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Boise State, With One Eye Over Its Shoulder

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Two things happened to Boise State last year that hadn't happened since 2001, the year the Broncos moved up from the old Big West to the WAC:

a) BSU finished second in the conference,
b) Lost to an unranked, non-BCS team.
Going forward, both are probably easy for Bronco partisans to shrug away as aberrations, and understadable aberrations at that. Hawaii was a one-hit force of nature at its peak last regular season, and the wind behind its sails has completely dwindled; the team was without its offensive star in the Hawaii Bowl loss to East Carolina, and still made a substantial second half push to win. In the immortal words of Avon Barksdale, how you ain't never gonna be slow, never be late? Especially against Chris Johnson? It has to happen, sooner or later.

At least in this game, there's always next year.
- - -
But then, when it does, people start talking. Eyebrows get raised. Plans get made. Maybe it's an aberration, and maybe it's not. Maybe, for its half-decade of complete conference dominance, it's time for Boise State to get got.

For all its "giant killer" status after the Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma, Boise actually has a sketchy record playing above its head. Counting the big OU game and last year's loss to Hawaii, the Broncos are 2-5 against ranked teams since 2001 (one of those wins was against fellow mid-major TCU, in the 2003 Forth Worth Bowl) and 4-9 against BCS teams. BSU has won exactly two games in seven years - against Utah and Oklahoma, both in 2006 - that it entered as an underdog. Losses to the likes of South Carolina, Oregon State and Washington have been routine; this has never been a program that could "play with anyone in the country" for more than a game or two every three or four years. Just like most teams.

What's been remarkable about Boise's run, and made it so sustainable, is the extreme consistency against conference underlings, an unmatched string of regional dominance: since 2002, BSU is still yet to lose a WAC game as a favorite. It's 46-2 in-conference through that span, with four undefeated seasons and five conference championships, and both losses were on the road against ranked teams (Fresno State in 2005, Hawaii last year) on a mission (the Warriors, by making a BCS bowl, fulfilled their goal; Fresno, by losing three straight after its win over Boise, did not). The Broncos have never lost a WAC game on the blue turf. The only other outfit with anything like the same hold on its conference these days is Southern Cal, and even USC has been subject to three stunning upsets as a double-digit favorite the last two years. Florida State ground the ACC under its heel this way in the nineties, but there is no other recent precedent.

Best Conference Record Since 2002
Conference Team Record Titles
WAC Boise State 46-2 (.958) 5
Pac Ten Southern Cal 44-6 (.880) 5
Big XII Oklahoma 45-8 (.849) 4
Big Ten Ohio State 40-8 (.833) 3
Big East West Virginia 33-8 (.805) 2
SEC LSU 39-12 (.765) 2
C-USA Southern Miss 34-15 (.694) 1
ACC Florida State 33-16 (.673) 3
MAC Bowling Green 33-16 (.673) 0
Mtn. West BYU 30-15 (.667) 2
Sun Belt North Texas 25-17 (.595) 3

The best comparison may be BYU under LaVell Edwards, when the Cougars won or shared the pre-expansion/secession WAC title nine straight years from 1977-85 and 16 times in 20 years through 1996.

But the Broncos' success hasn't come under one coach, unusually (the ascent began under Houston Nutt, continued under Dirk Koetter, hit a new level under Dan Hawkins and peaked in Chris Peterson's first year), and there is no way of knowing yet how it will fare under Chris Peterson in the long term - if it can keep him, which seems unlikely. More importantly, there's no way of knowing whether the loss to East Carolina is an aberration or the first sign of some crack in the foundation. It's fair to ask: after 66 straight wins over unranked, non-BCS teams, 31-14 halftime deficits do not necessarily just happen, Ian Johnson or no Ian Johnson.

Where Hawaii probably does not represent a sustained threat to Boise's grasp on the conference - the Warriors' Big Island Adventure seems thoroughly kaput with the departures of June Jones, Colt Brennan, three record-breaking receivers and every ounce of momentum, to say nothing of the sub-JUCO level facilities they're working with - there is still Fresno State, the anti-Boise, a team with a strong record of impressive upsets but without even a share of a WAC championship under Pat Hill. The Bulldogs rebounded nicely to 9-4 from a hideous 2006, winning three straight to close the year with a pair of convincing wins over Kansas State and Georgia Tech. FSU also returns virtually its entire offense, most notably running back Ryan Mathews, and gets Boise in Fresno. Just a thought, since the machine gave us a rare glimpse of its underbelly.

One area where Boise is still king in the WAC: recruiting. According to Rivals, the Broncos have laded the best haul in the WAC each of the last three years, and if you take away C-USA-bound expatriates Tulsa and SMU, had the best among current conference members in 2004, too. One of those kids, Ryan Clady, is about to become the school's only first round pick in ages, if not ever, with Johnson possibly coming behind him if he can stay healthy. If Hawaii and East Carolina did show a crack, somebody had better get to exploitin' while the gettin's good.