WAC: Broncos can’t ambush anyone from perch on national stage

Aug 12th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

BOISE, Idaho — These are not comfortable times for Chris Petersen.

He knows that his program is the toast of the little man everywhere. Boise State has won as many BCS bowls in the last four years as the entire ACC has in the last decade (two). It goes into the season ranked in the top five. That should be a good thing for a program that has screamed, well beyond the Boise Mountains that are a backdrop for this town, for inclusion into the BCS.

But what was once a cuddly underdog, Petersen knows, is now morphing into a national power. The pollsters — at least his peers in the coaches poll — have shown the ultimate respect. At No. 5, Boise State is the highest-ranked non-BCS school in that poll in the BCS era (since 1998).

“That doesn’t really help our situation,” Petersen said.

Outside of Petersen’s modest office that overlooks the famous blue-turfed Bronco Stadium, Boise’s situation is one of the best in the country. It is as complete a program as there is. Those bowl wins and three undefeated regular seasons in the last four have forced voters to admit Boise’s legitimacy. Its excellence has earned Boise a promotion to the Mountain West. The staff is young and hungry. Nineteen of 22 starters return. The roster is so stocked that Petersen recruited a class of only six scholarship players in February. Three others grayshirted. Another went on a mission.

A record-breaking offense with a trick-play legacy now is balanced by a rock-solid defense. Want proof? When Tennessee’s Derek Dooley went searching for his defensive coordinator to wage war in the SEC, he hooked Boise’s 33-year-old Justin Wilcox.

Petersen knows, though, that one of the program’s most effective weapons is gone. Anonymity.

“Yes and yes,” the coach said with some dejection when asked the season’s ultimate question: Is it true you can’t sneak up on people anymore and, if so, does that bother you?

“In our league [recognition] happened a long time ago,” Petersen continued. “Now it’s outside of our league.”

The 45-year-old coach makes Boise’s success sound like some sort of virus has been let loose upon the country. The Broncos’ Labor Day night matchup with Virginia Tech is arguably the biggest game of opening week; the only top-six matchup.

The implications are obvious, especially in the office of outspoken president Bob Kustra.

“To me … Virginia Tech, everything is riding on that one,” Kustra said. “The Virginia Tech game is looming large and [is] what will drive the program.”

Petersen doesn’t want to hear it but it’s true: That game, on a “neutral” field at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., is a do-or-die game for the Broncos. Win it — they are already a 2½-point favorite — and Boise is on a rocket ride to the national championship game. That would leave only Oregon State as a significant obstacle between Boise and that BCS title game Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz.

Boise getting to the desert for the third time in five years would render the BCS argument moot for a lot of folks. The program already has embarrassed the rest of the non-BCS crowd. Boise State has evolved in what has been called the most isolated city in the country. Its success has overshadowed the WAC — where it has won seven of the last eight conference titles — to the point that the Broncos have essentially become the nation’s fourth independent.

For now. The peril of the Virginia Tech game is the reason why Boise is leaving the WAC for the Mountain West in 2011. Because it plays in the ACC, Virginia Tech can afford to lose that first game and still go to a BCS bowl. Because it plays in a non-BCS league, Boise has no margin for error.

“It’s simply an unearned advantage,” Kustra said.

Boise is going to a league that it hopes gains automatic BCS status beginning in 2012. The Mountain West is on the cusp of inclusion based on a series of metrics measured over a four-year period. Boise may not find, though, that the turf is always bluer on the other side. The switch begs this question: Is it better off chasing an at-large berth in the easier WAC or slogging its way through the Mountain West for an automatic berth?

While you ponder the answer, consider that Boise State is no longer a curiosity …

“We have quite a few people who come in from out of town,” offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said, “all they want to do is see the blue turf. They walk through the offices to see it.”

… It is what athletic director Gene Bleymaier calls a “brand”.

“Expectations have changed,” said linebackers coach Bob Gregory, who returned to the program after eight years as Cal’s defensive coordinator. “Boise is not going to sneak up on anybody. Before, it was, ‘Hey, it’s a good program, but, hey, it’s still Boise State.’ Now, it’s, ‘We’ve got to get ready for these guys.’”

The first hurdle has been cleared. The voters have bestowed credibility on Boise by ranking it in the top five. The program starts the season high enough to be a national championship contender. Whether Boise gets the same love if more than one BCS conference champion goes undefeated remains to be seen.

But that’s getting way ahead of the story. Petersen, in his fifth season, got Boise to this place, in part, because the program was able to operate somewhat under the radar. He recruited athletes from Oregon, Washington and California who might not have been Pac-10 quality. They certainly weren’t national quality.

Quarterback Kellen Moore, a Heisman candidate, had offers only from Eastern Washington and Idaho before he was able to make it at Boise. It helped that Moore is the son of the coach and had a copy of the Boise playbook that he snatched off the Internet when he arrived on campus.

“He knew the stuff we were doing,” Harsin said.

Despite that, Moore was the No. 31 pro-style quarterback in 2007 according to Rivals.com. He was part of a recruiting class that was rated 69th that year. Twenty-nine athletes signed, only seven of them were rated as high as three stars. The magic of Boise is at least 12 players from that class are listed as starters this season.

It would be hard to imagine Alabama winning a championship on a roster filled with 22 two stars. That’s the further magic of Boise’s story. Obviously, all those recruits weren’t two stars. Boise State had the smarts to know and ability to develop them.

“We try to go slow in the offering process,” Petersen said. “We might have been the second team to offer a player. He’s now become a national recruit because [of us] … If we happen to get involved with a kid, everybody is going to look twice.”

Welcome, then, to the big time Chris. Your quarterback could win the Heisman. Your defense is better than anyone thinks. Now go out and win them all.

Just don’t get comfortable.

Offensive Player of the Year

Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State: If Moore thought he got Heisman attention last year, just wait until this year. Moore put together one of the best seasons in recent memory, throwing for 3,536 yards with 39 touchdowns and only three interceptions, while finishing seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting. Oh, that’s not a mistake, Moore set the NCAA record for the lowest percentage of passes intercepted at 0.69 percent (3 in 431 attempts). So far in two seasons, he has completed 66.7 percent of his passes with 64 touchdowns.

Defensive Player of the Year

Brandyn Thompson, CB, Boise State: Despite playing mostly behind Kyle Wilson’s shadow last year, he actually ended up having a better season. Now that Wilson is gone, expect Thompson to really bust out. He recorded a team-leading six interceptions last season to go along with nine passes broken up and 45 tackles. Against TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, Thompson intercepted two passes, including returning one for a 51-yard touchdown on the way to being named defensive player of the game.

Predicted order of finish

1. Boise State: No matter what happens against Virginia Tech or Oregon State, the Broncos are still the team to beat in the conference. With Moore back at QB and the return of two excellent receivers in Austin Pettis and Titus Young, along with RB Jeremy Avery (1,151 yards), it’s going to be hard for anybody to stop them offensively. The defense will also be strong again after allowing just 17.1 ppg in 2009. DE Ryan Winterswyk and DT Billy Winn anchor the line, while Thompson controls the secondary. Must-see game: Sept. 6 vs. Virginia Tech. Two teams ranked in the preseason Top 10 meet on Labor Day.

2. Nevada: If it weren’t for Boise State, Nevada would be the one dominating the conference. The Wolf Pack tore through every team in the WAC last year (except Boise) and should do the same this year. Nine starters are back on offense, including Colin Kaepernick, who will go down as one of the greatest dual-threat QBs in NCAA history. He’ll have all three WRs back, along with running back Vai Taua. On defense, the squad could use some work. After being ranked 86th in the nation in points allowed, six starters are back. DE Dontay Moch and LB James-Michael Johnson are two of the best in the conference. Must-see game: Nov. 26 vs. Boise State. Nevada hung with the Broncos before losing 44-33 last year. The Wolf Pack are the only team in the conference that could beat Boise State.

3. Fresno State: The biggest question mark for the Bulldogs will be finding a replacement for the departed Ryan Mathews. Robbie Rouse, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season, looks to be the guy, but carried the ball just 82 times as Mathews’ backup. He will get to run behind a very good offensive line, led by RG Andrew Jackson. QB Ryan Colburn returns for his senior season. On defense, the Bulldogs have eight starters back, but they will need to do better than allowing 214 yards per game on the ground (111th in the nation) to compete for the WAC. DE Chris Carter is one of the best in the conference. Must-see game: Sept. 25 at Ole Miss. Pat Hill takes on anybody, and Fresno could pull off the road win this year.

4. Idaho: After a surprise 2009 season where the Vandals won eight games, including the Humanitarian Bowl, the question is can they do it again? Quarterback Nathan Enderle is back for his final season after throwing for 2,906 yards and 22 TDs. He’ll need to break in some new wide receivers, but he does have RB Princeton McCarty (680 yards, 5.9 avg). On defense, the Vandals have 10 starters back, but is that a good thing? The team gave up 36 points per game, including 70 to Nevada and 63 to Boise State. Shiloh Keo is back for his senior season at safety. Must-see game: Nov. 27 at Fresno State. Would be a big win for the program to go on the road and beat the Bulldogs.

5. Hawaii: The Warriors missed out on a bowl game last year after a rough six-game losing streak in the middle of the season, but should bounce back. QB Bryant Moniz returns and has one of the best wide receivers in the nation back in Greg Salas. The senior looks to improve after leading the WAC with 106 catches and 1,590 yards last season. The defense also has six starters back, including the entire secondary. The pass defense was strong last season, led by safety Mana Silva, who had six interceptions. Must-see game: Dec. 4 vs. UNLV. Last year, UNLV won 34-33. Since it’s the last game of the year, Hawaii might need to win to be bowl-eligible.

6. Utah State: After losing three games by five points or less, the Aggies have enough pieces to be a sleeper in the conference and might just grab a bowl bid. But it’s going to be a stretch. The defense needs a lot of work despite the fact that eight starters are back. LB Bobby Wagner, who led the conference with 114 tackles, returns for his junior season. On offense, Diondre Borel is back at quarterback, but lost his starting running back. Robert Turbin, who ran for 1,296 rushing last year, might be out for most of the year with an ACL injury. Keep an eye on Michael Smith, who might finally break out. Must-see game: Oct. 23 vs. Hawaii. That fourth bowl slot could go to the winner.

7. Louisiana Tech: First-year coach Sonny Dykes has his hands full at La. Tech, taking over a team that has just three winning seasons in the past decade. Only Four starters are back on defense, but they are three of the team’s top tacklers. LBs Adrien Cole and Jay Dudley lead the way. On offense, the line should be pretty good, with All-WAC performer Rob McGill back for his senior season at LT. The QB job is still up for grabs with either returner Ross Jenkins or Auburn transfer Steven Ensminger eventually winning the job. One of the conference’s best returners, Phillip Livas, is back. Must-see game: Sept. 25 vs. Southern Miss. The neighboring-state teams haven’t played since 1992.

8. San Jose State: Another first-year coach has a mess to clean up. Mike MacIntyre gets to take a team that was 118th in the nation in scoring offense and 109th in defense. The one bright spot he has is safety Duke Ihenacho, who returns for his senior season. Eight starters return on offense, but the team must do better than scoring 14 points per game, especially with a schedule that includes Alabama, Wisconsin and Utah. QB Jordan La Secia returns after throwing for 1,926 yards and 10 TDs last year. Must-see game: Oct. 30 at New Mexico State. The battle to see who doesn’t finish last.

9. New Mexico State: The Aggies have really struggled in the past few seasons and there is no sign the team will get better this year. Despite all the struggles, cornerback Davon House is one of the best in the conference and anchors a secondary that returns three starters. RB Seth Smith is back after rushing for 1,016 yards and should see plenty of action with three offensive linemen returning. Must-see game: Oct. 30 vs. San Jose State. See above.

J. Darin Darst contributed to the preview with the predicted order of finish.

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