Thu Jul 14 06:13pm EDT
Six years ago, Boise State was an up-and-coming curiosity coming off the best season in school history, an 11-1 run that came up just shy of perfection in the 2004 Liberty Bowl, and just beginning to enter the national consciousness for the first time — you know, the wide-open offense, the blue turf, the toothy grins, et cetera. At that point, it had never beaten a major-conference team outside of Boise, much less a traditional SEC heavy in its own backyard. Which is what the season-opening trip to Georgia in 2005 was all about: Is the rest of the country really supposed to take these guys seriously, or what?
The resounding answer then was: Not really. Georgia crushed the Broncos, 48-13, to jump-start its run to the SEC championship, and most Bulldog fans — and SEC fans in general — didn't seemed to think the question was worth asking again.
In 2011, with Boise poised to open another season of high expectations in the Bulldogs' backyard on Sept. 3, the question is probably still not worth asking. But this time, that's only because the Broncos have spent the last five years answering it every possible turn. Since 2006, they're 7-3 against teams that finished the season in the final polls, 4-1 against teams that finished in the top ten. They're 2-0 in BCS games, and have opened the last two seasons with wins over heavy hitters that ended up in the BCS as champions of one of the major conferences. They've won at least a share of seven of the last eight WAC championships, are unanimously favored to take the Mountain West crown in their first season there and have dropped all of three games they were favored to win in eight years. They're favored to win against Georgia in Atlanta on Sept. 3, which would have been barely conceivable in 2005.
That's the difference between "up and coming" and "arrived." Boise State is going to open the season in the top five for the second year in a row, with a reigning Heisman Trophy finalist under center: The Broncos have arrived.
At this point, The Big Question for Boise shouldn't be whether it can hang with the proverbial big dogs in some elemental, program-defining sense — though apparently it still is for enough skeptics to move a six-point line in the Broncos' favor to a 1.5-point line in a matter of hours — but whether it can once again maneuver past the first obstacle in its path to another BCS bid. In other words, just like any other contender going into a big game.
In fact, if either team is facing something like an existential moment in the Georgia Dome, it's the Bulldogs, who are all too aware their own selves that it's not 2005 anymore. It's not even 2008: Since opening on top of the preseason polls three years ago, Georgia has staggered through escalating stages of disappointment, beginning with the kind that comes from an obviously missed opportunity and continuing last year with the kind that comes from enduring your first losing season in more than a decade. This is a team that's underachieved to various degrees three years in a row, and sent multiple bodies overboard — a defensive coordinator and a pair of assistants, a longtime strength coach — in its efforts to stay afloat. It also begins the season as a team that's lost eight of its last ten against ranked opponents, and that lost its last game to Central Florida.
If the Bulldogs come out of the dome with a win, the "S-E-C!" chants will probably be drowned out by the sighs of relief. None of them louder than the one breathed by Mark Richt.
As for Boise, a win would put the Broncos back on the familiar track of handling their business as overwhelming conference favorites: Aside from the Nov. 12 visit from TCU, they'll be favored by double digits in every game en route to a presumed 12-0 finish. If they get to that point with wins over Georgia and TCU on the resumé, the biggest question won't be "Are they good enough to play for a championship?" but "Who else is there with them?" Of course, no level of respect for Boise State at the end of the year will be enough to lift the Broncos above an undefeated "Big Six" school. And of course, there will still be plenty of voters who refuse to consider the Broncos even over more familiar powerhouses with a blemish.
When many of those same voters are now willing to put BSU among the national elite before the year, though, they're conceding that it belongs in that stratosphere from the start. If it beats a traditional SEC heavy in its own backyard, yes, Boise State is good enough to play for a national championship. Whatever happens from there, it will happen with the Broncos in the driver's seat.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.