Upset payoff would be immense for Broncos

Updated: January 1, 2007, 2:21 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- In an excellent gesture of Cinderella solidarity, George Mason University took out a full-page ad in the Idaho Statesman for Saturday wishing the Boise State Broncos good luck in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma.

"I think that's awesome," Boise coach Chris Petersen said. "I appreciate that a ton. Come basketball season, the Broncos might have to be spending a little money on George Mason."

There will be plenty of emotional capital spent on the Broncos nationwide Monday night -- and it won't just be from George Mason. Every school outside the well-fed 65 in the big six conferences will be Broncos fans for a day. And almost every football fan who doesn't sing along with "Boomer Sooner" will be pulling for Boise, as well.

Jared Zabransky
Ken Levine/WireImage.comJared Zabransky has thrown for 2,325 yards and 20 TDs in 2006.
For embracers of the underdog, the scenario doesn't get much better than this in college football. It's not a shot at the national title -- the present sorry system prevents the kind of opportunity the Patriots had last spring -- but it's as close as the Boise States of the world can get.

In their 11th year of Division I-A football, the undefeated champions of the Western Athletic Conference are the latest crasher of the most exclusive and elitist party there is: the Bowl Championship Series. And they happen to be playing one of the top five programs (conservatively) in the history of the sport.

Utah broke in from the outside two years ago, but the reward was merely a date with a bad Pittsburgh team. This time around, David gets a suitably sizable Goliath to aim at.

The Sooners own seven national titles and are competing in their 40th bowl game. They started playing varsity football 12 years before Oklahoma became a state. When they don't make a BCS game and/or challenge for the national title, Sooner Nation wants to know what's wrong.

Oklahoma is just about as big as it gets. Coach Bob Stoops was asked Sunday morning whether he roots for the "little guy" in games he's not involved in.

"If Boise State's playing Michigan or Auburn or USC or somebody," asked Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman, "would you be pulling for Boise State?"

Coach Bob Stoops
John Rieger-US PRESSWIRE Bob Stoops and the Sooners expect to play in BCS bowl games.
"I don't know," Stoops responded. "They're not. I have a hard time dealing with those hypotheticals. Give me a call (Sunday night) if there's a game on."

There was, and it matched a low-profile team from the WAC (Nevada) against a tradition-steeped opponent with a trophy case full of hardware (Miami). Safe to assume most of the viewing public was rooting for Nevada -- just as it will be rooting Monday for Boise State.

So the payoff for upsetting mighty Oklahoma would be immense. But this is a two-edged game. As much as Boise -- and every alleged mid-major program -- stands to gain by winning, it could lose quite a bit by being blown out.

A Fiesta Bowl thumping would only increase the disdain of those establishmentarians who don't believe a team from the WAC deserves this plum assignment. And even though Boise has established itself as an annual Top 25-level program, several of its recent shots at the big boys have ended badly.

As far as the Broncos have come, this fact has not gone away: They have never beaten a big six conference team away from their blue home turf. They're 0-12, and several of those games were over early.

Last time they got a shot like this, it was the 2005 season opener at Georgia, ranked 13th at the time. By halftime, quarterback Jared Zabransky had turned the ball over six times by himself and Boise was down 24-0. That ballooned to 38-0 in the third quarter. Final score: a credibility-crippling 48-13.

Zabransky is still the Boise State quarterback. He has come a long way since then, when he played what might have been the worst half I've ever seen.

"Since that time, he's done a much better job," said Petersen, who was offensive coordinator before this season and has worked extensively with Zabransky throughout his five years at Boise. "I think that's been a big key to our success this year. I think he's thrown eight interceptions [actually seven]. I don't even know if he has a fumble this year. That's been big."

Part of cutting down Zabransky's turnovers has been cutting down his role in the offense. His sophomore and junior seasons, he averaged 335 pass attempts; this year, he has thrown 259 times.

Ian Johnson
Ken Levine/WireImage.comIan Johnson's running has brought balance to the Boise State attack.
Boise State is throwing the ball 35 percent of the time, down from 41 percent last season. The main reason it can do that is the explosion of sophomore running back Ian Johnson, who has rushed for 1,613 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. It stands to reason that Johnson will have to be an integral part of any success the Broncos are going to have against Oklahoma.

Another key ingredient would have to be some level of inherent disrespect for the Broncos by the Sooners. Stoops is too good a coach to let on any such thing -- but you do wonder whether Oklahoma's players look at Boise State anywhere near the way they look at, say, Texas.

Stoops was expounding on another subject Sunday when he said teams that play weaker schedules tend to be overrated.

"All anybody looks for are wins and losses," he said. "If you play a weak schedule, your statistics are better and you're ranked higher. Then when it comes time for you guys [the media] analyzing teams, sometimes I don't know that it's paid attention to a lot."

Upon hearing that, the natural inclination is to cast an eye at Boise's schedule, which Jeff Sagarin rates the 100th toughest in the country. (He ranks Oklahoma's 33rd.) So, Bob, how about evaluating Boise's sked?

"It's not for me to do," Stoops said, backpedaling like the all-Big Ten defensive back he once was. "I watch all those teams play in the WAC. There's a lot of good football teams. I've watched many of them play through bowl season. They've all played well."

The WAC is 2-0 in bowl games thus far, and Boise opponents are 4-0. But none of them has played an Oklahoma.

That job falls to the Broncos. Bring down Goliath, and the little guys of college football will be celebrating from coast to coast.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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