September 03, 2011
Boise State 35, Georgia 21.
The comparison may be a little on-the-nose, but for some gauge of how far Boise State has come from "good mid-major team" to "legitimate national contender," look no further than Boise State: When the Broncos came to Georgia as hyped upstarts in 2005, they were run out of the stadium and dismissed in short order in 48-13 rout. Six years later, they returned to Georgia's backyard as slight favorites, and left no doubt about their place among a handful of elite teams in the country.
The stat sheet looks like just about any Boise game. Kellen Moore complete 82 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and a sky-high pass efficiency rating above 170. The Broncos earned 27 first downs, a hair above last year's season average. They sacked Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray six times. At one point in the second and third quarters, they embarked on four sustained touchdown drives in five possessions, effectively putting the game away. Georgia may have the athletes, but if you swapped their results against the Broncos for, say, Tulsa's or Fresno State's, no one would bat an eyelash.
For Georgia, that implies all kinds of issues that have to be addressed before South Carolina comes to Athens next Saturday in one of the most pivotal games on the SEC schedule. For the Broncos, it simply means everything is still in front of them. Because the odds of Boise State of actually losing on the blue turf when TCU flies in in November (the Broncos are 32-0 at home under Chris Petersen), or of otherwise stubbing their toe in the Mountain West over the last two months are so remote, the tooth-and-nail debate over the merits of the Broncos' overall strength of schedule and resumé can begin in earnest.
This is right and good. Boise has run off perfect seasons with a single early, quality win three of the last five years, and came within a field goal of doing it again last year, and didn't come anywhere near the BCS championship discussion in any of those seasons because three-fourths of the schedule remains an embarrassment by elite standards. Boise can't do anything about that. But an abundance of attention and hype on this year's race to 12-0 isn't going to put those skins on the wall.
There will also be a not-so-sudden abundance of haters questioning the value of a win over a team coming off a losing season belittling Boise's hypothetical prospects against a schedule full of Pac-12 or SEC heavies in some nonexistent fantasy world where that might be possible. This is small and petty. The Broncos came into tonight with six wins since 2006 against teams that finished the season ranked in the final polls, four of them against teams that finished in the top ten. If Georgia rebounds to finish the season where it started, that will make at least seven wins, six of them coming away from the blue turf. Handed an opportunity to "prove it" on a national stage, they've proven it again and again. On the field, there's nothing left to prove: This is an extraordinarily well-coached team with a chance to beat anyone it encounters at any point.
That doesn't mean it has some kind of golden ticket to 12-0 (the Broncos still have to play the games, some of them — Nevada, Air Force, TCU, at San Diego State — more than a little prickly), much less the culmination of a system that only allows two teams inside the gates of its self-appointed championship game. If Boise State doesn't deserve to be one of those two, that's first and foremost an indictment of a system that can't handle every worthy contender. Whether the Broncos ever get or deserve a shot under the current, two-team championship structure, they've proven worthy (again) of the discussion between the lines. Hate their schedule, hate their nouveau riche hype. But it is increasingly impossible to hate their game.
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