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Post The Big Game

Wednesday August 24, 2005

In a big game that people figure to be a close battle, the intangibles that might give one team a slight advantage get analyzed to death. My favorite is the weather – how will Boise St. come off the polar icecap and react to a summer afternoon in Saharan Africa Georgia?

But one thing I think is being overlooked is the big game factor. Some in the Bronco camp, even the athletic director, are pointing to this game as the biggest in the history of the Boise State program. That program, looking for further legitimacy against an SEC power, is staking a lot on this game. It could be a huge boost towards a BCS at-large bid and all the spoils that come with it. Boise is no lightweight. They won’t be intimidated by Georgia; they’ve played teams from major conferences recently and won some. They played an outstanding Louisville team very close last season. They’ve beaten Oregon State. They’ve faced and dispatched respectable mid-major programs and are ready to move beyond that point.

So if Boise isn’t going to be rattled by facing the #13 team in the nation, how does the intangible of the big game come into play?

Building this game up to the biggest in program history could be a big emotional motivator for the Broncos, but it also comes at a risk. Following the season-ending loss to Louisville last season, a loss to Georgia to begin this season would go a long way to chop down Boise’s claims for legitimacy and attention despite many, many wins. This is a huge opportunity on a national stage, and it’s not one they’ve seen before. Even a somewhat major bowl matchup against Louisville did not have the focus and significance placed on it that this game does. Boise’s attempt to come into an SEC stadium in front of 92,000 fans against an opponent with the tradition, history, and recent success of Georgia and claim equal footing is a huge story.

Big games are becoming routine for Georgia, and they’ve started winning more than a few lately. Veterans still with the team have played for conference titles, played in some of the most difficult settings in college football, and have faced the situations of coming back and defending leads against some very good teams. While it’s shaky to predict the emotional state of a bunch of college students, what is a huge game for a team like Boise is something Georgia faces at least five times a season. As recent SEC champions and a Top 10 program, Georgia is used to wearing the bulls-eye and getting the best effort from opponents looking to knock off a top team.

There has been a not-so-subtle shift in the stakes for Boise St. Instead of taking the typical role of the upstart underdog with nothing to lose, they now have a great deal invested in this game. With that comes a different kind and different level of pressure. With some very good years behind them and a decent preseason ranking for 2005, Boise is expected not just to push Georgia but to play an extremely competitive game with the possibility of earning the win.

It’s a credit to Boise State that they’re in this situation. They are not the usual early season cupcake. Much like Gonzaga on the basketball side, they’ve moved well beyond being Cinderella and just hoping to compete with good teams. They now approach these games against major conference programs, few as they might be for a WAC program, with every intention and expectation of winning them. But with those expectations come consequences when you don’t win. No one is going to give you credit anymore for a valiant effort or hanging close.

In sports, you most often see this intangible come up when talking about the postseason. Teams that have players with playoff experience are generally considered to have the upper hand over a team making its first trip, talent being equal. The spotlight, the distractions, and the pressure when certain situations arise can derail a good team not used to one game meaning so much. At the top of college football, a single loss can dash the hopes and goals of an entire season, and Boise certainly has those lofty aspirations this season. Having that – what it means to fail in the big game – in the back of your mind only adds to the pressure of the situation.

The stakes for Georgia are well-known. Everyone knows the wrath and scorn that awaits a ranked SEC team that dares to lose a game.

Putting such a label as the biggest in program history on this game sets Boise State up for quite a breakthrough if they can pull the upset in Athens. Everyone is talking about what a win would mean for the Broncos. “It’ll kind of set the tone for the way our season’s going to go. If we can run the table like we did last year, unless you get an Oklahoma and Southern Cal undefeated like last year, I don’t see how you could keep us out of the national championship,” dreamed quarterback Jared Zabransky.

But the same label also means something else. If everything – five 10+ win seasons since 1999 – has been building towards this moment and this game in Athens, what does it mean if you come up short?

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