No pressure, Boise State, but the Mountain West’s future may hinge on beating Georgia

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Resolved: Boise State was the most divisive team in college football last season. But can't we all agree at this point that the Broncos have far eclipsed the point where every meeting with a more traditional power is some kind of referendum on the program? This is, after all, the winningest program in the nation over the last decade, and one that's consistently handled heavy hitters over the last five years — with wins over Oregon State (2006), Oklahoma (2006), Oregon (2008 and 2009), TCU (2009) and Virginia Tech (2010), Boise is 6-2 under coach Chris Petersen against teams that finished in the top 25 and 4-1 against teams that finished in a BCS bowl, with a pair of BCS wins of its own. So can we go ahead and drop the part where the opening-night, primetime showdown with Georgia on Sept. 3, in Atlanta, is another chance for the Broncos to "prove they belong," as if they haven't consistently proven it when presented with the opportunity? Okay? Good.

Instead, let's focus on the Boise-Georgia tilt as a referendum on the entire Mountain West Conference. At least, that's how it looks to MWC commissioner Craig Thompson, who told SEC oracle Tony Barnhart this morning on Barnhart's radio show that a Bronco win against an SEC heavy, in its own backyard, would be "huge" for the conference's quixotic effort to wrestle an automatic BCS bid (and the full payout that goes with it) out of the bigger leagues. The next round of planning by BCS conference commissioners will be the last time Thompson gets to list TCU's stellar track record on the Mountain West resumé before the Horned Frogs hop to the Big East next year, and barring a miracle upset by Wyoming when Nebraska visits Laramie on Sept. 24 (that is not a misprint), a hyped, nationally televised match in SEC country is the best chance the MWC will have in 2011 to bring a marquee scalp back to the negotiating table.

How "huge" are we talking about here? Possibly exponential, man: Like last year's neutral site win over Virginia Tech, a primetime triumph over a recognizable opponent would instantly put the Broncos on the short list for another BCS bid; if they get there by running the table over the rest of the regular season, it will mark the fourth straight season the Mountain West got its champion past the velvet rope, with three different schools. That alone could probably double the MWC's chances of landing an automatic BCS bid from somewhere around two percent to, like, four percent. Who knows: A blowout might even triple them all the way to six percent.

That may be slightly pessimistic, but with BYU and Utah already out of the picture and TCU fast on their heels, the MWC's campaign depends much less on isolated success by its new standard bearer at the top than it does on demonstrating some kind of competence at the bottom: It's Colorado State, New Mexico, UNLV and Wyoming that are keeping the conference from hitting the number it needs to force the BCS' hand under its own bylaws, and it's their ongoing futility that will keep the conference from rising above the perception that it's simply "the New WAC" with Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada scheduled to follow their reigning WAC overlord from their old stomping grounds next year. If big wins — or even big seasons — by Boise State were enough to bridge the gap between elite status and a handful of the most hapless programs in the country, well, they would have never had any reason to leave the WAC in the first place.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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