Critics beware: Boise State back in national conversation

BOISE — Thirty years ago, Boise State christened its iconic blue turf with a 74-0 win against Humboldt State. The Broncos’ competition has changed in the years since; the results, by and large, have not.

There are many teams on the Group of Five level, the latest designation meant to clearly delineate college football's elite from their less deep-pocketed brethren. For more than a decade, these teams have all been chasing Boise State, with varying degrees of success — TCU and Utah before those programs cashed in, a feel-good Hawaii surge, the random Northern Illinois, your odd Houston.

Yet there’s only been one Boise State, clashing and gate-crashing in its blue-on-blue combinations, frustrating fashionistas and defensive coordinators alike.

Why that is demands a slight suspension of disbelief: In flyover Idaho, among the least-populated states in the union, in even smaller Boise, far from a hotbed for football talent, this university has built an off-the-radar juggernaut.

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Well, not that far off the radar. Haters hate, it's said, and yes — oh, yes — they've hated on Boise State. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise: The old guard always hates the nouveau riche.

“It’s never as good as you think, and it’s never as bad as you think,” said senior linebacker Ben Weaver. “That’s kind of what we tend to say.”

It simply came with the territory. And now, two weeks into the 2016 season, it’s almost inevitable that Boise State’s critics will resurface once again, nitpicking and criticizing a team in pursuit of perfection.

For the first time since 2011 — an eternity in college football years — the Broncos are unbeaten through two games, with the latest a three-point victory against Washington State. Boise State will almost certainly be favored in every game remaining on its schedule, an unintimidating hodgepodge of also-rans and borderline bowl participants.

For all the laurels thrown at Houston’s feet, it seems Boise State has been forgotten — but not for long. Prepare your insults; the Broncos are poised to re-enter the national conversation.

“Whatever comes with the territory if we’re winning, we’d certainly liked to be talked about negatively if we’re still undefeated. We’ll take that,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin told USA TODAY Sports.

“We certainly have the opportunity to put ourselves in that situation. These guys understand that it’s one week at a time. That’s a cliché, but that’s why everybody says that. Because it really is that way.”

Perfection has eluded Boise State for the better part of a decade. There were the unbeaten team of 2006 and 2009, the close-but-not-quite teams of 2008, 2010 and 2011 — the latter group losing three games by a combined five points. The Broncos sandwiched a Fiesta Bowl berth in 2014 with two seasons short of double-digit wins; last year’s team, a trendy preseason favorite, failed to even win its own division in the Mountain West Conference.

The yardstick never changed. On the wall of Boise State’s main conference room is Harsin’s credo for this program: “Our goal is to win the MWC championship and a bowl game with class, integrity and academic excellence.”

What’s left unsaid is the chase for another unbeaten season — because it doesn’t need to be said. The baseline for success has already been set: Boise State’s players and coaches must meet the standard.

“You’re protecting your house. You’re protecting your record. You’re protecting the guys that came before you,” Weaver said.

“I think that’s Boise State in general. We all know where we started. We all know where we came from. We know this didn’t come here from nothing. Every single day we’re reminded of that.”

That’s partly by proximity; players need only walk through the lobby of the program’s facility to see the trophies, plaques and honors earned in the recent past. It’s also by design.

“Certainly, we talk about it,” Harsin said of the Broncos’ success. “But when guys are here, they didn’t show up on third base and think they hit a triple. They’ve got to put work in.

“The reason those previous teams had success is that they worked really hard. And we know that. That success, when new faces show up, that’s not your success — that’s just part of what you’re a part of. There’s a standard. There’s a process. But you have to follow it.”

The great Boise State teams were workmanlike, almost robotic in their wins against all ranges of competition — whether teams from the SEC, Pac-12 and ACC, or during conference play. They had sublime quarterback play, sure-tackling defenses, electric return games, brainy coaches.

At a team meeting held on Friday night, Harsin spoke to the Broncos about adversity, a common theme a season ago: We’ve planned for this, he said.

Admittedly, last year’s team wasn’t ready. After years of dominating on its turf, Boise State lost two in a row at home to end last season; the Broncos also struggled in close games, perhaps as a byproduct of inexperience. Beating the Cougars — at home, by a field goal, amid some sloppiness — sends a clear message regarding the program’s offseason growth.

This defense can play and tackle in space, with the victory against Washington State as evidence. Kellen Moore will never be replaced, but the coaching staff has found perhaps the best quarterback prospect in program history in sophomore Brett Rypien. Through two games, this feels … familiar.

So it’s only fair to look ahead, eyeballing the next two months, even if, as Harsin said, “We’ve looked ahead before, and that doesn’t work for us.”

After a bye week, the Broncos travel to Oregon State. Then comes Utah State. Later in October, Boise State will play host to Brigham Young. The regular-season finale comes at Air Force, which has won its last two against the Broncos.

By one metric, no team in the country has a better shot at being unbeaten come the end of the regular season: According to ESPN’s analytics, Boise State has “at least a 70 percent chance to win in each of their remaining scheduled games.”

The schedule does come with a catch. While providing a red carpet for a New Year’s Six bowl, it also provides ammunition for Boise State’s detractors — a common refrain regardless of the postseason format. Some things never change.

“We’re used to that. It’s something that we’re expecting,” Weaver said. “As much as we’d love the media we try not to listen to it as much as we can, because you can’t get too engulfed in it. We focus on ourselves.”

Copyright 2016 KTVB


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