Behind the BCS (cont.)
The game drew an 8.4 Nielsen rating, which seemed modest at the time but has since proven the third highest of any non-championship or Rose Bowl since the BCS went to five games. While Boise rose from ninth to fifth in the final AP poll, it still finished behind two BCS-conference teams (LSU and USC) with two losses. And any respect that the Broncos may have generated for the WAC was squashed the following year when Hawaii -- which went 12-0 against the nation's weakest schedule -- got trounced 41-10 by 10-2 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
That same setting, however, would provide the backdrop a year later when Utah -- 12-0 and ranked sixth in the final BCS standings -- stunned 12-1 Alabama 31-17. Unlike previous BCS busters with admittedly flimsy résumés, the Utes had previously distinguished themselves with wins over three teams that would finish the season ranked in the Top 25. Their bowl opponent had spent five weeks at No. 1 prior to their SEC Championship Game loss to Florida.
Utah finished No. 2 in the final AP poll behind only BCS champion Florida, the highest ranking for a Mountain West or WAC team since BYU's 1984 national title, and the non-AQ teams improved their record in BCS games to 3-1. (The ACC, by comparison, is 2-9.)
When the preseason polls came out for 2009, one could see the cumulative effect of Utah and Boise State's wins, plus the respect earned by the Mountain West last season, when it went 6-1 against the Pac-10. Boise State started 14th and TCU 17th, a sign of newfound respect from the same voters who had 2006 Boise State and 2008 Utah unranked to start the year.
Within five weeks, the Broncos -- buoyed by a season-opening rout of Oregon -- shot up to No. 5. The Horned Frogs, which won at Clemson on Sept. 26, took longer to crack the Top 10 but eventually surpassed Boise thanks to blowout wins over ranked BYU and Utah teams.
Heading into the final weeks of the regular season, discussion turned to two previously unthinkable possibilities -- whether two non-AQ teams could garner at-large berths in the same season and, remarkably, whether TCU could sneak into the national championship game.
Texas' last-second win over Nebraska in the Big 12 title game ended the latter dream but virtually guaranteed the former. (A Huskers upset would have given the Big 12 two BCS berths, likely bumping Boise State.) The Horned Frogs' No. 3 ranking in both the final regular-season AP and coaches polls and No. 4 (behind Cincinnati) in the BCS standings were the highest for a non-AQ team since the BCS' inception.
"We always believed if [the non-AQs] could demonstrate ourselves competitively on the field that it would make a very strong statement in the future," said Cowen. "It's progressing at a faster rate than we thought it would."
While TCU has been consistently successful for much of the decade, it assuredly benefited from the newfound respect for its conference.
"It's been more a process than anything else," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "Getting to the BCS twice has been big for us, but the most important thing for the Mountain West is we've been playing consistently well against the AQ schools. I don't think there's been any one event or defining moment."
That could come on Monday.
When the Fiesta's surprising matchup was announced on Dec. 6, the overwhelming reaction was... fury.
It's not that fans and media didn't want TCU and Boise to play; they didn't want to see them play each other. Some felt that the teams were deprived of an opportunity to prove themselves against BCS-conference foes. Others went so far as to suggest a conspiracy on the part of BCS organizers to protect the major-conference teams. (In reality, each bowl chooses its teams individually.)
"Maybe I'm the most naive person in history of the world," said Junker, "but I was shocked [by the reaction] -- candidly, for reasons I didn't expect.
"If the non-AQs don't want to play each other, that's not very helpful to their cause. If you're not good enough to play each other, why should you be good enough to play Texas and Oklahoma? Let's judge by the product on the field."
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