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Otto Kitsinger III, Getty Images
The Broncos play with a chip on their shoulder.

LAS VEGAS — He knew it was coming, having fielded the question, oh, 50 times since Boise State learned it would be playing in the Las Vegas Bowl against Utah: Shouldn't the Broncos be playing in/for/against something bigger?

They were thinking national championship and end up in this? A jazzed-up Independence Bowl?

It wasn't exactly the national spotlight Monday at the Venetian hotel on the Strip. For starters, the place was as dead as it ever gets, thanks to the pre-Christmas lull. You could actually get a table without standing in line.

Under such circumstances, someone ended up asking Winston Venable, the Broncos', um, venerable senior safety: Are the Broncos still the (unacknowledged) best team in the country?

"Yeah, I mean, for me personally I'll vouch for our guys as being one top teams in country this year," Venable said. "Definitely we weren't the best team in the country that Friday night in Nevada (a 34-31 loss), but I'll go to bat any day with these guys, against anybody."

In other words, the Broncos aren't happy, but they're dealing with it.

That tends to happen if you have your eye on lobster and end up with tuna.

"You know that's just a part of the season," said wide receiver Tyler Shoemaker. "That's over, whatever happened, now we just have to focus on our next opponent and we're excited for Utah and we'll get after it on Wednesday."

The story, by now, is just shy of redundant. The Broncos have the best win/loss percentage (144-32) in the nation since 1997. The have won six of their last seven games against teams from BCS automatic qualifying conferences. They were the only team in the nation this year to finish ranked in the top five in total offense and total defense (fourth in both).

All was well, as they won their first 10 games, before the shocking loss at Nevada.

Hello, Wayne Newtonsville.

While almost everyone is counting out the 10-2 Utes in this game — minus their starting quarterback, who is out with an injury — one mitigating circumstance persists: that the Broncos might have a hard time rebounding. It's possible they could have a disappointment hangover.

That's a fair argument until you notice that a week later the Broncos beat USU 50-14.

So much for a pity party.

Then there was this week's rumble. Actually, it was a Las Vegas Bowl welcoming dinner Sunday, in which the teams were supposed to get together for friendly pre-game socializing. Someone said something to somebody, who then threatened to loosen somebody's molars. There was shouting and some reports said a few dishes were broken.

It wasn't actually a fight, according to those who were there; just blustering.

"We're still competitors and athletes," said Venable. "There's been a lot of talk about what happened at the press conference, so that's just what happens."

This, of course, was predictable. After all, this is Vegas. Isn't that what they do before all the title bouts? They have a weigh-in and invariably, the fighters end up getting separated.

Thus, it appears Boise State is likely to have more than enough attitude. With Utah moving to the Pac-12 next year, the Broncos shouldn't have any trouble whatsoever getting into a huff. They arrived in the WAC largely because Utah left. Same reason they got into the Mountain West.

"It's funny that we're playing them now," said running back Doug Martin.

Just don't expect the Broncos to get bored or lackadaisical, just because they're not playing for a championship. They thrive off dismissal — even when it's their opponent that's being dismissed.

"I mean, kind of we have our haters, we have our lovers, but coach says don't let those people that are the lovers bust that chip off our shoulder," Martin said. "Just stay positive and humble and keep that chip on our shoulder."

Even if it requires busting a few dishes.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com