Has Boise State lost its mystique?
No, this is not the question San Diego State coach Rocky Long broached three years ago. That was about the turf.
But the team itself, the program — the Broncos find themselves in a spot where another year without a Mountain West title could reinforce the budding opinion they have regressed while those among them are on the rise.
“They have the right to say that, the past two years, we haven’t accompished our goal of making it on top of our division and top of the conference,” junior defensive tackle David Moa said. “What’s said is said, but to us, that’s just outside noise.
“Maybe that’s what we need, to go back to that underdog mentality.”
Boise State has lost five Mountain West games combined the last two seasons, the most conference losses in back-to-back seasons since 1997 and 1998. The year after Long rankled the Boise State faithful with his comments, the Broncos lost twice at Albertsons Stadium.
Last season, the Broncos dropped their last two contests against Mountain Division opponents, missing not just a shot at the conference title, but perhaps a fourth New Year’s Six bowl game.
“I definitely think they’re different than they used to be,” Wyoming junior safety Andrew Wingard said. “... I’m not putting them down or anything, but I’ll say it like this: My freshman year, I thought Boise was an unbeatable team, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to beat Boise.’ Then we beat Boise, and it was like ‘wow, they’re human.’”
The Broncos may not be the sort of team that runs roughshod over conference opponents anymore, nor are they the team with the shiniest toys. Colorado State opens a $225 million stadium this year, Wyoming has a $44 million training facility slated to open this year and Utah State’s Maverik Stadium underwent a $36 million renovation that debuted last season.
Season tickets dipped below 20,000 last season for the first time since 2006. Another year without a conference title would be the first three-year stretch without one since 1996 to 1998 — the school’s first three seasons in Division I-A (now Football Bowl Subdivision).
Success is expected here, but 2017 provides a chance for the Broncos to be in a different mode.
“I don’t think we have to sit there and say we have the target on our back or that we’re the underdog,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “But what I do know is we have a lot to prove.”
At the same time, it says plenty about where the program has positioned itself that in the last two seasons, the Broncos won 19 games combined and were ranked at some point. They still got 21 of 28 first-place votes in the Mountain West preseason poll to win the division.
If they can win the games they need to in conference, that would once again put Boise State on the path toward a big bowl game. Repeat 2015 and 2016, the season could continue the perception the Broncos are fading out of the national picture.
“We’ve been so close,” junior quarterback Brett Rypien said. “Nine points away from being undefeated in the regular season. It hurts. It’s hurt all offseason. The end of the year hurt.
“I don’t really think we’re at a crossroad. ... the way I see it, we have another chance to win the conference and we’ve put in the work so far.”
The Broncos’ roster is almost all Harsin-recruited players. Only senior linebacker Gabe Perez played a game for Chris Petersen, and seven others redshirted the now-Washington coach’s final season at the helm.
Even if he won’t approach it as so, those critical of Harsin’s late-game coaching (13 touchdowns yielded when up 17 or more in the fourth quarter), the lack of forced turnovers last season (school-record low nine) or occasional scoring droughts (second-fewest points per game since 1998) could be silenced.
Or they could become louder.
“Every year that’s the mindset ... I don’t think that changes what you’re going to prove, and it shouldn’t,” Harsin said.
Boise State faces a tough schedule with eight bowl teams from 2016 on the slate, but its quarterback, top touchdown-catching receiver, sack leader and a wealth of young talent returns. Only at a place like this can a 10-3 record the prior year still lead to big questions, but 2017 should be an important season for the Broncos and their future.
“Everyone’s looking down on us, talking like we’re not what we used to be,” senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson said. “We try not to listen to it, but it’s in the back of our minds. I’ve never won a ring at any level. I want that. We have to go out and take it, show what Boise State has always been about.”
▪ Fall camp starts Tuesday, the season opens at 1:45 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2, at home against Troy
▪ Five returning starters on offense, four on defense
▪ Returning leaders: QB Brett Rypien, Jr. (3,646 passing yards, 24 TDs, 8 INTs); RB Alexander Mattison, So. (328 rushing yards, 4 TDs); WR Cedrick Wilson, Sr. (56 catches, 1,129 yards, 11 TDs); DT David Moa, Jr. (8.5 sacks); S Cameron Hartsfield, Sr. (65 tackles); CB Tyler Horton, Jr. and LB Leighton Vander Esch, Jr. (1 INT apiece)
▪ 2016 team numbers: scoring offense (33.8 ppg, 38th in FBS); scoring defense (23.3 ppg, 29th); total offense (472.8 ypg, 21st); total defense (389.8, 52nd); turnover margin (minus-0.69 pg, 116th)