Boise State may get a shot at BCS glory next season

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010

PASADENA, CALIF. -- Western Athletic Conference Commissioner Karl Benson witnessed the conclusion of the college football season Thursday night with a broad smile on his face. He watched Alabama defeat Texas, 37-21, in the Bowl Championship Series title game at the Rose Bowl to finish the season undefeated at 14-0 and claim its first national crown since 1992.

Benson's delight, though, stemmed as much from the performance of Boise State, a WAC squad, in the Fiesta Bowl three nights earlier. The Broncos' 17-10 victory over Texas Christian ensured that Boise State also would finish the season 14-0 and with a top five ranking in the final Associated Press poll for the second time in four years.

And so, even though the Crimson Tide appears favored to repeat as national champion next season -- its Heisman Trophy-winning tailback and starting quarterback return -- Boise State stands a realistic chance of earning a BCS title game bid, as well. Should the Broncos do so, they would become the first team outside of the six automatic-qualifying conferences to gain entry into the national championship game in the BCS era. The prospect is enough to make any underdog grin from ear to ear.

"We definitely opened the door a little bit for the program," Boise State junior safety Jason Robinson told the Idaho Statesman following the Fiesta Bowl triumph. "We've still got to do what it takes to get to that position."

Indeed, positioning is key. Teams that are not slotted high in a given season's initial rankings struggle to make up enough ground to reach one of the top two spots in the final BCS ratings. Texas and Alabama -- this year's BCS title game participants -- were ranked No. 2 and No. 5, respectively, in the preseason top 25 coaches' poll (a team's ranking in the coaches' poll is one component of its BCS rating). Boise State was ranked No. 16 in the preseason and finished at No. 4.

By the time the first BCS ratings were released in mid-October, Texas, Alabama and Florida had established a figurative lock on the top three positions. Barring a loss, none of those teams was going to be leapfrogged by any of the undefeated squads beneath them.

But the Broncos may find a solution to that entry barrier next season, when they likely will start out as a top five team in the preseason rankings. Boise State expects to return 23 of 24 starters from a squad that has won 26 of its past 27 games. Add to that a nonconference slate -- critical for teams that reside in conferences whose champions are not awarded automatic BCS berths -- that includes matchups against Virginia Tech at FedEx Field and at home against Oregon State, and the Broncos' preseason résumé looks even more impressive.

The Hokies are expected to begin next season ranked in the top 10, and Oregon State has been in contention for the Pacific-10 crown the past two years. It will mark the first time since 2005 that Boise State has scheduled two opponents from automatic-qualifying conferences in the same season.

"I don't really want to think about next year yet," Broncos Coach Chris Petersen told reporters following the Fiesta Bowl. "But I know we're going to have a good schedule."

That's never an issue for programs in the Southeastern Conference, which has produced the past four national champions and very well could make it five in a row next season.

Alabama will return Greg McElroy, who has not lost a game in which he started at quarterback since the eighth grade, as well as the dynamic running back tandem of Mark Ingram -- who won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore this season -- and Trent Richardson. Ingram and Richardson, a freshman this season, combined to rush for 225 yards and four touchdowns in the BCS title game.

"You know, Trent was a very highly recruited guy that came in with high expectations, and he certainly hasn't disappointed us at all," Alabama Coach Nick Saban said Thursday night. "I'm very pleased and proud of the way he and Mark both kind of use each other, compete with each other. There's no selfishness at all in terms of who's in there playing and who's doing well at that particular time. I think the competition is good for both of them."

As for the Longhorns, they got an unexpected preview Thursday night of what the future holds. When senior Colt McCoy, the winningest quarterback in college football history, went down with a right shoulder strain early in the first quarter, Texas turned to freshman Garrett Gilbert to lead the way against one of the stingiest defenses in the nation.

Gilbert showed flashes of his potential with two stirring touchdown passes, but was as erratic -- he completed only 15 of 40 passes and threw four interceptions -- as would be expected from someone with such limited experience. For the first time in a while, the Longhorns find themselves in a position well familiar to the folks in Boise: hoping that one day their patience will pay off.

"We think he has a chance to be a really special player," Texas Coach Mack Brown said of Gilbert. "Here's a guy standing there on the sidelines cold as can be, and all of a sudden in the national championship game it's like, 'Okay son, you've got it.' I can't even imagine."

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