less impressive a feat. But the reality is also that they will likely get that opportunity not because they stayed to fight the good fight in the land of BCS Busters and prove themselves on the turf but because they cut and ran and accepted the opportunity to defect. We can say that this Rose Bowl was another historic notch in the belt for the little guys, but by this point even the pundits know the Mountain West is populated by more than mere minnows — and apparently TCU has become too big for that alpine lake. Wagons… EAST!
And that is meant to take nothing away from this moment. Really this is the culmination of all that hard work, the ceiling for what TCU could reasonably expect to achieve in the Mountain West. At least, in going the opposite direction for their conference slate, they’ll be afforded the respect that a team which has spent the past half-decade averaging eleven wins a season should be given.
But this is also a tale about Wisconsin. The Badgers might have ended up on the short side of the scoreboard in Pasadena, but they go home as anything but losers. The second-guessing began to radiate outward from Madison and ripple throughout the Wisconsin fan base as soon as Tolzein’s pass deflected incomplete with two to go. But Bret Bielema and his staff made the right call there; everyone except Tank Carder was caught unaware until it was too late. Any mistiming in his jump, arms elsewhere, and Pederson catches the pass. An elite athlete made an elite move to thwart an elite play call being executed by other elite athletes in opposite colors, that is all, and this time it didn’t work out for Wisconsin.
The Badgers will be right back in the hunt for the Big Ten title next season. It won’t be any easier, though, and they won’t get the benefit of a rankings tiebreaker next year with the expanded league and divisional play. They’ll fight Ohio State and Penn State and a surging Illinois team to be the first leader of the Leaders, and the road to Pasadena or beyond will go through Indianapolis.
Both teams arrived at the Rose Bowl at an intersection with destiny. TCU got through the crosswalk first, but both teams are watching their path become more concrete as the future looms. The Horned Frogs won this battle, the not-so-little-anymore guys prevailing, but both have reason to hope for promising tomorrows ahead. Soon they will be on the same side as BCS-conference compatriots of the Establishment, but TCU and Wisconsin proved Saturday that they are already well-matched equals on the field…