Brian Murphy: Where does Boise State football fit in?

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comMay 12, 2013 

Boise State football, Chris Petersen, spring practice

Boise State Head Football Coach Chris Petersen talks to the media about the Broncos' start of spring practice during a news conference Tuesday March 12, 2013.


These should be heady times for the Boise State football program.

Its most recent conference shopping is over and it fits comfortably in the new-look Mountain West. Its games are back on ESPN. A beautiful football complex is rising near Bronco Stadium. A four-team playoff system is in place starting in 2014, offering the Broncos a better (though still not a great) chance to play for the sport's ultimate prize.

And coach Chris Petersen, he of the remarkable 84-8 record and two BCS bowl victories, is still patrolling the sidelines in Boise as opposed to, say, Fayetteville, Ark., or Madison, Wis.

All good things, right?

So why does each week of the offseason bring news that calls into question the Broncos' ultimate place in college football hierarchy?

And I'm not talking about this week's out-of-the-blue dismissal of Freshman All-America defensive end Sam Ukwuachu, a move that will once again test the development skills of defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.

No, the rumblings that should have Boise State President Bob Kustra and Athletic Director Mark Coyle most worried are the ones coming from the top tier of college football.

Rumblings like this from one of the few college coaches with more clout than Petersen.

"I'm for five conferences - everybody playing everybody in those five conferences," Alabama coach Nick Saban, he of three national championships in the last four years, told "That's what I'm for, so it might be 70 teams, and everybody's got to play 'em."

Nearly everyone can count to five. And, trust me, you'll run out of fingers on one hand before you get to the Mountain West.

Or rumblings like this one from Mr. College Football, reporter Tony Barnhart. He wrote this week on that the influx of money into college football - read: firehose for those in Saban's five conferences and a relative faucet for those not - demands that all student-athletes get a stipend to cover the difference between an athletic scholarship and the true cost of attendance.

"The fact that the bottom half of the FBS can't afford the cost of attendance stipend isn't a good reason not to do it," Barnhart wrote.

I agree with Barnhart's premise: Student-athletes should receive a cost of attendance stipend, particularly when coaches are being paid multi-million dollar salaries.

But the stipend issue is just another one driving a wedge between the Power Five (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12) and the Little Five (Mountain West, American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference and Sun Belt).

The new playoff system - BCS 2.0 in many aspects - will further the gap. The Power Five will get more than 70 percent of the total revenue.

As the schools in the Little Five fall further behind in revenue and perception, as the Power Five fight for access to the four-team playoff with its strength-of-schedule component, as the television networks and ticket-buying fans that are financing the sport demand better matchups, Saban's best-vs.-best concept becomes more intriguing.

For years, reporters and fans have speculated about the top football-playing schools splitting off from the rest of the NCAA. It's happening already without any formal statement.

Money is creating the separation.

The rules will follow.

And which side of the line will Boise State be on?

Let's use Saban's 70 as the cut-off point. There are 64 teams in the Power Five. Notre Dame, a partial member of the ACC, makes it 65.

Competitively, Boise State should be there. But on-field success isn't the only criteria. The Broncos are in a small television market, a low population center and a small football stadium. Boise State can't easily afford the stipend - unless they get into one of the Power Five leagues.

And spots are getting harder to find, particularly if the Big 12 sticks at 10 teams, something the league is likely to do unless prompted by the marketplace or the dynamics of the new playoff to expand.

TCU and Utah found their way in. BYU, through independence, history and a unique fan base, has created its niche and would likely make it to a Super 70. What about Army, Navy and Air Force or the dozen or so other teams with either a historic- or geographic-based claim to a spot in big-boy football?

Long-term scheduling suggests the Broncos don't have to worry about Saban's vision becoming a reality in the near future.

But as the gulf increases and increases and increases, Boise State - even with so many things going well - must worry if it can make the jump and land softly on the other side.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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