Not surprisingly, recruits are taking notice.
Neither school is yet attracting the type of elite prospects who announce their pledges on national TV, but they're both getting into homes they probably wouldn't have five years ago.
"If you look at the caliber of players they're able to target, there's definitely been a noticeable change in the talent," said Rivals.com national recruiting editor Jeremy Crabtree, who specializes in the Midlands and West regions. "TCU is now able to go head-to-head with virtually every Big 12 school except maybe Oklahoma and Texas. And the awareness of Boise State's program makes it easier for them to go head-to-head with Pac-10 type programs."
While Rivals' star-system isn't a definitive assessment of a recruit's talent, it's a pretty good indicator of how sought-after a certain prospect is. Four-star players tend to draw more suitors than three-stars, three-stars more than two-stars, etc.
In 2006, TCU landed no four-stars, 10 three-stars and eight two-stars, for a class average of 2.56. Four years later, the Horned Frogs have upgraded to a class that includes three four-stars, 15 three-stars and no two-stars, for an average of 3.17.
Boise State's numbers have risen similarly over the same time period, starting with a 2.17 average in '06. That class of 18 included no four-stars and just three three-stars. This year's class is a bit deceiving because of its unusually small size -- the Broncos graduated just five scholarship seniors and have only eight commitments -- but it includes a four-star and five three-stars for a 2.63 average.
In order to lure prospects receiving interest from major-conference teams, schools like TCU, Boise, Utah and BYU have had to battle the stigma created by their conferences' lack of an automatic BCS berth. The fact that non-AQ schools have participated in BCS bowls each of the past four seasons (including two last year), though, has apparently helped their cause.
Two weeks ago, highly regarded quarterback Matt Brown (Allen, Texas) switched his commitment from Arizona to TCU after the Wildcats lost offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes. Brown, who had previously attended the Horned Frogs' spring game and an Elite 11 combine on TCU's campus, doesn't view the school's non-AQ status as a hindrance.
"Coach [Gary Patterson] asked me my goals, and I said, 'Win a national title,'" said Brown. "It's probably going to take another undefeated season for people to realize the Mountain West should be [a BCS conference], but that's what TCU is all about. It's only a matter of time before TCU's in a national championship."
TCU's class also includes two four-star running backs, Ethan Grant (Coconut Creek, Fla.), a 5-foot-9 speedster who initially committed to Oregon, and all-purpose threat Josh Huff (Houston), another Ducks target who previously committed to Minnesota. (Another former Minnesota pledge, three-star receiver Chris Hawkins, switched to TCU around the same time as Brown.) Another four-star prospect, speedy receiver Curtis Carter (Stonewall, La.), chose the Frogs over finalists Missouri and Nebraska.
Meanwhile, Helena, Mont., athlete Matt Miller, Rivals.com's top-rated player in the Rocky Mountain states, (Crabtree called him "the best player to come out of Montana in six or seven years,") recently chose Boise State over Arizona State, Oregon State, Arkansas and a host of others.
"I thought about playing for a BCS school pretty long and hard," Miller told Rivals.com. "The way I see it, I'll be more likely to play in a BCS bowl game with Boise because it seems they are in a BCS bowl game every year."
Crabtree is also high on Boise commits Troy Ware, a three-star receiver from La Vista, Calif., and juco defensive end Tyrone Crawford from Bakersfield (Calif.) Community College, one of Rivals' Top 25 juco prospects.
But the centerpiece of Boise State's class remains Independence, Ore., quarterback Grant Hedrick, the potential successor to rising junior star Kellen Moore. Hedrick, an athletic, slightly undersized (6-1) small-school standout, stunned even his father, Shane (the player's coach at Independence High School), when he made an early pledge to the Broncos.
"On June 12 and 13th, we were [visiting] Oregon and Oregon State, and on the 14th heading to Boise," said Shane Hedrick. "He grew up a Ducks fan, and I thought Oregon was the place he was going to go. It was kind of a no-brainer. I thought our trip to Boise was going to be just a fun little road trip for father and son.
"We got there, and he was just blind-sided by the coaching staff and the community and the support there. He looked at me and said, 'If they offer, I'll accept.' Sure enough, the next weekend they offered and he accepted, no hesitation at all."
If not for his early commitment, "[Hedrick] would have been a 15 to 20 offer kind of kid," said Crabtree, "but Boise found him before virtually anyone else did." In that sense Hedrick fits much the same profile as the 6-foot Moore -- the nation's leading passer last season -- who was Rivals' No. 31 pro-style quarterback coming out of Prosser, Wash., three years ago. Hedrick is 24th.
Both Boise State and TCU have gotten to this point by recruiting players like Moore and Hedrick -- not necessarily off-the-chart talents, but smart, coachable athletes who fit the schools' respective systems. In fact, two of the teams' biggest recent stars -- All-America Frogs defensive end Jerry Hughes and Broncos cornerback Kyle Wilson, a projected NFL first-rounder -- were two-star prospects coming out of high school.
Though new recruiting doors are opening for Patterson and Boise coach Chris Petersen, they shouldn't veer too much from that formula.
In 2005, Iowa, having achieved three straight top 10 seasons with a cast of largely blue-collar talent, leveraged its recent success to land a rare top 15 recruiting class that included seven U.S. Army All-Americans. Many of the more lauded players proved bad fits, however, and the Hawkeyes suffered through consecutive six-win seasons in '06 and '07 before returning to the BCS last season with a core of more typical Kirk Ferentz "hidden gems."
Legendary Kansas State coach Bill Snyder fell into much the same trap toward the end of his original tenure in the mid-2000s.
"It's a difficult balance," said Crabtree. "You have to make sure you're still getting your type of kids while still continually moving up in the caliber of players you can get."
But the longer TCU and Boise rank among the nation's best teams, the more the nation's best prospects will take notice.
"I'm old enough to remember when Boise State was a junior college," said Hedrick's father. "A couple of weeks after [Grant] had committed to Boise State, he gave me one of those [preseason] magazines and said, 'Check this out -- did you see where Boise is ranked? They were something like 13th, and I'm looking at schools like Penn State, Florida State, Oregon, all ranked right next to Boise Sate.
"A lot of people asked us why he didn't want to go somewhere bigger. That was kind of the moment we realized, it' not going to get much bigger than this."