Should this team from the Western Athletic Conference with the unimposing schedule and the blue turf play for the BCS national championship? It's only the hottest question in college football
This is an article from the Oct. 4, 2010 issue
His alarm was set for nine on the morning of the biggest home game in the history of Boise State football, but Kellen Moore woke up closer to eight last Saturday. Was the junior quarterback anxious about taking on No. 24 Oregon State? Was he worried about extending his winning streak as a starter to 17 games? Perhaps the pressure of the Broncos' quest to become the first team from a non-BCS conference to play for the national championship cut short his sleep?
"Actually," explained Moore, "one of our neighbors has a rooster."
"All animals are created equal," observes George Orwell in Animal Farm, "but some animals are more equal than others." In the menagerie of college football, Boise and its non-BCS brethren are decidedly less equal. That makes the Broncos' lofty aspirations this season either noble and heroic, or naive and delusional, depending on your point of view.
A 37--24 beating of the Beavers last Saturday night merely confirmed Boise State's status as the most polarizing program in the nation. The third-ranked Broncos are either a collection of a) can-do overachievers worthy of a berth in the BCS title game (provided they run their cupcake-filled table) or b) lightweight pretenders who would presume to keep a more qualified team (Nebraska? Oklahoma? Oregon?) out of the national championship. As the Broncos continue to steamroll opponents (their only remaining danger game appears to be at Nevada on Nov. 26); as the BCS standings fluctuate; as antitrust lawyers and, possibly, the Department of Justice get into the act, each camp will only get more firmly entrenched.
The anti-Boise contingent heeds the words of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who believes in the sanctity of "strength of schedule" and "body of work." These members of the SOSBOW party, not surprisingly, are clustered in BCS conferences. To them, gearing up for two or three tough games then gliding through the rest of the season on autopilot does not a title game participant make.
Imploring those traditionalists to open their minds (they usually don't put it that politely) are those with a genuine interest in discovering the identity of the best team in the country, regardless of conference or tradition. Their stance can be summed up by Boise State safety Winston Venable, who cautions doubters not to be overly influenced by the decal on the side of the helmet. "Every college football game is a bunch of guys, 18 to 22 years old, going up against a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds," Venable says. "It's college athletics, man. Anything can happen."
Neither side gained or gave ground on Saturday. Forced to overcome its first adversity of the season, Saban's top-ranked Tide rallied from a 13-point, third-quarter deficit to defeat No. 10 Arkansas 24--20 in Fayetteville. Moore was masterly against Oregon State, sidestepping pressure, hitting receivers in stride and keeping himself in the Heisman mix while completing 19 of his 27 passes for 288 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. But Boise's special teams were slipshod, and a pair of 15-yard penalties kept alive a third-quarter Beavers drive that "handed them a touchdown," fumed coach Chris Petersen. The Broncos won, but they won no converts.
It is a reflection of Petersen's trust in his players, and of the program's bare-bones budget, that the Broncos crash in their own beds on the night before home games, rather than bus to a nearby hotel, as is customary with I-A power programs. (Boise State's football budget of $5.4 million is roughly one sixth of the $32.3 million that No. 2 Ohio State spends on its program.) Moore shares a house with defensive end Ryan Winterswyk and linebacker Derrell Acrey, both seniors. Upon rising last Saturday, they flipped on College GameDay, which was broadcasting from Bronco Stadium.
Moore found it disconcerting and slightly surreal, he says, "seeing the [GameDay] crew right there on the Blue, so close but so far away."
Close, meaning a mile or so from his house. Far away in the sense that every single Bronco knew better than to swing by the stadium to sample that madness. "You know how Pete is," Moore had confided three days earlier, referring to Petersen's insistence that every team member share his Vulcan focus. "Trust me, there'll be no players down there. It'll be a neat experience. Maybe I'll ask my parents how it was."
By the Blue, of course, Moore was referring to Boise's notorious blue turf, installed in 1986 to symbolize, according to campus lore, "the program's blue-collar work ethic." That it also helped the blue-clad Broncos blend in with their surroundings, making life more difficult for visiting teams, was gravy. As coach Pat Hill of Western Athletic Conference rival Fresno State points out, the blue-on-blue makes life miserable for opposing staffs too: "It takes forever to break down Boise State film. The way the uniforms blend in, it's very hard to see the formations. You gotta click the film back 10 times to see some plays. Look at the film of their game against Oregon last year—they had a guy lie down on the field on a kickoff. He blended right in. They had a [lateral set up] for him. They never threw it to him, but there was nobody over there [covering him]."
A quarter century after it was installed, the blue turf has engendered various myths. It is not true, for instance, that migrating waterfowl crash-land on the turf after mistaking it for a lake (although the 16th-ranked Oregon Ducks did crash and burn in Boise a year ago, opening their season with a 19--8 loss). The stadium's mojo-drenched rectangle has also invaded the heads of opponents. Upon learning last week that Oregon State had used 440 gallons of paint to dye one of its practice fields blue, the better to prepare for the Broncos, Petersen said, "We've got 'em right where we want 'em."
Worried, perhaps, that people were getting a bit too excited about the Broncos after their electrifying, season-opening 33--30 win over No. 10 Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., Saban outlined the SOSBOW platform on his Sept. 9 radio show: "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." Hastening to add that he meant "no disrespect," Saban raised the possibility that if the Broncos played in the SEC, perhaps they'd be able "to do the same thing." The implication: Because they don't play in the SEC, or in one of the deep BCS conferences, nothing Boise State does can or should inject it into the national title picture.
Saban knows only too well the danger of dissing teams not from automatic qualifying (AQ) conferences. In the 2009 Sugar Bowl his squad was dismantled 31--17 by undefeated and seventh-ranked Utah, whose players admitted afterward that they'd used his condescending remarks as rocket fuel. (Saban had observed that Alabama was the only team to finish the regular season undefeated in a "real, BCS conference.")
He was far more circumspect while taking Boise State down a peg. Alabama's title run in 2009, Saban noted, began with a win over Virginia Tech. After that, he said, the Tide faced "six other teams that were the caliber of Virginia Tech, or maybe better." Wrong. Tech finished the season at No. 10; only three of 'Bama's remaining opponents—Florida, LSU and Ole Miss—wound up in the Top 25.
Saban doesn't need to exaggerate the strength of the SEC, the nation's toughest, most-talented conference—though, truth be told, it's a little down in 2010. The gap between the power conferences and the non-AQ peasantry continues to narrow. In the case of at least three teams—Boise State, No. 5 TCU and No. 13 Utah—it has closed altogether.
As for a body of work, the Broncos' under Petersen is Brooklyn Deckeresque. They went 13--0 in 2006, culminating with that trickeration-intensive overtime Fiesta Bowl win over Adrian Peterson--led Oklahoma. They ran the table again in '08, bowing only to TCU, 17--16, in the Poinsettia Bowl. They were (yawn) perfect once more in '09, avenging that loss with a 17--10 Fiesta Bowl win over the Horned Frogs. "Three undefeated [regular] seasons in four years," marvels Hill. "I don't care if you're playing intramural basketball—that's really hard to do. If Boise State goes undefeated, the public will demand that they play in the championship. I mean, what else do they have to do?"
Early in a 20-mile bike ride on the afternoon of Sept. 12, Pete DiPrimio's cellphone went off. Fishing it out of his jersey pocket—"I figured it was someone in my family," recalls DiPrimio, 51, a columnist for The News-Sentinel of Fort Wayne, Ind.—he answered the call, only to hear a torrent of abuse from a man with a Southern accent.
DiPrimio is one of 60 voters in the AP's weekly college football poll, which had come out earlier that day. After the Broncos' win over Virginia Tech, eight voters had put them at the top of their ballots. When the Hokies lost to I-AA James Madison the following week, seven of those voters abandoned Boise. DiPrimio stuck with the Broncos, resulting in a torrent of phone calls, e-mails and tweets—more than 200 total, most of them critical.
"I got blitzed," says DiPrimio, who has no regrets. In a column assuring readers that, despite his unpopularity in Alabama and Ohio, he retained the affection of his faithful sheltie, Coco, DiPrimio made his case: "Boise State is 51--4 over the last four years, made everybody's preseason Top 5 list, has earned eight straight bowl bids, has beaten Oregon twice and Oklahoma once in recent years, and returns 20 of 22 starters from a 14--0 Fiesta Bowl--winning team. That makes it, by far, the most experienced team in America."
The Broncos don't need to persuade the AP voters, who have no say in the BCS standings. The BCS uses two other polls: the Harris Interactive Poll, made up of 114 former coaches, administrators and players, plus media members; and the USA Today coaches poll, made up of 59 I-A coaches. It is the latter group that the Broncos will struggle to win over. This, at least, is the opinion of ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who declared on Sept. 18 that Boise had "peaked" at No. 3 in the coaches poll, which is where they remained at week's end.
Asked last week if he felt that Boise, if it won out, deserved a shot at the national title, normally voluble Chip Kelly of Oregon replied, "I'm getting ready for Arizona State." ("He doesn't want anything to do with that question," laughed one of Kelly's peers. "What can he say? He's 0--1 against them.")
Steadfastly refusing to lobby for their cause are the Broncos themselves. To do so, they are certain, would diminish their focus on the goal before them.
"We worry about what we have to do," says junior left tackle and Boise native Nate Potter. "We prepare for each opponent like they're the best in the world."
"I'm sure if we win, and we're playing well, maybe people will start loving us up a little more," says Moore. "I don't really know, I don't really care."
"We want to keep that chip on our shoulders," says junior linebacker Aaron Tevis. "We'd rather be underdogs."
But Aaron, you're ranked third in the country. You'll be favored every time you step on the field. "Well then, we're just going to go out there and prove everyone right."
Hang around the Broncos for a few days and the word chip keeps cropping up. Beneath the program's eye-popping success, it turns out, is a reservoir of bitterness.
If you're at Boise, it almost always means your plans went awry. You were overlooked. Junior defensive tackle Chase Baker had his heart set on playing for Cal, which lost his phone number after he tore an ACL playing rugby his junior year for Rocklin (Calif.) High. "So I ended up here, with a giant chip on my shoulder," says Baker, who found that "everyone [in the program] has a story." Aside from Boise State, Moore got two scholarship offers—from Eastern Washington and Idaho. Winterswyk, a two-time All-WAC selection with 19 career sacks, walked on.
"They are defying the laws of college football," says Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout.com, who ranks the Broncos' 2011 crop of committed recruits as the nation's 59th best. "I don't remember the last time I ranked Boise State not just in the top 20, but in the top 50.
"They're doing what they're doing with two- and three-star athletes. It's phenomenal. They're going to put guys like me out of business." Wallace readily admits that recruiting ratings are imperfect, that "a lot of three-stars are similar enough to four-star guys that if they're coached well, if they're developed and put in a great system, they'll thrive. And let's face it, Petersen is a great coach."
There is considerably less ego in the Broncos' locker room than can be found at what Wallace calls "the star programs." USC, he says, "has proven that having five five-star running backs on your roster is not necessarily a formula for success."
Boise State coaches get players in, get them in the weight room, redshirt them if necessary and change their position if necessary. (Winterswyk was a high school safety.) As Baker puts it, "You end up working your ass off, then fighting your ass off for a job."
On Sept. 17, Baker watched while WAC rival Nevada put the wood to his erstwhile flame. In an eyebrow-raising beatdown sure to fortify the strength of Boise's schedule, the Wolf Pack dominated Cal 52--31. "I didn't know whether to be happy or sad about that," he says.
The shrinking distance between the AQs and the non-AQs is best illustrated by the rude handling Pac-10 teams have received over the last few years from the Mountain West. Since 2008, MWC teams have won 9 of 15 games against the older conference.
While the SEC stands alone, says MWC commissioner Craig Thompson, "If you put Utah, TCU or Boise"—which, along with Fresno State and Nevada, joins the Mountain West next season—"in the Big 12, the Big Ten, certainly the ACC and Big East, I think they'd comport themselves dang well."
Under coach Gary Patterson, TCU is 15--5 against AQ schools. Utah has gone 20--11 against teams from power conferences since 1998. Still, inferior teams from those privileged conferences are likely to receive lucrative BCS bowl bids ahead of them. When a non-AQ school does thread the needle and make it to a BCS bowl, its conference receives far less money than its counterparts'.
"We don't call them power conferences for nothing," says Boise State president Bob Kustra. "They have all the power, and they're going to hang on to it as long as they can."
Kustra takes special delight in disputing the claim that, as long as the BCS holds sway over college football, every game counts. How does every game count, he asks, when the Broncos have been undefeated for four of the past six regular seasons "and never come close to having an opportunity to play for a national championship?"
Fed up, Boise State and the MWC last year retained a Washington, D.C., law firm, Arent Fox. Alan Fishel, an Arent Fox attorney who has been working on the matter for nearly two years, confirmed to SI that the firm has been in contact with Justice Department officials, who are deciding whether to open a formal investigation into the legality of the BCS scheme under the antitrust laws, which could lead to a lawsuit against the BCS. Says Fishel, "Competitors cannot, by acting in concert with each other and with their primary distributors, impose market restraints guaranteeing that, regardless of the quality or popularity of their products, they will receive the vast majority of market revenues and access. Yet, that is exactly what the BCS has done here."
Fishel, too, scoffs at the BCS claim that every game counts. Since the dawn of the BCS in 1998, he says, "non-AQ schools have played over 3,000 games, and the number of those games that have impacted their chances to win a national championship is zero."
A breakthrough may be unlikely, but the possibility has never been better. It would help if Petersen overcame his aversion to piling up style points; the Broncos will need margins considerably more lopsided than their 13-point win over the Beavers. That shouldn't be a problem at New Mexico State this Saturday, where Boise State will be favored by 40½.
No matter how well the Broncos play, they won't get to the Big Game without some help—a minor epidemic of toe-stubbing among select members of BCS conferences. With its 34--12 loss to unranked UCLA last Saturday, for instance, Texas obligingly removed itself from national title contention. If Boise is to make history, a similar misfortune must befall either Alabama or Ohio State. It would also help if the same happened to the likes of Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Oregon.
Despite what he called his "extreme" frustration with his team's inability to put Oregon State away much earlier than it did, Petersen struck a hopeful note after the game. Vastly outnumbering the Broncos' mistakes—a muffed punt and the 15-yard penalties and a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown by Oregon State's James Rodgers—were their frequent flashes of brilliance. "You can feel the power of this team," said Petersen, who won't talk about national titles, but will grant you this: Anything can happen.
GETTING TO GLENDALE
Here are seven games that will impact whether Boise State plays for the BCS championship
Florida at Alabama
One of these teams will take a big step toward the BCS title game. With the equity the SEC has built up, the SEC champ should be good to go to Arizona.
Stanford at Oregon
Saturday's showdown could be the de facto Pac-10 championship game, with the winner emerging as a threat to Boise's BCS title hopes.
Ohio State at Wisconsin
With Iowa's having lost, this is now set up as the biggest game in the Big Ten. If the Buckeyes prevail, they'll still have to win at Iowa or risk being passed by Boise.
Nebraska at Oklahoma State
Texas seemed to be the Huskers' biggest obstacle to an undefeated year, but now that looks like the Cowboys, who are averaging 57.0 points a game.
LSU at Auburn
Neither band of Tigers is a realistic threat to go unbeaten and jump Boise, especially considering that the winner of this game will still have to beat 'Bama.
TCU at Utah
If Boise's fellow BCS busters are both unbeaten, the Broncos may have to sweat out being passed by the winner of this showdown in the BCS standings.
Boise State at Nevada
The Broncos' only remaining date against a quality opponent likely will determine the WAC title and give the team a final chance to impress voters.