BOISE, Idaho — As he stood before his team ready to address goals and expectations in preparation for Boise State's season, Chris Petersen grabbed the attention of his players and changed the message he recited for years.
"Let's prove everyone right," the Broncos' successful fifth-year coach told his squad.
This couldn't be the message coming from Petersen, not after years of eschewing all the public debate about Boise State's place in the college football pantheon. Not after years of claiming to ignore their worthiness as believed by pollsters, pundits and computers.
"People on the outside are giving us some credit and we don't put a whole lot of stock into preseason rankings, but if people are going to say great things and are thinking about us differently, OK then. We'll go ahead," Petersen said. "We've always been kind of coming from nowhere in the past, so now we're certainly not sneaking up on anybody. We'll still have that chip on our shoulder, but it'll be to prove everybody right."
Welcome to the latest chapter in the evolution of the "outsiders" in college football.
Once considered the happy story of the occasional long-shot crashing the BCS's big money party, the non-automatic qualifiers have recently taken up permanent residence, grabbing their share of the millions divvied out from the top-tier bowls.
First came Utah in 2004 and the numbers have only grown, reaching its pinnacle last year when Boise State and TCU marked the first time two non-automatic qualifiers played in the marquee bowl games. The pair faced each other in the Fiesta Bowl, won by Boise State 17-10.
And 2010 may become the watershed moment for those outside schools, clamoring for years to get equal entry into the big money.
Boise State begins the season ranked No. 5 in the coaches poll, and will likely receive another top-5 ranking when the AP Top 25 is released Aug. 21. TCU is ranked seventh by the coaches and could be a top-10 team in the AP poll. Both have schedules challenging enough that, should each go undefeated, they are likely to find themselves with a high enough ranking to be playing in another BCS bowl game.
The shock value of seeing these teams in the BCS is gone, especially after last year.
But what about the ultimate prize: a shot at the national championship?
"It could happen," said Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, who many consider a Heisman Trophy candidate. "Every year there are different variables. Two years ago we were undefeated but there were a handful of undefeated teams. Sometimes you lose out on those things.
"For us, it's 12 opportunities to play your best. You play well, in the end you're going to be doing something good. You're going to have an opportunity to be in a good bowl game and maybe eventually some things will fall down and things will open up for us."
After years of trying to let their play on the field serve as the message coming from the potato state, the Broncos are embracing their place in the spotlight. When Petersen took over in 2006 following Dan Hawkins's departure to Colorado, the Broncos were still regarded as second-class citizens with a lofty record due to meager competition in the Western Athletic Conference.
As the Broncos continued to win and, perhaps more importantly, continued beating established programs from BCS conferences, their worthiness to those outside the program grew exponentially.
"I hadn't heard anything about Boise State before I came here and it seems like you'd have to be blind not to hear anything now," Boise State defensive end Ryan Winterswyk said.
Their high regard entering this season is a level of respectability and notoriety that the Broncos have fought to obtain and are now willing to accept.
Random fans may still show up at the football offices in Boise asking to see the Broncos' blue field, but it's just as likely they want to learn more about the program.
It's still somewhat shocking for Petersen, who arrived in 2001 as offensive coordinator, to witness the amount of growth. Whether it's an indoor practice facility that provides a chance to escape the elements, or talk of expanding the stadium to more than 40,000 seats, it's all part of the rapid rise that still sets Petersen aback when he gives himself a moment to reflect.
"I don't know if we expected all that. ... It all works together, it's not any one entity on campus that is doing it all," he said. "There are a lot of people involved in this whole deal."
The reason most are so high on the 2010 team is the returning talent. Boise State finished last season ranked No. 4 and returns all but one starter — the lone departure being cornerback Kyle Wilson, taken in the first round of the NFL draft by the New York Jets.
Moore is the Broncos' first legitimate Heisman candidate after throwing for more than 3,500 yards, 39 touchdowns and just three interceptions as a sophomore, though he's far from a self-promoter. His targets on the outside — Austin Pettis and Titus Young — combined for 142 catches and 24 touchdowns last season. Running back Jeremy Avery, often overlooked with all the Broncos' other skilled players, rushed for a quiet 1,151 yards a year ago.
The defense might finally be on par with the attention-grabbing offense, too. Winterswyk and Billy Winn anchor a line with depth, while Jeron Johnson and Brandyn Thompson — who returned an interception for a touchdown against TCU — hold down the secondary.
Just how good the Broncos are will be tested immediately.
Petersen calls Virginia Tech "one of those teams," and doesn't hesitate to say the Hokies are the biggest challenge the Broncos have ever faced. After opening the season against them in Landover, Md., Boise State heads to Wyoming and its 7,165-foot-elevation home-field advantage. Finally, the Broncos come home Sept. 25 against Pac-10 title contender Oregon State.
By the time Boise State opens its final season of WAC play on Oct. 2 at New Mexico State, its chances at playing for the national title will be largely determined.
"We have such high hopes from everyone else around the nation and getting some respect," Pettis said. "Now it's proving them right because we were fighting to get that respect."
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