Coach Gary Patterson is saying all the right things.
No. 4 TCU, which on Sunday achieved its highest ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 in two years, sits atop the Big 12 at 6-0 and is the conference's lone undefeated team and best shot at a College Football Playoff berth.
Patterson said he's focusing on Kansas, the Horned Frogs' opponent this week. But even he knows that as his team tries to keep its focus singular, outsiders will zero in on the big picture: TCU's chances at making the playoff.
Asked on Saturday, after a 26-6 road victory over Kansas State, about how good the Horned Frogs are, Patterson said, "Everybody else will determine that" come the end of this season, once TCU's résumé is complete. On Monday, when asked about how close his team is to its potential, Patterson said he's unsure: "The first part's been difficult, but now everybody pays a lot more attention."
There's no doubt that TCU's chances at a championship -- and the role outsiders, particularly the 13 members of the playoff selection committee, play into the team's chances -- loom in the back of Patterson's mind. The events of 2014, when the Horned Frogs went from No. 3 in the selection committee's rankings in the penultimate week to No. 6 and out of the playoff when it was all said and done, certainly linger in the coach's thinking. TCU's best chance, he knows, is to run the table and not leave anything to chance.
The road to perfection, however, is arduous.
"We've been here before [as a program]," Patterson said Monday. "[In] '08, '09 and '10, we went 36-3, and what I found, even then, no matter what league you're in, you're going to win some games that are not going to look pretty. Especially when you've got to go on the road to the places we have. ... When you have to go to Lubbock, you have to go to Ames ... those are hard places to play. So it's really hard for me to look ahead and think about being undefeated."
Patterson's approach is the right one, because his team still has things to improve. Even in a quality road win such as the one on Saturday, the Horned Frogs showed they have room to grow. They won by 20 in a game they could have -- and probably should have -- won by more. It was one of those less-than-pretty wins.
When senior quarterback Kenny Hill was asked if the Horned Frogs left some points or big plays on the field vs. the Wildcats, he said, "Absolutely.”
"I know one play for sure, I went up there and checked and called the protection the wrong way," Hill said. "It was on a little screen pass, and I called the protection the wrong way and we get smacked in the backfield. It's little stuff like that that holds us back."
There were moments when TCU looked dominant, but it didn't necessarily show on the scoreboard. In the first half, the Horned Frogs held Kansas State to just 71 yards (2.4 yards per play) and 0-for-8 on third downs -- but TCU led at halftime only 13-3. And a Kansas State touchdown pass was taken off the board by an offensive pass interference penalty. There also was a second-quarter TCU drive that went inside the 10 but resulted in only a field goal. Plus, a TCU turnover kept the Horned Frogs from expanding the lead.
When the fourth quarter began, with TCU holding a 20-6 lead, the Horned Frogs dropped back-to-back passes on what would have been big plays to keep a drive going. The second one looked like it had the potential to go for a TD. Instead, TCU punted. The defense was stout and the Wildcats never seriously threatened, but the Horned Frogs know they have to take advantage of those opportunities.
Hill said he doesn't think TCU is anywhere near its potential. "Honestly, I don't think we're that close," he said. "We do some really good things, and then there's times that we get into lulls and all that stuff. I feel like we have a lot more that we can bring in a game. But we're 6-0. We can't complain."
Said receiver John Diarse: "I totally agree with Kenny. We're not where we need to be. That's just more work ahead of us."
TCU can't afford to overlook the Jayhawks, anyway. The last two seasons, Kansas -- despite its combined 2-22 record over that span -- has played the Horned Frogs competitively. Last season TCU squeaked out a 24-23 victory, and in 2015 the Horned Frogs won 23-17.
And while Kansas is not the caliber of team that Cal or Syracuse is, it's not lost on Patterson or his players that the upsets of Clemson and Washington State on Friday are evidence of what can happen if a top-10 team doesn't play its best.
"It can be gone just like that," Diarse said. "You can go from top-five, top-six, to 23 to unranked. ... This team is much more mature than last year. We understand that, hey, we're trying to get to December. October, on the road, that's tough, but we want to be relevant when December comes around."
Said Patterson: "It only takes one. If you didn't learn anything last Friday night, at any point in time, anybody can beat anybody. You only have to be the best team on that night. ... I didn't change anything yesterday when I came in the office at 9 o'clock in the morning and started getting ready for Kansas."