Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

The most interesting matchups of the season, in conjunction with the Doc's Mid-Major Week.

I think it's a good argument that no single last year was more valuable for one team than Boise State's win at Oregon in September, for a couple reasons: a) It was Boise's first road win over a BCS conference team since moving up to the I-A level a decade ago; b) The Ducks were the highest-ranked victim (at kickoff or in the final polls) Boise has ever defeated in the regular season; and c) More immediately, it cleared by far the largest obstacle in the Broncos' path to another undefeated regular season, which only coincidentally fell short of a return to the BCS when Utah's perfect run commanded a big-money berth instead, relegating Boise to the Poinsettia Bowl.

All of those towering ramifications carry over to this year's tilt in Bronco Stadium -- again, Oregon will be the highest-ranked team to ever set foot on the blue turf -- with one more layer of intrigue: The Broncos and Ducks will kick off the season on Thursday night, all alone on ESPN, where snap judgments are likely to shape pundits and pollsters' opinions for the rest of the season.

That goes triple for Boise, which -- unlike Oregon, with the typically dicey Pac-10 gauntlet unfolding before it -- hardly has the schedule to make up for laying an egg against the best team it will face, in the only game most people nationally will even a chance to see:

Boise State 2009 Schedule
Sept. 3: Oregon
Sept. 12: Miami, Ohio
Sept. 18: at Fresno State
Sept. 26: at Bowling Green
Oct. 3: UC-Davis
Oct. 14: at Tulsa
Oct. 24: at Hawaii
Oct. 31: San Jose State
Nov. 6: at Louisiana Tech
Nov. 14: Idaho
Nov. 20: at Utah State
Nov. 27: Nevada
Dec. 5: New Mexico State

Not that Nevada or Tulsa -- a Wednesday night ESPN game -- are bums, necessarily, but (just to ballpark it) I'm flipping through my copy of Athlon, and the first team on Boise's schedule that shows up after Oregon (No. 13) is the Golden Hurricane at No. 62, which is a good assessment of their standing across the opinion spectrum; Nevada, Tulsa, Fresno State et al are not bums, but they're only necessary wins for the sake of not losing. That and a tank of gas will get you to the Humanitarian Bowl.

It might seem a little unfair to the Broncos at this point, seven years into their run as WAC overlords and arguably the most consistently successful outfit in the country, to keep requiring them to prove themselves anew year after year. But just the few setbacks since the Fiesta Bowl upset over Oklahoma in 2006 -- uninspiring losses to Washington, Hawaii, East Carolina and TCU the last two years -- have kept most of the same old questions about competence against top competition hovering overhead. It didn't help that the only win over a ranked team since 2001, the triumph in Eugene last September, came largely with the Ducks reduced to their third-string quarterback (though that hardly excuses the Oregon secondary from allowing 386 yards and three touchdowns passing to then-redshirt freshman Kellen Moore in his first road start), a luxury BSU certainly won't have when it lines up across from Jeremiah Masoli, the tentative pick as the best all-around signal-caller in the Pac-10, who was knocked out of last year's game after tossing just four passes.

So the first Thursday night of the year, one way or another, will probably be the most far-reaching as the season wears on, at least until Oregon cycles back onto the school night stage against Oregon State in December. Assuming Tulsa doesn't stun Oklahoma before the Broncos come around, BSU won't have that chance: Boise starts the season in an enviable position, but if it plans on spending the rest of the year as a top-15, BCS contender on the national radar, there's really one shot to earn those stripes.

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