As offseason memes go, Boise State's bid to open the season as a serious national championship contender is kind of old hat -- the earliest "pre-preseason" polls all tabbed the Broncos as a top five team next fall, or even No. 1, courtesy of 21 returning starters from the team that just posted BSU's fourth undefeated regular season since 2004, its second Fiesta Bowl win in four years and the highest final poll finish in school history. Obviously, they're not sneaking up on anybody. With Butler's near-triumph in Monday night's basketball final, though, the inevitable Boise-Butler comparison was too good to pass up on Tuesday, for major national columnists, medium-market hacks* and SEC-obsessed bloggers alike. Among the crowd (and in sharp contrast to its many BCS-hating naysayers), Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples made an explicit appeal for optimism:
Don't fret, America. Goliath can't go on winning forever. What Hayward and the Bulldogs started, quarterback Kellen Moore and the Boise State football team can finish on Jan. 10, 2011. ... History and the odds suggest that if Boise State goes undefeated this season, the Broncos will take the field in the same stadium where, five years and nine days earlier, they ran the Statue of Liberty and shocked the college football world.
... for once, the fact that the BCS is a popularity contest will work in Boise State's favor. Boise State is popular. The Broncos will start next season ranked in the top five of most major polls. Boise State is a brand, and that's half the battle right there.
The delicious irony: Only in college football does the resident David's championship fate rest in the strength of its brand. By definition, the little guy isn't even supposed to have a brand; it's one of the charms that makes him the little guy. (Respect among basketball aficionados notwithstanding, Butler had no national profile to speak of a week ago.) In Boise's case, though, its hard-earned, carefully cultivated brand as the puckish, trickster giant-killer from the middle of nowhere means everything, because it will be the only thing voters will have in December to separate an undefeated regular season in 2010 from undefeated seasons in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009:
Everyone focuses on the opening-night showcase with Virginia Tech -- in primetime, on national television, on Labor Day, in Washington, D.C. -- as the "make or break" game that confirms the validity of the early ranking and entrenches the Broncos in voters' minds as viable championship contenders if they run the table again. Which they almost certainly will: The only other obvious challenges on the slate, Oregon State and Fresno State, both come to Boise, where BSU hasn't lost since the 2005 Humanitarian Bowl and haven't even been challenged (15 straight wins by at least 11 points) since a four-overtime escape against Nevada in 2007. If they get by the Hokies on Sept. 6 (a colossal if, obviously), the Broncos will be the only team in the country for whom 12-0 seems more likely than not in September.
How will that 12-0 be different than the 11-0, 12-0, 12-0 and 13-0 regular seasons that garnered exactly zero national championship sentiment in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009? On the field, not at all: In all of those seasons, Boise beat a team that finished in the final top 25 and at least two other teams that finished with winning records. Last year, the Broncos trounced the eventual Pac-10 champion in its nationally-televised, opening-night showcase, finished as the highest-scoring team in the country and won its games by an average of more than 31 points, with only one win (28-21 at Tulsa) by less than ten. The overwhelming majority of those same players may constitute a "better" team in 2010, by whatever abstract metric you prefer, but it won't have a better resumé at the end of the season. Unless Oregon State makes a serious run at the BCS itself, the opportunity for improvement isn't there. (And even then, vanquishing the near-Pac-10 champion Beavers -- along with Michigan and two other top-20 teams -- didn't get undefeated Utah over the hump in 2008. In fact, the Utes, with as strong a resumé as a mid-major outfit could reasonably offer at the end of the regular season, wasn't mentioned in any championship talk until after they knocked off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.)
The difference is that people essentially decided before the season that those teams couldn't be champions - they had no discernible "buzz" and weren't ranked high enough to begin the year. Even modest gains have ultimately been overriden by the general lack of respect: At the end of last September, the Broncos were ranked fifth in both major polls, only to fall behind the season's other undefeated upstarts, TCU and Cincinnati, as the dregs of the WAC schedule relegating BSU to obscurity; they finished the regular season ranked behind one-loss Florida, just as they'd finished ranked behind seven one-loss teams from the "Big Six" conferences -- including Texas Tech, no powerhouse itself -- in 2008. Voters have yet to spring for undefeated Boise State over any one-loss "Big Six" conference team, even after the supposedly validating win over Oklahoma in 2006.
But suddenly the respect is there for a serious championship run? If it is, it's only because we've had five years -- and another five months still to go before the opening kick -- to get used to the idea.
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* I mean "hack" in the friendly, generic sense, of course; I'm not familiar with the work of Bryan Burwell, specifically.