The WAC will get one more shot at Boise State, the program that has dominated the conference since the Broncos joined the league in 2001.
Boise State leaves for the Mountain West next season. In their final season in the WAC, the Broncos may have their finest team yet. Coach Chris Petersen lost only one starter on each side of the ball from an undefeated team.
Boise State is 68-4 all-time in the WAC and has bigger prizes in its sights in its final season in the conference. In addition to returning all but one key player (cornerback Kyle Wilson, a first-round pick), Boise State will have one advantage no non-Big Six program has had: starting position. The Broncos are fifth in the preseason coaches' poll, one of three components to the BCS. No non-Big Six program has ranked higher than 14th in the preseason coaches' poll since the formation of the BCS in 1998.
The Broncos immediately will either justify or lose that lofty preseason ranking with a "neutral-site" opener against ACC contender Virginia Tech in Landover, Md. The last time the Broncos made such a ballyhooed trip East of the Mississippi River, they lost 48-13 to Georgia.
Boise State hopes its trip to Landover turns out better. The start of a run to the BCS title game could be on the line.
THE SCHEME: The Broncos continue to be one of the nation's most innovative offenses under Petersen and coordinator Bryan Harsin. Boise State runs a spread offense out of a variety of formations. The offense is noted for its well-timed trick plays, which it considers to be part of its scheme and not trickery.
STAR POWER: If former Boise State QB Jared Zabransky earned the cover of EA Sports' "NCAA '08" video game, then what will happen if Kellen Moore keeps winning? He has just lost one game as a starter (the 2008 Poinsettia Bowl to TCU) in two seasons and has been one of the most efficient passers in the nation in his first two seasons. Moore threw 39 touchdown passes and only three interceptions last season, but he could become a more consistent deep-passing threat as a junior.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: With several position competitions on Boise State's line, Charles Leno is one newcomer to watch. He's a redshirt freshman who was one of the Broncos' top recruits in 2009. In fall camp, he will compete with sophomore Faraji Wright for the starting left tackle spot vacated by Nate Potter, who has moved to guard.
STRONGEST AREA: Boise is loaded with talent and depth at the skill positions. The top eight receivers return, led by one of the best duos in the country in Austin Pettis and Titus Young. Pettis is a TD magnet (14 touchdowns in 63 receptions last season), while Young led the Broncos in receiving with 1,041 yards. Young also rushed for 138 yards and three touchdowns. RBs Jeremy Avery and Doug Martin combined for 1,920 rushing yards last season. Martin was an expert around the goal line with 15 touchdowns, including eight from inside the 5. The X-factor could be RB D.J. Harper, who was outstanding in three games before sustaining a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Broncos also make use of the strengths of their two tight ends, Tommy Gallarda (the blocker) and Kyle Efaw (the pass catcher).
BIGGEST PROBLEM: If the offense has any questions, it's the line, even though Boise State allowed the fewest sacks in the nation last season and returns eight linemen who started at least once last season. Petersen moved Potter, his best lineman, from left tackle to left guard. The hope is that Wright and/or Leno will provide more athleticism at left tackle, but both are untested. Two-year starting C Thomas Byrd missed the spring with an injury and will have to hold off Joe Kellogg. Protecting the blind side of Moore, who is a lefty, right tackle Brenel Myers had a standout performance against TCU.
THE SCHEME: Boise State lost coordinator Justin Wilcox to Tennessee during the offseason, but the scheme should remain similar with the promotion of line coach Pete Kwiatkowski. The Broncos run a base 4-2-5 defense, but they have enough experience and versatility in the scheme to play in multiple formations.
STAR POWER: Boise State's defensive MVP and perhaps its top NFL prospect started out as a walk-on. E Ryan Winterswyk wasn't on scholarship when he arrived in 2006, but since then he earned a handful of postseason honors (and a full ride). He has increased his tackles for loss each season. He finished last season with 17 tackles for loss thanks to a career-high nine sacks.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Cracking an experienced starting lineup will be difficult, but look for redshirt freshman E Kharyee Marshall to earn some snaps. He's a speed-rushing end who will be groomed to take over for Winterswyk and junior Shea McClellin when they leave.
STRONGEST AREA: Boise State can be a dominant defense when it wants to be. It held Oregon to 152 yards and eight points and TCU to 308 yards and 10 points. There's talent at every position group. Billy Winn and Chase Baker form an underrated tandem at tackle. Hard-hitting SS Jeron Johnson has led the Broncos in tackles in each of the past two seasons. Competition at linebacker will be fierce. If Derrell Acrey (12 starts in the last two seasons) can become a more complete linebacker, he could be Boise's breakout player. Aaron Tevis and J.C. Percy are in a heated competition for the other linebacker spot. This is also a ball-hawking defense. Five players with at least two interceptions return, led by CB Brandyn Thompson (six).
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Boise State didn't always display consistent effort on defense last season. Fresno State, Utah State, Idaho and Nevada fared better against Boise's defense than TCU did in the Fiesta Bowl. But the Broncos were good enough to overcome those lapses. Still, if they are going to be taken seriously as a national title contender, their margin of error will be much slimmer than that of a team from a major conference. If there's one position that could cause problems, it is the cornerback spot opposite Thompson. Wilson, the team's best player for two seasons, manned that spot a year ago. One-time walk-on Jerrell Gavins started the Fiesta Bowl as a third cornerback, but he's competing with Jamar Taylor, who redshirted last season because of injury. Ebo Makinde also is making a push.
The most experienced position on Boise State's team may be at kicker and punter. Kyle Brotzman enters his fourth season pulling double duty. He has been remarkably consistent through his career, converting 51-of-69 field-goal attempts and averaging 44.7 yards per punt. He's also been one of the key weapons in Boise State's arsenal of trick plays. He's 3-of-3 passing for 87 yards. Like the defense, the special teams must fill a huge void without Wilson, who was an ace punt returner. Young returned two kickoffs for touchdowns last season and also could return punts this season. Boise State was above average last season in both coverage units.
The Virginia Tech game will set the tone for the season. If the Broncos win, they will have a chance to return to a third BCS game, perhaps even the national championship game. If they lose, they will need to focus on winning the WAC. Boise State has no time to rest after facing Virginia Tech. After a road trip to Wyoming, Boise State faces Pac-10 contender Oregon State in its home opener. The Broncos have proven they can navigate the WAC schedule with relative ease, but two road trips will be difficult. Nevada has given Boise State trouble in each of the past three seasons, and this fall's game is in Reno. The Broncos also will encounter an extremely hostile environment against in-state rival Idaho after Boise State president Bob Kustra told the Idaho Statesman newspaper that the culture at an Idaho home game is "nasty, inebriated."
Boise State begins perhaps the most important season in the program's short history. If the Broncos can get past Virginia Tech and Oregon State, they have a great chance to go undefeated for the third time under Petersen. What that means in the BCS remains to be seen. If the Broncos are in the mix, they will be watched more critically than any other top-ranked team. And just because Boise State is leaving the WAC doesn't mean the Broncos' winning ways will cease. They are 10-1 all-time against their future Mountain West competition -- and that doesn't include a 3-0 mark against Pac-10-bound Utah.