HONOLULU There are four games left in Boise States season, four games left to determine whether the season will be a successful one or a below-average one (by Boise State standards), four games left for the offense to begin clicking.
Four games that will determine whether the offseason is one of reserved optimism or simmering panic as the Broncos prepare to move to the Big East.
Four games that may determine the fates of first-year starting quarterback Joe Southwick and first-year offensive coordinator Robert Prince.
So, despite the fact that last weeks home loss to San Diego State ended the Broncos chances of busting the BCS yet again and put a damper on their efforts to win an outright Mountain West title before they go, there is still plenty at stake in the seasons waning days.
For no one is that more true than the duo most blamed for Boise States ongoing offensive woes. With the Broncos production at a Chris Petersen-era low, Southwick and Prince have fallen squarely in the cross hairs of disgruntled fans dissatisfied with middle-of-the-road offensive numbers at a place (and in a time) where touchdowns are routine.
Its not just the Kellen Moore effect, though certainly his brilliant play over the past four years altered the expectations. The Broncos have averaged 41.2 points per game since 2000 when Moore was in the sixth grade.
The offense has been so productive for so long that it seemed like it would never slow down, never need a tune-up, that the next man in line at quarterback, at offensive coordinator could simply carry it higher.
Now it has stalled. Slipped. Gone backward.
And if nothing changes, if the final four games produce more of the offensive inconsistency that has been common in the first nine games, then the biggest question becomes: what next?
While some want one or both replaced, Petersen offered qualified endorsements for both this week.
On Southwick: At times, he has played really well. Hes very smart. He does a lot of things that people dont realize (changing plays) what hes doing in the run game as well as the pass game. If you dont play really, really consistent all the time there, it shows up. Thats hard to do. Were still making progress there.
On Prince: I think hes doing a good job, a solid job. Trust me, were not making any calls that dont look good on tape and on the blackboard and all those things. But weve got to execute better and play to our strengths.
Since Petersen arrived as the offensive coordinator in 2001, Boise State has never replaced a quarterback for performance. The starter has remained the starter until graduation, even in the worst days of Jared Zabranskys tenure when the coaching staff was practically begging for Taylor Tharp to win the job.
It took longer for Southwick to seize the job than coaches wanted this year. His decision-making, particularly in the red zone, has been rightly criticized.
But Southwick has been and remains the best option this year. Command of the Broncos offense is so important to the position and its one area where Southwick shines. Its tough to envision how another quarterback could outpace Southwick, armed with a years worth of starts and four years in the system, before the start of next season. Freshman Nick Patti appears to have the best chance of unseating Southwick.
In his seven seasons as head coach, Petersen hasnt replaced many assistant coaches for performance. He hasnt had to. But he did move Scott Huff from offensive line coach to tight ends coach and eased out linebackers coach Viliami Tuivai.
Prince is the third offensive coordinator in as many years, following Bryan Harsin (now at Texas) and Brent Pease (now at Florida). Outside of offensive line coach Chris Strausser, there is no obvious candidate with deep knowledge of the Boise State offense on the staff or otherwise to replace Prince if that is the direction Petersen chooses.
There is time to end such speculation, time to show that the current alignment is capable of producing at the level Boise State is accustomed, time to steer the conversation away from the offensive miscues and details that perpetually need fixing.
Four games. Even with no BCS hopes on the line, they mean a lot.
Brian Murphy: 377-6444Twitter: @MurphsTurph