Sunday September 26th, 2010

BOISE, Idaho -- This was a great trip. Boise was beautiful. I saw an entertaining -- albeit slightly sloppy -- football game. But I'll leave here sad.

I know I saw one of the best teams in the country on Saturday, and I'm 99 percent certain that team will have no chance to win the national title. Most of the blame falls on the foolhardy system college football uses to choose which teams play for the national title. Hold a three-month beauty pageant, then play one game for all the marbles. Some of the blame falls on the people in Boise State's program, who -- either because they feel it's beneath them or because they don't like the attention -- refuse to play the game that might allow them to break the crystal football ceiling.

Boise State beat Oregon State, 37-24, on Saturday. It wasn't always pretty, but the Broncos hit a nifty trick play for a touchdown, quarterback Kellen Moore dissected the Beavers for 288 yards and three touchdowns and Boise State's defense held Oregon State's potent offense to 237 yards.

Boise State scored no style points Saturday, and that will hurt the Broncos when the ballots are cast in December to decide who plays in the BCS title game. So, too, will their attitude. Consider this quote from defensive end Ryan Winterswyk. "One of the nice things is that the craziness is going to be gone," Winterswyk said. "It's just down to playing football now."

ESPN's College Gameday came to Boise this week. A bunch of national reporters came. The crowd in the postgame press conference was huge by Boise standards, but it was about half the size of the press corps that covers Florida against an early-September cupcake.

What Winterswyk and the rest of the Broncos fail to understand is that every week is like this at Alabama or Ohio State. Even when Gameday doesn't show up, it's a circus. That's how it's supposed to be when a team is in the national title hunt. The nation cares, and when the nation cares, attention and pressure follow. So, sometimes, do Waterford Crystal footballs similar to the one that visited Boise this week.

For the next two months, Boise State will disappear from the national radar. The BCS title trophy won't be on the sideline when the Broncos roll into Las Cruces next week to face New Mexico State. "I like being under the radar," Winterswyk said. "That's when we're at our best." That may be, but Boise State no longer has control of its own destiny, even if it wins its next nine games by 50 points apiece. The Broncos will have to wait, hoping the powers in the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-10 suffer losses.

Boise State coach Chris Petersen will not play politics. He will not stump for his team. He will not explain why the Broncos -- should they finish the regular season 12-0 -- deserve to play for the national title. Maybe he thinks his program should be above such boasting. It wasn't beneath Urban Meyer, who successfully stumped for his Florida team in 2006. It wasn't beneath Mack Brown, who unsuccessfully stumped for his Texas team in 2008.

If the Broncos go undefeated, they deserve a chance at the title, just as Alabama, Ohio State or Oregon would deserve a chance if they go undefeated. But Petersen is content to coach his team to wins. He won't try for style points.

"We don't even go there," Petersen said. "It's not frustrating. We're just going to play hard. We're going to get better. We're going to have a very good team. We'll just see what happens. People have been saying that for the last few years, and every year it seems to work out for us."

But that's the thing. It didn't work out for Boise State last year. It worked out for Alabama. Maybe my view is skewed because of an SEC-country upbringing, but fellow Southerner Ricky Bobby said it best: "If you ain't first, you're last."

If given a real chance, Boise State could finish first. This is a great team. On a neutral field, on the right day, this team could beat Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon or Nebraska. Don't believe me? Ask Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea. (And remember, Paea can bench press 225 pounds 44 times. So disagree with him at your own peril.) "If they do their thing," Paea said, "they'll be in the national championship."

If only that were true. Boise State can do its thing all the way to 12-0, but the Broncos' fate will be decided by two polls and by the algorithms of various computer ranking models. The human voters will most certainly take sides in the political debate that has sprouted from Boise State's success. You're either a Blue-Turfer or a Crimson-Turfer. The Blue-Turfers believe a 12-0 Boise State should earn a trip to the title game over a 12-1 SEC champ or an 11-1 Big Ten or Pac-10 champ. The Crimson-Turfers believe Boise State's inferior schedule precludes the Broncos from even being in the conversation unless all hell breaks loose like it did in 2007.

Both sides have convincing arguments.

All Boise State does is beat every team it plays. Point for the Blue-Turfers.

But it's laughable to compare the WAC schedule to the gauntlet Alabama must run. The Crimson Tide survived Arkansas on Saturday. For that, they'll be rewarded with a visit from Florida, followed by a trip to South Carolina. And that's just a three-week slice of the season. Point for the Crimson-Turfers.

It's sad it has to come to this, that Petersen -- or Meyer or Brown in past years -- should be required to make an off-field case for why his team deserves to play for the national title. It will be sadder if Boise State misses a chance to play for that title because Petersen isn't willing to play the political game. His job is not just to win football games; it's to put his program in the best possible position. Unfortunately, in the world of the BCS, that requires a politician's savvy.

The fairest way to decide this would be the same way all the other college football divisions decide their champions. Hold a 16-team playoff. If Boise State can beat three elite opponents in a row, then it deserves to play for the national title. That's fair to Boise State, and it's fair to an Alabama or Ohio State or Oregon that may lose a regular-season game because of a rugged conference schedule.

But that makes way too much sense. Instead, we're stuck with a system that probably will wind up stiffing either an undefeated Boise State or TCU or Utah or a one-loss Alabama or Ohio State or Oregon.

There is a sign in Boise State's team meeting room. It begins like this: "Our goal is to win the WAC Championship and a bowl game..."

Those are the only things the Broncos can control. Everything else is out of their hands. Everything else is the beauty pageant.

Unfortunately, the Broncos seem unwilling to apply any makeup.

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