This, back in 2005, was Boise State's shot at the big-time. The upstart Broncos, in just their 10th season at the FBS level, had lost only one game the previous year, in the Liberty Bowl to Louisville. A season opener against the Bulldogs in Athens, Ga., was a chance for the fledgling program to shake things up, make a statement. That was the plan, anyway.
"We felt we had a chance to go in there and make some noise," said Zabransky, the Broncos' former quarterback.
Instead, not a peep. Georgia 48, Boise State 13 was about what everyone expected for an SEC power against an overmatched opponent in town for a payday. No one outside of Boise seriously considered the Broncos any kind of threat to the established order.
"It was hard to stomach," Zabransky said.
What's still hard to fathom is this: Boise State meets Georgia again Saturday night at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. It's one of the two biggest matchups of the season's opening weekend. And a half-dozen years after Zabransky and the Broncos flopped, the roles have reversed. Here was Mark Richt last month at SEC Media Days, talking about facing Boise State: "Boise State is a big deal for us. ... What better way to send a surge into your program than to play a game like that?" And earlier this week, here was Bulldogs defensive end Abry Jones: "It's definitely a statement game considering the year we are coming off. We're trying to reestablish ourselves in the college football world."
The college football world has turned upside down.
"It's done a 180," Zabransky said.
Boise State and the other BCS-busters have raged against the machine long enough, we've grown used to it. Heck, Utah (Pac-12) and TCU (Big East, in 2012) have become part of the apparatus. But it's still a bit jarring to hear Zabransky echoing the Bulldogs -- "The pressure is on Georgia to reinstate themselves as a national power" -- and everyone just nodding their heads in agreement.
In some ways, not much has changed. Or not enough. This remains an important gauge for Boise State, just the latest in a never-ending series of challenges. A No. 5 preseason ranking is a reflection of earned credibility. Under Chris Petersen, the Broncos are 61-5 in five seasons, and 6-1 against AQ-league opponents. But despite the success, the Broncos have to win 'em all to have a shot at a BCS bowl berth, much less the BCS Championship game.
Meanwhile, the big subplot Saturday is Richt's tenuous job security. Those two SEC championships seem long ago. As conference rivals have passed around the crystal football, the Bulldogs have slipped, going 14-12 the last two years. But Georgia's No. 19 ranking is where a fourth-, fifth- or maybe sixth-best team from the SEC gets slotted. If Georgia loses Saturday but somehow runs the table, no one would be surprised to see the Bulldogs play for the BCS title.
But this isn't about complete upheaval, just a snapshot of how much has changed.
With apologies to the Utes and Horned Frogs, Boise State's Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma remains the breakthrough moment, the most emphatic statement by a non-AQ. The Broncos dominated the Sooners for three quarters, then beat Oklahoma with a series of wonderful tricks late in regulation and in overtime. After scoring the winning two-point conversion, running back Ian Johnson knelt and proposed to his girlfriend, a Boise State cheerleader. It was the stuff of dreams, or at least a Disney movie.
But the Broncos thought it might have happened 16 months earlier in Athens, Ga., when they got their shot at the mighty SEC. On the strength of their 11-1 2004 season, the Broncos held their first preseason ranking, at No. 18. Zabransky had never seen the Boise State coaches emphasize any game like that preseason. Hawkins had the Broncos running the upper decks at the stadium between practices. They kept blaring Ray Charles from the loudspeakers. There was no doubt how important the game was. Or how much pressure the Broncos eventually felt.
"It was overhyped by the program," former defensive back Gerald Alexander told the Idaho Statesman. "That pretty much showed within a lot of people's play."
Starting with the first play. On a naked bootleg, Zabransky had three options. Instead, Zabransky predetermined his receiver. Seeing a linebacker with his back turned, Zabransky rocked and fired -- just as the linebacker's head swiveled. The interception fired up Sanford Stadium. Zabransky's second pass was also picked. By halftime, he'd thrown two more and lost two fumbles. The Broncos had fumbled their big opportunity.
"Everybody gets mad about it," said Zabransky, leaving no doubt he's still fuming. "We wanted to perform at a very high level. It was real bad. But I think it's a big reason we've had the success we've had. It made us better as a program."
Boise State never quite rebounded, finishing 9-4. After the season, Dan Hawkins left for Colorado. A young offensive coordinator ascended to head coach. Beginning with a perfect 2006 season and that win over Oklahoma, the Broncos and their non-AQ brethren have forced their way into our consciousness and created a serious debate about access and opportunity.
We've reached a point where suddenly an SEC coach is circling a de facto home game against a team playing its first season in the Mountain West as a must-win. Contrast Richt with Nick Saban, a year ago, talking about non-AQs: "It's the full body of work. It's not just that you can beat one team, but if you have to beat six or seven other teams and have to play with consistency to do it, I think that goes a long way in saying a lot about what kind of football team that you have."
Contempt isn't Richt's style, of course. And this isn't about Boise State's full 2011 schedule, but the Broncos' body of work over the last few years. Georgia's SEC schedule is typically brutal, but the Bulldogs need to beat this one team first.
"There's a risk," Richt said, "in playing a team that can whip your tail. But in order for us to get back to where we want to be, we have to play this game."
That's at least as true for Boise State, but you'd be hard-pressed to know it from their preseason approach. It's a reflection of Petersen's M.O. -- and, Zabransky is convinced, of a painful lesson learned six years ago about placing too much emphasis on any one game. Listen to the Broncos, and they might as well be preparing for Georgia State. Down in Athens, it's a bit different. The Bulldogs held a faux scrimmage the other day against, uh, "Boise State." After spotting the Broncos a 31-point lead, they roared back to win in dramatic fashion. "We had a great second half and just rolled right through them," quarterback Aaron Murray told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Yeah, the Bulldogs have Boise on their minds.