Are the Broncos the Butler of autumn?
BOISE, Idaho -- There's a special kinship for Butler on the campus of Boise State. The Bulldogs have done in college basketball what the Broncos are trying to do in college football.
College fans across the nation carried a torch for Butler on Monday night. Everyone loves Cinderella, and not just because we like to think of ourselves as handsome princes more than ugly stepsisters.
And Butler carried a torch for college football fans. Not in the sense of someone in love, but the torches carried by a mob bent on burning down what it does not like. To a sizable contingent of fans, the Bulldogs' run to the last shot of the NCAA men's basketball championship game illustrated everything that's right with March Madness and everything that's wrong with the BCS.
But the road on which Boise State football finds itself is not all that different from the road to the Final Four.
As storybook as Butler's hometown run has been, it doesn't share much with the script of the movie "Hoosiers" beyond geography. Butler's rise through the tournament is not a bolt of lightning. It is the culmination of a years-long climb. The Bulldogs made a name for themselves. They won big games. They made NCAA tournament after NCAA tournament.
Butler began this season in the top 10 because of that accumulation of success. Expectations ran higher and the Bulldogs, who didn't lose from late December until Monday night, met them. A computer may spit out the RPI, but human beings seed the teams. Butler earned a No. 5 seed because of this season and because of the reputation it has built in seasons past.
Reputation -- or subjectivity or bias, depending on your vantage point -- plays a larger role in college football. The automatic BCS bid to a conference champion represents the town train tracks. If you belong to one of six conferences that get an automatic bid, then you live large. If you belong to one of five conferences that do not, then you live on the other side of the tracks.
That's why the BCS haters saw the Fiesta Bowl between TCU and Boise State as the ghettoization of two undefeated teams. Where the Fiesta Bowl saw a matchup of No. 3 versus No. 4, others saw a conspiracy to prevent the Horned Frogs and Broncos from defeating champions from the major conferences.
The conspiracy charge did not hold up, if only because of the door opened by that victory and the others preceding it. Boise State's second Fiesta Bowl victory in four seasons propelled the Broncos through the ceiling of low expectations. The Broncos have won 14 straight games and 25 straight regular-season games. In four seasons, head coach Chris Petersen is 49-4.
All but two starters return for Boise State, which, like Butler, will reap the benefit of sustaining success. The Broncos will begin the season in the top five, the college football equivalent to a high seed in the NCAA tournament.
Yeah, sure, there's one important difference. Butler, seeded too low at No. 5, reached the Final Four by playing and defeating Syracuse and Kansas State, the top seeds in the region. The Boise States of football do not get that opportunity because there is no postseason mechanism for it.
But Boise State has done what it can in the current system to fix that. For one thing, the Broncos have banked the benefits of beating TCU in January, Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl three years before that, and nearly everyone between. For another, Boise State has agreed to play Virginia Tech at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins. Three weeks later, Oregon State will come to the blue turf in Bronco Stadium.
Victories in those games and every other, combined with Boise State's high preseason ranking, may be enough to confirm the Broncos' status as the Butler of autumn. If Boise State runs the table and plays for the crystal football, the structure of the BCS will be validated. Congress will be able to pay full attention to its main task, refusing to cooperate with the opposition. Talk of a playoff may die down.
If Boise State runs the table and does not play for the crystal football, the shouting and keening -- from playoff proponents in general and Broncos fans in particular -- will make your ears bleed.
In that sense, Boise State and Butler are different. The Bulldogs played Monday night for themselves and maybe for underdogs everywhere. The Broncos will play next season for themselves, for underdogs everywhere and for the benefit of the powers that be in college football. The Butler of autumn may sound like a PBS drama, but it may just reveal the future of the BCS.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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