Remember when they were darlings? Back in 2007, back as recently as January Boise State was a plush toy. Something cuddly and cute. A nice story, an even nicer coach.
As we bear down on the 2010 season, those darlings represent doomsday to some folks.
The most vocal group against Boise is a radical strain south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the SEC, where they will tell you football was invented. But they are not alone. Don't believe me? It's one thing beating Oklahoma with a Statue of Liberty (2007 Fiesta Bowl) or having the punter throw a fourth-down pass against TCU (2010 Fiesta Bowl).
That's entertainment. Bowls masquerading as glorified exhibitions. This time it's serious. Boise State could elbow its way into an actual national championship shot. Both polls have the Broncos in the top five (No. 3 in AP, No. 5 in coaches), marking the highest a non-BCS team has started in the BCS era.
Next stop Glendale, Ariz., and -- compared to other BCS participants -- the Broncos' obstacles aren't massive. Beat Virginia Tech in Monday's showdown at FedEx Field and Boise State could coast all the way to the national championship game. Lose and it doesn't matter. The Broncos could finish 11-1 but their shot at all-time glory most likely would be gone.
The prevailing emotions from college football's establishment are jealousy and indignation. Boise State was a junior college until 1965, the year Bear Bryant finished off back-to-back national championships. It didn't move up to I-A until 1996, the year The Ol' Ball Coach was scorching the SEC and the nation.
Here we go again with the sport's incredible short-sightedness and football bigotry. The likes of Michigan, Notre Dame and Texas have been good for 10 decades or more. What are Boise's credentials for this exclusive men's club? It has been good for the past 10 years, really good since 2006 and last year became the third team ever to win 14 games in a season. Their recruits don't show up on many national recruiting lists. Their quarterback (Kellen Moore) is a 6-foot, 187-pound Chicago Cub lover from rural Washington.
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"There's a subculture in intercollegiate sports that is built on the power conferences," Boise State president Bob Kustra said, "with the media at the center of it. When there is a new kid on the block it's tough for them [to] understand and digest that."
Up to this point, the BCS has made Boise State a star. Without the access to the major bowls provided by the 12-year-old system, the Broncos most likely would be playing in some minor bowl as the WAC champion.
Its salvation, though, is also its curse. We have been reminded that this is a sport with few Cinderellas. Part of it is the nature of college football as pointed out by Kustra. At its core, it is still ruled by humans voting in polls. Teams are rewarded subjectively and, in the opinion of the current voters, Boise State has broken through to elite status.
Even in the middle of that rise to the top there are subtle reminders about who controls the sport. Boise has 19 of 22 starters returning from a 14-0 team and actually dropped a notch in the coaches poll. Alabama lost nine starters on defense and is a consensus No. 1.
There's no comparison between the two programs? Actually, there is. Ask Nick Saban if he would like to see Boise State on the floor of University of Phoenix Stadium.
The mere appearance of the Broncos in Glendale having a chance to beat the Tide for a national title will make certain SEC loyalists spit up their grits. While we celebrate Butler making a run to the Final Four, Boise State making a title run is seen as heresy.
Some of you will counter with basketball having a progressive bracket. The championship is decided on the court. True, to a point. But I get the feeling that if Boise State won, say, a four-team playoff it still wouldn't be considered legit.
The national angst is hard to quantify, but up in Idaho they feel it. Boise State plays in a conference on the brink. The WAC may survive after a raid from the Mountain West last week, but it will do so by inviting a couple of Division I-AA teams transitioning to I-A.
All a program can do is play the teams put in front of it. Boise State can't help that it plays in an admittedly weak WAC. It has countered by aggressively scheduling non-conference games. The result has been that most BCS schools have become reluctant to schedule the Broncos -- too dangerous.
AD Gene Bleymaier wants to introduce legislation compelling teams to return non-conference games on the road. It will never happen.
There's the ultimate conflict: If the Broncos are unworthy, then the competition is hypocritical for not playing them given the chance. The pollsters who have given them credibility in the preseason may face a tougher decision at the end of the season. If Boise State goes undefeated, how does that compare against an undefeated Big Ten champion or a one-loss SEC champion? With only two spots, one of those teams is going to be left out. I think we all know who it will be.
Five things WWL doesn't want to see
1. Alabama tailback Trent Richardson playing more than three quarters against San Jose State. The issue is not beating the Spartans, it's getting everybody through healthy for Penn State next week. Give Richardson 15 carries, let him get his 75 yards and get him out of there. If Mark Ingram can't go against the Nittany Lions, that's when Richardson will make the difference.
2. Michigan fans freaking out over a season-opening loss to Connecticut. This isn't Appalachian State (2007) or even Utah (2008). That 2007 team was coming off an 11-2 season. Utah beat a Michigan team coming off a 9-4 season. UConn is better than a mediocre Michigan on Saturday. Save your freak out for November when Michigan is 3-5, waiting for the NCAA to rule, and has to win three of the final four to go to a bowl.
3. Surprise at the awful crowd expected for TCU-Oregon State at Cowboys Stadium. Pregame sales have been called "shockingly low" in the 80,000-seat stadium. TCU fans don't routinely sell out their own stadium and this apparently was too long a trip for Beavers fans. One recent estimate stated that about 40,000 tickets have been sold.
4. Nebraska putting much stock in possibly the worst mismatch of Saturday. Western Kentucky has I-A's longest losing streak (20 games) and is a 37½-point underdog.
5. North Carolina going into the tank against LSU. The players -- at least those not under NCAA scrutiny -- deserve better. Let's hope Butch Davis doesn't have a bunch of distracted Tar Heels getting overrun by the Tigers.
Scoping the nation
From South Florida to West Lafayette: Robert Marve's first start for Miami was at Florida. His first start for Purdue will be Saturday at Notre Dame. Not a bad career until you consider what happened in between. Purdue's transfer quarterback was a Parade All-American out of Tampa, Fla., spending two at times turbulent years at Miami. After a redshirt year in '07 Marve started 11 games for the Hurricanes and was suspended twice in 2008. Thirteen months ago he tore his ACL.
"It's the happiest I've been," Marve said. "It's the best grades I've had [3.2 GPA]. My knee feels better."
When things went bad at Miami, Marve went searching for a friendly spread offense and a new setting. Restrictions set forth by Miami kept him from certain schools in the South, so he eventually wound up at Purdue.
"You're not at home, you don't have a curfew," Marve said of his two years in Coral Gables. "Everybody has fun. Reading a book might not be your first priority.
"I wanted a coach I could trust. ... I felt like Purdue was the best shot I had to get to a big-time bowl."
Marve still talks to some of his former Miami teammates (he mentioned receiver Leonard Hankerson). If the national focus is on Brian Kelly's debut, Marve's focus is on Notre Dame.
"I don't think I have to prove a lot," Marve said. "I've got to win games. I've got to be a quarterback and be a leader. I don't think I have to throw the ball 70 yards down the field to prove something.
"I can't wait. I feel blessed my first start was in The Swamp. Now it's Notre Dame."
Tempting fate? Oklahoma tailback DeMarco Murray might return kicks against Utah State. That's a big "might." Coach Bob Stoops is weighing the risk. The last time Murray returned a kick he ruptured his hamstring in the 2008 Big 12 Championship Game and missed the BCS title game against Florida. Oklahoma was fifth nationally in kickoff returns that year. Murray ranked 10th.
He is listed as the No. 1 returner on the depth chart and could beat out Joe Washington this season for the school record in career all-purpose yards.
Justice: There was a time when Aaron Corp ruled the world. That would be 2009, when he came out of spring practice as Southern California's starting quarterback. A leg injury a year ago allowed Matt Barkley to take the job during fall drills. Corp started one game for USC in '09, that fateful 16-13 loss at Washington. He is now on top of the world again -- the I-AA world. Corp has surfaced at Richmond (No. 6 in the preseason FCS poll), which opens the season against Virginia. The next week Virginia travels to USC, meaning the Trojans will be watching film of their former teammate. WWL knows this: Corp will have a better chance to win a national championship this season than Barkley.
BCS buster: Oregon State. It will have a direct influence on the national championship race with TCU (Saturday), Boise State and Oregon on its schedule. The Beavers could be responsible for knocking the Broncos out of the national championship picture, TCU out of a BCS bowl and Oregon out of the Rose Bowl. No pressure or anything, Beavs.
Looking for a leader: Michigan, Penn State and Notre Dame each could use an experienced quarterback going into the season. Look who has one: Connecticut's Zach Frazer is from Mechanicsburg, Pa., transferred from Notre Dame and will start against Michigan.
Sark the Cougar: Washington coach Steve Sarkisian returns "home" to BYU, where he led the Cougars' to a 14-1 season in 1996. About that honor code that forbids student from, among other things, consuming alcohol or having premarital sex. Sark?
"I didn't get kicked out," he said.
Well, actually it was more than that.
"I'm not a big shaver," Sarkisian said. "I'll go a couple days here without shaving. At BYU, you are not supposed to have facial hair. That one was tough for me. You'd go in to take a test and you'd go into the testing center and you are not cleanly shaven and then they kick you back out and tell you, 'You've got to go home and shave before you can come back again.'
Georgia coach Mark Richt on criticism about SEC nonconference schedules going into the Louisiana-Lafayette game: "Let me ask you this, who has won the last four national championships?"
Kickoff question: Who is the last team to beat Alabama at home? Answer below.
This space's favorite quote machine became Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell this summer after his one-man show at the SEC media days. As a salute to college football's only former turkey inseminator we start a regular WWL feature with the Robbie Caldwell quote of the week:
"I told them I hope I don't fall running out with the team. I haven't run out with the team since high school."
--Caldwell on his first game as a college head coach Saturday vs. Northwestern
Answer: Louisiana-Monroe in 2007