TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) - All those years TCU was winning conference championships and busting the BCS, the Horned Frogs' accomplishments were always couched with this caveat: Look at who they played against.
All it took was one middle-of-the-pack season in the Big 12 to change perceptions.
``The interesting thing is perception-wise, as far as the media and the fan base, I think we gained more respect being 7-5, than we did 11-2 last year,'' TCU coach Gary Patterson said. ``In people's minds, they didn't know whether we could compete ... on a week-to-week basis. I think our kids showed us we can do that.''
TCU's next chance to prove something will be against Michigan State on Saturday night in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
It figures to be as tough a task as anything the Horned Frogs (7-5) faced in the Big 12, at least from a defensive standpoint.
Instead of the quick-and-athletic defenses TCU faced in its first season in the Big 12, the Spartans (6-6) are big, physical and love to knock opponents around.
Michigan State finished the regular season with the nation's fourth-best defense, giving up 273.25 yards per game, and was 10th in scoring, allowing 16.33 points.
The Spartans' defense allowed them to keep every game but one - a 20-3 loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 15 - close, with five of their loses coming by a combined 13 points.
``Their D-line and linebackers are one of the best in the nation against the rush and they're a very aggressive defense,'' TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin said.
Boykin will be the key to TCU finding holes in it.
The redshirt freshman was thrust into the starting role against Iowa State in the fifth game of the season after Casey Pachall was arrested on driving while intoxicated charges and later left the team to enter an inpatient rehabilitation facility.
A dual-threat quarterback, Boykin had a less-than-stellar start, throwing an interception on his first pass and two more in the fourth quarter of the 37-23 loss to the Cyclones. He bounced back quickly, though, throwing for four touchdowns and running for another score while not turning it over once in a 49-21 win over Baylor.
Boykin completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,853 yards and 15 touchdowns with nine interceptions on the season.
``Their quarterback creates,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. ``They have a plan, they have a function, but he's going to create some plays.''
The Spartans will need someone to create against TCU's defense.
Like Michigan State, the Horned Frogs have one of the nation's best defenses, finishing 18th in total defense at 332 yards per game while playing against the explosive offenses of the Big 12.
TCU has been particularly good against the run, allowing 103.92 yards per game, which should pit strength vs. strength Saturday night against Michigan State.
The Spartans, fitting the power-running Big Ten Conference, are led by powerfully-built running back Le'Veon Bell, who finished third nationally with 147.3 yards per game and had 1,648 yards, second-most in Michigan State history.
If the Horned Frogs do manage to slow down Bell, it'll be up to Andrew Maxwell to move the ball against them.
The junior had an up and down first season after taking over for Kirk Cousins, completing 52 percent of his passes for 2,578 yards and 13 touchdowns with nine interceptions.
``Certainly, there's some frustrations when the offense isn't producing how we think we can, how we know we can,'' Maxwell said. ``But I wouldn't say my confidence was shaken; I don't think our confidence as a team was shaken. It was a matter of playing through those rough spots, riding them out.''
The Spartans and Horned Frogs both had to get through some of those rough spots to get here.
After moving from the Mountain West, TCU got off to a good start, winning its first four games before the letdown against Iowa State. The Horned Frogs followed with the impressive win over Baylor, but lost four of six to close out the season, including 24-17 to Oklahoma in the season finale on Dec. 1.
Michigan State opened the season 4-2, but faded down the stretch as its offense struggled to score points, also losing four its six final games. The Spartans at least ended on a good note, beating Minnesota 26-10 thanks to Bell's 266 yards rushing.
The bowl game is chance for both teams to end the season with some momentum into spring and perhaps into next year.
The Horned Frogs are one of the youngest teams in the country after playing 16 true freshmen - matching Texas for most in the nation - and only have 11 scholarship seniors. Boykin should be better with most of a season under his belt, as should the young players who were thrust into bigger roles with all the injuries TCU suffered this season.
Michigan State should be better next year, too.
Like Boykin, Maxwell may benefit from a year of experience and the Spartans could get a huge boost if Bell and disruptive defensive end Willam Gholston decide to return for their senior seasons.
``We always felt like winning is the most important thing about going to a bowl game, carrying forward the enthusiasm you have coming out of it what you have to do - and how you have to do it - going into next season,'' Patterson said.
That's the same way the Spartans are looking at it.