Before Boise State became a national powerhouse, before the run of victories against the Pac-12 and made-for-TV showdowns, before those three Fiesta Bowls, the Broncos were one of the most predictable programs in college football.
They dominated their conference. They were untouchable at home. They forced turnovers in bunches. They threw the ball with precision. And they overwhelmed opponents with head-shaking depth.
As the program has slipped in recent years — the Broncos have finished outside the Top 25 three of the past four years — all of those givens have disappeared.
For the Broncos to regain their status as a Top 25 program and rejoin the conversation for New Year’s Six bowl spots, they’ll need to thrive in those five areas again.
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▪ Dominate the league: The Broncos won 31 straight WAC games from 2001 to 2005 and won at least a share of the conference championship 10 times in 12 years from 1999 to 2010. They were so dominant that the title became expected and, often, dismissed by outsiders as an unimpressive accomplishment.
Since joining the Mountain West in 2011, the Broncos have won a tri-championship in 2012 and an outright championship in 2014. In the Mountain Division — where none of the other five schools enjoys a national reputation anything like the Broncos’ — Boise State is 5-5 in the past two seasons. The Broncos have lost three straight years to Air Force.
It has now been eight years since the program posted an undefeated conference record. The Broncos went 5-0 in the Mountain Division in 2013 but haven’t swept that five-game slate since.
“The biggest thing we focused on this year is winning our division first,” junior quarterback Brett Rypien said, “which is a very, very tough division.”
▪ Own the Blue: The Broncos won 35 consecutive home games, a streak that included every game on the blue turf from 2006 to 2010 and ended against TCU in 2011. They won 24 of their next 25 home games, too, until disaster struck late in the 2015 season: back-to-back home losses to New Mexico and Air Force.
In their past eight home games, the Broncos have outscored their opponents by a total of 37 points. They are 6-2 in that span with wins by one, three and five points. What once was a house of horrors for opponents has become an edge-of-your-seat experience for the home fans.
▪ Turnover trend: Every year in which the Broncos have finished in the Top 25, they have extracted at least 26 turnovers from their opponents. Most of those years, they collected 31 or more. Last year, that number plummeted to a school-record-low nine. That deficiency contributed to the Broncos’ poor performance in starting field position, put more pressure on Rypien and the offense and amplified the woeful special teams.
▪ Precision passing: From 2006 to 2011, Boise State never finished worse than 11th in the nation in pass efficiency. Five of those years, the team finished in the top six.
Since the start of 2012, the Broncos’ best ranking was 13th in 2014, the last Fiesta Bowl season — until last year.
Quietly, the Broncos were ninth — a major step toward the offensive firepower of old. But Rypien made some critical mistakes late in the season that contributed heavily to the three losses.
The Broncos need Rypien, like third-year starters Kellen Moore (2010), Jared Zabransky (2006) and Ryan Dinwiddie (2003) before him, to show complete command of the offense and protect the football this season.
▪ Going deep: The Broncos once took pride in beating opponents even with their backups on the field, and they owned November. The late-season collapses the last two seasons — five combined losses from Oct. 29 on — could reflect a growing trend of relying on star power. Last year, only two players rushed for more than 60 yards, only four players made more than 15 catches and the defensive line often was limited to the starting four instead of the eight- to 10-man rotation that became a staple of the defense nearly a decade ago. Only six D-linemen registered a sack.
By contrast, in the Fiesta Bowl season of 2014, five players rushed for at least 150 yards, six players made more than 15 catches (and 10 caught TD passes), six linebackers finished among the top nine tacklers and 10 defensive linemen recorded a sack.
Keep an eye on these five areas as the Broncos navigate a schedule that features as many potential losses as any they’ve faced in many years. Five years ago, we considered home games a lock and conference road games all but a lock when projecting the season.
Now, the sure-fire victories are as rare as turnovers were last season.