February 28, 2011
Tracking the buzz of college football's hive mind.
Given its history and resources, Boise State's positions as a viable nation contender in 2010 looked like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: The Broncos had delivered perfect regular seasons before, in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009, but with a staggering 22 returning starters from the '09 team, a top-five preseason ranking and an early national showcase against ACC overlord Virginia Tech, they suddenly found themselves staring down an avenue to the top of the polls that hadn't existed before. It was only with a pair of improbably missed field goals at Nevada in late November that that path veered into oblivion (i.e. the Las Vegas Bowl), likely to never present itself again in the absence of a bona fide playoff. Right?
Well, maybe – there certainly will not be any of the buzz this year that followed them into 2010 – and if you're one of the legions of Boise haters anxious for the Broncos' footprint to return to the obscurity of Big Sky country, maybe you should leave it at that and stop reading. Because the fact is, with their experience, solid national reputation and opportunistic schedule, the Broncos are back in the front of the line of would-be sleepers in 2011.
That starts with quarterback Kellen Moore, owner of the nation's best pass efficiency rating and a glittering 38-2 record as a starter, without whom Boise would plummet back into the nether reaches of the preseason polls – the single most important variable in gauging their potential upward mobility in any given season. With Moore headlining a cast of 14 returning starters, though (seven on offense, including fourth-fifths of the offensive line, and seven on defense), pollsters have plenty of reasons to give them the benefit of the doubt for at least one more year: The Broncos held fast last month in the top 10 or 12 of all of the "way too early" preseason polls that sound the first notes of national expectations. Assuming that holds until the fall, it's significantly higher than Boise has ever found itself in the preseason pecking order before last year, and high enough to allow another move on the BCS title game with the right breaks in front of them.
That move will be possible, like last year's rise to No. 3 in both the Coach's and Associated Press polls, because of another schedule that shrewdly provides another shot at a name-brand heavy in a primetime, nationally televised showcase (last year it was Virginia Tech on Labor Day; this year, BSU opens against Georgia in the annual Chick-Fil-A Classic in Atlanta), followed by another round with fellow giant killer TCU in October. It doesn't hurt that the Horned Frogs are certain to hold on to some significant poll respect themselves despite rolling out of the greenest lineups in the country in the fall, or that the rest of the Mountain West voted to move the only Boise State-TCU matchup as conference rivals from Fort Worth to the blue turf in Boise, where the Broncos haven't lost a regular season game in 10 years. They also keep their most consistently respectable rivals from the WAC, future Mountain West defectors Fresno State and Nevada, which should keep the non-conference strength of schedule from bottoming out in the BCS' computer polls.
But just as important as any of the details of Boise's case in 2011, specifically, is the simple fact that voters are accustomed to thinking about Boise State among the top outfits in the country, and showed last year that they're increasingly willing to elevate the Broncos into the higher reaches as long as they keep winning. All indications are that that respect will extend into this fall, and that Boise has the lineup and schedule to exploit it again. Whether it extends beyond this fall, after Moore graduates, TCU moves to the Big East and the Mountain West evolves into the Nouveau WAC, we don't know. At this point, though, anyone arguing the Broncos don't have the juice to make a national championship run is either suspiciously confident that another undefeated season is off the table, or just hasn't been paying attention.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.