When Oregon coach Chip Kelly repeatedly praised Boise State in recent weeks, he wasn't just trying to lower expectations for the Ducks' season opener Thursday. He was speaking about a modern reality of college football in the West – after decades of dominance, the Pac-10 has, at the very least, a challenge to its throne.
Not that the venerable conference is going to be supplanted as the premier league of the region, but there's no denying the ascension of once-fledgling programs such as Boise State and Utah and even a rebirth of sorts for BYU.
"I consider Boise a top-10 program in the country," Kelly said.
That's a bit much. Taking Kelly's word for it though, that's one more top-10 program competing against Pac-10 schools in games and for recruits than there was a decade ago.
Add in Utah, which has put together two unbeaten seasons in the past five years, BYU, which has restored itself to prominence and even the final member of Mountain West's triumvirate, TCU, and it's a different deal than it used to be. The Western Athletic Conference offers Boise's historic rise on the heels of Fresno State's former run.
Back in the day, like 2000, recruits would take just about any Pac-10 offer. League teams ran roughshod in the non-conference over regional schools.
Now Oregon, ranked 16th in the country, walks onto the blue turf of Boise as a four-point dog. It's why the game has implications not just for the 14th-ranked Broncos – who could ride a victory all the way to a BCS bowl appearance.
For the Pac-10, this is a game that can also help erase the memories of a disastrous 2008 non-conference campaign [non-Southern California division].
A year ago the Pac-10 went 1-6 against the Mountain West Conference. That includes such stunners as BYU's 59-zip woodshed effort against UCLA and reconstructing UNLV over then 15th-ranked Arizona State.
Boise State is in the WAC, but if you throw its victory at Oregon into the mix then the Pac-10 got pushed around by the best of the non-BCS teams out West.
USC was, and remains, the region's [if not the nation's] gold standard. The Trojans operate at an entirely different level from everyone else out there. However, it wasn't sacrilege to say that top-to-bottom the Pac-10 wasn't the best conference out West last season. And who knows if that's ever been the case before.
Now the four best non-Pac-10 programs return in fine shape. Utah may step back from its historic 13-0 run bookended by victories over Michigan and Alabama, but it won't go far. Meanwhile BYU and TCU are expected to be even better. All three teams are ranked in the preseason top 20.
Then there's Boise, which with sophomore quarterback Kellen Moore, may not miss a beat from a perfect regular season [it got edged out for a BCS bowl only because Utah had an even more impressive perfect record]. The Broncos have won 10 or more games in eight of the past nine seasons and have come a long way from their days as some cuddly underdog with a gimmicky field.
"A field has never won a football game," Kelly said. "I don't think their advantage is the blue turf. Their advantage is how well they're coached. … Boise doesn't sneak up on anyone anymore."
Obviously the Pac-10, with its immense resources, revenue and rich history is the region's best athletic conference. One season isn't going to change that. However, the growth of these perennially powerful one-time mid-major programs isn't a welcome development.
Pac-10 schools still win the majority of head-to-head recruiting battles against Utah, BYU and Boise. That isn't going to change. They don't win them all anymore, though, which at the very least impacts the Pac-10’s depth.
Consider Moore. He was a high school legend in Prosser, Wash. and the state's player of the year in 2007. He was also in the stands when Boise shocked Oklahoma in that famous Fiesta Bowl.
After that, his decision to choose the Broncos wasn't even all that shocking. What quarterback wouldn't want to play in Chris Petersen's full-throttle system? After just one season of play, Moore's on everyone's Heisman list.
It was no different this summer when quarterback Jake Heaps, Washington's top-rated recruit for 2010, chose BYU over Pac-10 schools.
These are the signs of the times. Some kids are willing to branch out, which means there are a lot of traditional Pac-10 level players now starting at some non-traditional area programs.
And while the rise of the Boises and Utahs isn't the sole reason for this, it's worth noting that Washington and Washington State combined to go 2-23 last year. If Boise never got big, Kellen Moore might be resurrecting memories of Drew Bledsoe and Ryan Leaf in Pullman right now.
So Thursday, Oregon gets the first shot at carrying the Pac-10 banner against these neighborhood upstarts. It gets the first crack at restoring order. Two weeks later, they play host to Utah. These are more than just a couple of games.
Featuring a roster talented enough to challenge USC's stranglehold on the league title, the Ducks are more than capable of winning both contests and inserting themselves into the BCS title chase. Forget Kelly's lowering of expectations, this is still Oregon.
As such, it's not unfair to suggest how the Ducks non-conference run goes, so goes part of the league's perception and, in some ways, the region's pecking order.
"Those are the games that you dream of playing," Kelly said. "Our players relish those situations."
An entire region will be watching closely.
- Boise State