September 29, 2009
Boise State's big seasons recently have tended to follow a certain pattern: Beat a respectable, "Big Six" conference team early, run the table in the WAC to finish an undefeated regular and either a) Break into one of the big-money games in January as a huge underdog, or b) If the BCS has filled the resident Cinderella slot with another perfect upstart, accept a bid to a lesser bowl against another highly-ranked, BCS-worthy contender from one of the other outside-looking-in conferences.
This was the script in 2004, when the Broncos beat Oregon State, finished 12-0, and lost a nailbiter to No. 7 Louisville in the Liberty Bowl; and again in 2006, when they beat Oregon State, finished 12-0, and memorably upset Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl; and last year, when they beat Oregon, finished 12-0 and lost a nailbiter to No. 11 TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. When you talk about "undefeated Boise State" -- and once BSU gets past that one big, early test, as it already has this year against Oregon, you have no choice, given the Broncos total dominance of the WAC this decade -- these are the possibilities.
Nowhere in that script is there even a concept of playing for a national championship, mythical or otherwise. After Boise essentially set its course for another perfect season by pounding the Ducks earlier this month, it seemed like a lock for another BCS bid down the line, but all precedent says that's the tip of the mountaintop. This team can't accomplish more than its undefeated predecessors -- the opportunities just don't exist on the schedule -- and none of those teams finished the regular season ranked higher than ninth in any of the mainstream human polls or eighth in the final BCS poll. National championships just don't apply to WAC schedules with one respectable game against a team from Oregon.
Except the carnage in the top 10 over the first month of the season, combined with Boise State being Boise State in games it's supposed to win, currently has the Broncos sitting fifth in both mainstream polls, matching their final position after upsetting Oklahoma in the '07 Fiesta Bowl as the highest ranking in school history. Of the four teams currently in front of BSU, at least two -- between Florida, Alabama and LSU -- are guaranteed to lose at some point, if only to one another. Assuming the Broncos are bound for 13-0 again (they get an extra game by virtue of the odd-year trip to Hawaii), traditional poll inertia suggests they're one Texas misstep away from No. 2 and a for-real shot at the crystal ball in Pasadena. Is that possible?
The Atlanta-Journal Constitution's Tony Barnhart says it's absolutely impossible, for the exact reason it hasn't happened until now: No matter how many games they win, or by how much, the Broncos just don't play the schedule. The games aren't there. The bottom half of the WAC -- Idaho, New Mexico State, Utah State, San Jose State, sometimes Louisiana Tech -- is annually the puffiest lineup of easy wins anywhere in the country, and Boise has never done enough outside of the conference to offset that. Outside of Oregon this year, the Broncos face a typical murderer's row of Miami (Ohio), Bowling Green, UC Davis and Tulsa. The last six games in November and December are against teams that are a combined 4-13 right now against I-A competition (three of those wins are by Idaho) and only figure to get worse. If it runs the table, this team will have exactly the same credentials as the teams that were snubbed before without a second thought.
The question is, when do factors like precedent and strength of schedule overcome the week-to-week inertia that tends to move teams up only when a vacant space opens up above them? If comes down to undefeated teams from the automatic BCS conferences, I don't think it's a question -- if, say, Iowa in the Big Ten or Kansas in the Big 12 or even Cincinnati or South Florida in the Big East finished undefeated, I think they'd hop the Broncos out of the greater respect for those teams' conferences and no one would look back. If it came down to Boise State against another undefeated mid-major outfit, though -- Houston and TCU are the only remaining candidates, both of which already have more wins over "Big Six" opponents (two apiece) than Boise will play this year -- or against a one-loss powerhouse like USC, Ohio State or Virginia Tech, each of which currently resides behind the Broncos in all the mainstream rankings, who's blessed with the benefit of the doubt then?
Nothing in the history of the BCS suggests it will be Boise in that scenario, nor in any other scenario the system has encountered over the last 10 years. Utah finished last season with a much stronger resumé at 12-0 than these Broncos will have at 13-0, and the Utes didn't get a whiff of a title shot despite the logjam of one-loss teams at the top. But there's also no precedent for a supposed Cinderella working from such an entrenched position -- No. 5! -- so early in the season. Polling has always been a rigid process; voters don't think about their ballots fluidly, as a constantly evolving order based on new evidence; the rule has always been, you win you stay put or move up, if you lose you move down. From its current standing, if BSU keeps winning -- especially if it keeps winning big -- I suspect it's going to have plenty of defenders crying foul when the Broncos are finally leaped by the name brands with blemishes.