Posted by: mdegeorge | September 7, 2010

“Let the debate begin”: The Boise State-BCS bone to pick

It’s so seldom a game lives up to its advance billing. Three months will tell if the team that delivered on tonight’s hype can make good on the aura surrounding its season.

The Broncos are approaching an historic apex of an ascension that has made them the winningest college football program of the last decade, reaching its latest stratospheric base camp with their 33-30 win over 10th-ranked Virginia Tech tonight.

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They were there to shatter the doubts that a non-BCS team could make it to the sports’ biggest bowls. They’ve proven that a token appearance isn’t what they’re after, winning both of their bowl appearances (including that 2007 Fiesta Bowl which still sends shivers down my spine).

And now, they’re prepared to bust down the door to the National Championship game so long barred by the power-conference glitterati.

There isn’t any rain that can douse Boise State’s parade right now after going blow-for-blow in a heavyweight fight in hostile territory (it was about as neutral a site as the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament’s first round games perennially staged in Storrs, Connecticut) and emerging as the last team standing.

But, as Brent Musburger, for all his inane ramblings, so appropriately put it, “let the debate begin.”And there’s no end in sight. Because even with tonight’s signature win, even if they steamroll a ranked Oregon State team at home in three weeks, the debate will rage on as long as the likes of San Jose State, Hawaii, and Wyoming comprise the Broncos’ schedule.

The arguments opposed to Boise State’s crashing of the National Title party have their merits. The strength of schedule debate doesn’t come down to mere statistical vagaries in the BCS formula, but rather plays out on the gridiron week after week. Consider Alabama, who had to escape four ranked teams, plus a daunting Iron Bowl trip to Auburn, to reach the BCS Championship game last season. Their opponents, Texas, had to negotiate three ranked teams in addition to a nervy near-escape in College Station against Texas A&M.

Boise State lacks that venom, both in terms of the difficulty of opponents and—with all due respect to the Vandals—trap games against hated rivals.

It bears out in a simple mathematical truth. I think there are few that would argue that if Boise State and Virginia Tech played ten times, the Broncos would win no more than six of those meetings. We can then extrapolate and state that for teams at or around the same level as the Hokies, the same could hold true.

But if Boise State doesn’t play six games of that level of difficulty, there is reason for doubt that it’s not just chance guiding them to victory. Faced with a decision at the end of the year whether to pick a team such as Boise State (who passed the only two tests presented them) or a power conference team who challenged themselves outside of the conference (who passed, say four out of five or five of six challenges roughly equivalent to those of Boise State), who would you pick?

When you factor in the physical toll incurred even in those wins in the SEC or the Big 12, teams who even in victory don’t have the luxury of resting starters for the final quarter against Utah State, the enchantment of an undefeated record assumes a different perspective. (That’s not even to enter the usual discussions over team speed, endurance, and depth that purists so frequently choose to hang their hats on). And despite what the ratings may say, a 52-point drubbing of a bottom-dweller doesn’t (at least in my eyes) elevate the winner further than a hard-fought, one-score rivalry game victor in the intangibles category.

I’m not begrudging Boise State for their current position. I’ve always been enamored by their underdog attitude, entertaining style of play, and yes, blue turf for years before they became America’s chic team. I’d have been perfectly content had they hammered the Hokies by 35.

But what they’re getting this season can be viewed, in a very cynical light, as reparations for years in which mid-majors were robbed of a fair chance to climb the standings. Maybe they will turn out to be the best team in the nation by passing what few tests they receive and managing not to trip over their own shoelaces on the way to their other cake-walk classes. Perhaps they’ll show the world enough in their victories to drown out all the “what ifs” (What if they had to play an SEC schedule? What if they played a tougher nonconference slate?).

Perhaps Boise State could be the panacea to all of college football ills. For those whose multi-million dollar interests are vested in the bowl system, Boise State is the chance for mid-majors to put up or shut up. If they win, well, the system is fair for all, allaying any calls for reform. If they get to the Championship Game and lose, then the balance of power is restored and the little guys grumbling for their chances can shut up for another decade.  If they fail to progress even that far, well, we told you so.

Whatever happens, it will be a make-or-break season for the system of college football that we’re so accustomed to. If Boise State can run the table, they’ll place themselves in a unique position as a team billed to shatter the system from the season’s first down actually capable surviving to the end.

Regardless, I’ll be rooting for the Orange and Blue just to see what kind of havoc they can wreak.

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