All those coaching cliches about the equal value of every game became impossible to argue when divisional play swept across college football.
Boise State plays in the six-team Mountain Division of the Mountain West — creating a schedule where five games are far more important than the other seven.
Win all five division games and lose the other seven, and the Broncos would have a fighting chance to win the division and play for the conference title.
Go 11-1 and lose to the wrong division foe, and the Broncos would be in danger of finishing second in their division.
Plus, those five division opponents are the only teams the Broncos play every season. That builds familiarity and, at times, contempt.
So when Boise State and New Mexico clash Thursday night at Albertsons Stadium, the Broncos will be playing one of their most important games of the season. It was a home loss to the Lobos in 2015 that derailed that season.
Boise State coaches spend extra time in the offseason studying the division opponents — work that becomes vital in the Mountain Division, which is home to unique, option-based offenses at New Mexico and Air Force.
“You’re absolutely focused on your division,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “That’s what puts you in that position to play for a championship.”
Divisional play began in the Mountain West in 2013 with the expansion to 12 teams. The Broncos experienced the bizarre side of divisions that year — they swept the Mountain but lost two of three games against the West Division, enough to allow Utah State to win the division.
In 2014, the Broncos overcame a loss to Air Force to win the Mountain on their way to a conference title and Fiesta Bowl appearance. In 2015, they were in position to win the division with a friendly November schedule — but lost to New Mexico and Air Force on The Blue in consecutive weeks. And in 2016, the Broncos went 7-0 outside the division but 3-2 within it. They lost the tiebreaker to Wyoming, which advanced to the conference title game.
In all, the Broncos have lost five of their past nine games in the Mountain Division. They’re 11-2 in all other games.
That history was on their minds in the offseason, when players focused on “winning our division first,” as quarterback Brett Rypien said last month. Coaches studied New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah State, Colorado State and Air Force — even though two of those opponents aren’t on the schedule until November.
Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos spent quality time on the offensive concepts of New Mexico and Air Force.
“We have to spend a lot of time on it,” he said.
And the winner is ...
Boise State vastly improved its option defense last season. The Broncos limited Air Force to 359 yards at an average of 4.3 yards per play and lost because they only scored one touchdown in four red-zone trips. They held New Mexico to seven points through three quarters of a 49-21 rout.
But as good as this year’s Boise State defense appears, the group is young. And New Mexico’s offense thrives on tricking players into doing something other than their jobs. That’s likely worth a couple of touchdowns. The Broncos’ offense, meanwhile, likely will be led by a backup quarterback operating behind a struggling offensive line. That’s not a recipe for a 40-point game.
The Broncos are favored by 15 1/2. That seems about right.
Boise State 33, New Mexico 14
College football spotlight
National game of the week — No. 3 Clemson (-3) at No. 14 Louisville, 6 p.m. Saturday, ABC: Clemson’s suffocating defense hasn’t allowed a TD. That changes this week — but always take the dominant D over the explosive O. Clemson 23, Louisville 17
Pac-12/Mountain West game of the week — No. 19 Stanford (-9) at San Diego State, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS Sports Network: This is the Aztecs’ chance to show the nation what they can do. They’re coming off a solid win last week at Arizona State, while Stanford must bounce back from a loss to USC. San Diego State 24, Stanford 21
On TV: Texans at Bengals (6:20 p.m. Thursday, NFL Network), Patriots at Saints (11 a.m. Sunday, CBS), Eagles at Chiefs (11 a.m. Sunday, Fox), 49ers at Seahawks (2:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox), Packers at Falcons (6:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC), Lions at Giants (6:15 p.m. Monday, ESPN).
Broncos in the NFL: Former Boise State coach Dirk Koetter makes his 2017 debut as his Buccaneers host the Bears at 11 a.m. Sunday. The Bucs’ opener was postponed because of Hurricane Irma. After all the buzz about the team on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and the expectations of a playoff berth, this is one of the most intriguing teams going into Week 2.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.