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Horned Frogs aim to live up to high expectations

TCU coach Gary Patterson isn't shying away from expectations. The Horned Frogs have been tabbed as the team to beat in the Mountain West Conference this season. They topped the league's preseason media poll after collecting 15 of the 24 first-place votes.

"We're just going to be the best team we can be," Patterson said. "We're very grateful for the confidence that people had who voted for us and how they put us. What we are going to try and do is live up to that."

Patterson admits he used to downplay the significance of preseason polls. However, sometimes his kids played that way.

And that's a scenario he'd just as soon avoid this time around.

"This group of kids we have this year has worked very hard throughout the summer and offseason to become a better football team," Patterson said. "For their sake, I hope it all comes true."

TCU's challenge will be taking the next step, and there's evidence the Horned Frogs are hopping in that direction. After the disappointing 13-10 loss at Utah on Nov. 14, they bounced back to knock off Air Force (44-10) and then previously undefeated Boise State (17-16) in the Poinsettia Bowl.

"I thought they showed a lot of character," said Patterson, whose team finished 11-2 overall and met Bowl Championship Series qualifying standards.

STRENGTHS: Defense. TCU led the nation in total defense (217.8 yards per game) and rushing defense (170.7 ypg) last season. And though the Horned Frogs return only four starters on that side of the ball, one of them is defensive end Jerry Hughes. The senior led the nation with 15 sacks last season and was tied for first with six forced fumbles.

Cornerback Rafael Priest is also back for his senior season. He earned second team all-conference honors after making 26 stops and breaking up 10 passes. Another player to watch is junior return specialist Jeremy Kerley.

WEAKNESSES: A lack of returning starters on defense. The seven who departed combined for 362 tackles last season. TCU's depth, however, is expected to cover the losses.

Passing offense isn't something the Horned Frogs rely on much. They ranked 72nd in 2008 with 201.1 yards per game. Junior quarterback Andy Dalton is a two-time bowl MVP, but he has thrown just 21 career touchdown passes and has been intercepted 16 times in 24 games.

If TCU is able to run the ball effectively, as usual, it may not matter.

EXTRA POINTS: TCU finished the 2008 season ranked No. 7 in both major polls ... Key graduation losses include tailback Aaron Brown (547 yards rushing), linebacker Jason Phillips (84 tackles) and safety Stephen Hodge (81 tackles) ... Patterson has a winning record against every MWC opponent except Utah (1-3) and BYU (2-2) ... The Horned Frogs had five underclassmen earn honorable mention all-conference recognition last season — Dalton, offensive lineman Marcus Cannon, punter Anson Kelton, cornerback Nick Sanders and wide receiver Jimmy Young ... TCU has the latest season-opener in the MWC, Sept. 12 at Virginia.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the ninth in a nine-part series previewing Mountain West Conference football. Stories in projected order of finish (last-to-first) from the league's preseason media poll.

Saturday: No. 1 TCU.

1. TCU: today

2. BYU: July 31

3. Utah: July 30

4. Air Force: July 29

5. UNLV: July 28

6. Colorado St.: July 27

7. New Mexico: July 26

8. San Diego St.: July 25

9. Wyoming: July 24TCU Horned Frogs

Head coach: Gary Patterson (73-27 overall, ninth year)

2008 record: 11-2 (7-1, MWC)

Returning starters: 13 (7 offense, 4 defense. 2 specialists)

2009 schedule

Sept. 12 — at Virginia

Sept. 19 — Texas State

Sept. 26 — at Clemson

Oct. 3 — SMU

Oct. 10 — at Air Force

Oct. 17 — Colorado St.

Oct. 24 — at BYU

Oct. 31 — UNLV

Nov. 7 — at SDSU

Nov. 14 — Utah

Nov. 21 — at Wyoming

Nov. 28 — New Mexico

e-mail: dirk@desnews.com