All roads go through Boise
Few teams during the past decade have dominated a conference more than Boise State has dominated the Western Athletic Conference.
Boise State is 54-2 in conference play over the past seven seasons, and the Broncos have won six of the past seven conference titles, five of them outright. The Broncos have been so dominant that almost every other coach in the conference spent part of their time during the WAC media preview talking about their admiration for what Boise State has been able to accomplish.
"Boise State, with what they've done over the last few years, their win total and how they've done it, I've got a lot of respect for what they do," Fresno State coach Pat Hill said. "Right now, Boise State is the torch for our league. I think them being as good as they are is making everyone else in our league better."
Now it's time to move some other teams to the forefront with the Broncos.
Despite its success, Boise State has been criticized for its weak conference schedule in recent seasons. The perception of the WAC is the reason why the Broncos weren't able to overtake Utah in the Bowl Championship Series standings and secure a BCS bowl berth last season.
According to both the Sagarin and Massey ratings, both of which are components in the BCS standings, the WAC was ranked No. 10 among Football Bowl Subdivision conferences (behind the six automatic qualifying conferences, Mountain West, Conference USA and the independents). While Boise State was ranked No. 10 by the Massey ratings and No. 12 by Sagarin, the next highest ranked WAC team was Nevada, at No. 64 in the Massey ratings and No. 71 in Sagarin's totals.
Still, every coach in the conference would contend that the league is getting better. The WAC had six bowl-eligible schools, and five went to bowl games. But this past season was the first time that the conference didn't have two teams reach double-digit wins since 2005.
In recent years, WAC commissioner Karl Benson has been adamant about getting teams that are ranked near the bottom nationally -- New Mexico State, Utah State and Idaho -- to carry their weight with the rest of the conference teams to help alleviate the "weak conference" perception.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with having a dominant team, but there is a need to have additional teams in top the half [of the country] or the Top 25," Benson said. "I think what the Mountain West did a year ago with Utah, BYU and TCU, that type of strength at the top is the ideal distribution of teams. I think you always want to guard against 100 to 120. That is just as important. If you can eliminate 100-120, and I think last year we had three in New Mexico State, Idaho and Utah State, and those bring you down."
Louisiana Tech coach Derek Dooley is among the coaches who admire what Boise State has done, but he'll also be the first to tell you that, as a third-year coach, he's not trying to mimic the Broncos' model. Dooley said Boise State has been so successful because of administrative support, and the Broncos scheduling philosophy, "which has allowed Boise to have a lot of wins."
Most importantly, Dooley said, Boise State has "a tremendous belief in what they're doing."
That's where Dooley would like to be with Louisiana Tech, and he took steps in the right direction last season. Louisiana Tech finished the 2008 season with an 8-5 record, the first time it had won eight games since 1999. It finished second in the conference, its highest finish since winning the title in 2001, and won its first bowl game since 1977.
"Are we using [Boise State] as a model? No," Dooley said. "I will say we're using the model of investing in the program from a facility standpoint and from surrounding the student-athlete with [an] opportunity standpoint to try and attract better players, which results in more wins. It's not really as complex as people try to make it out to be."
Fresno State has built its program on similar philosophies, though it hasn't been as successful in recent seasons as Boise State because of its approach to scheduling. Fresno State is known for its "anybody, anytime, anywhere" scheduling philosophy, which oftentimes leaves the Bulldogs beaten up before the conference season even begins.
But with the exception of 2006, Fresno State has finished in the top four in the standings every season since Boise State joined the conference in 2001, though it has struggled to give the Broncos a run for the conference title.
"Do I think what Boise State is doing is good? I think it's really good," Hill said. "And I think that it's what all of us aspire to be able to do; to make that special run, to have that special team. The thing that makes Boise so special is that they're so consistent over time. The consistency over time is what's most impressive. To have 98 wins in nine years, that's almost 10 wins a season. For us, we're at eight wins a season and that's almost not even special."
With the exception of Hawaii, which won the league in 2007, Nevada has been the closest to knocking Boise State off an undefeated campaign. In 2007, the Wolf Pack lost to the Broncos 69-67 in four overtimes. Last season, they lost 41-34 despite a valiant fourth-quarter comeback.
Nevada is one of the few teams that are admit about setting their sights on Boise State when the season begins. Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault said there's no doubt that Boise State has become the gold standard in the conference, but it's not about its mystique or the way it plays offense or defense, it's about the attitude that the Broncos bring to each game.
It's an attitude that Ault said all teams in the WAC have to adopt if they want to play on Boise State's level.
"When you're successful like that, success builds success," Ault said. "That attitude of 'Hey, we're just not going to get beat' is there. And people just haven't been able to get close enough, except for TCU last year, to handle it. And we had our chance a couple years ago and we had our chance last year. The one thing that Boise has done with consistency is they have found a way to finish.
"They've definitely separated themselves and somewhere along the line you've got to stand up to it."
Graham Watson is a college sports writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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