Game of the future

There's a lot on the line for the Broncos when they play the Bulldogs on Sept. 3. Illustration by Jan Feindt for ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the September 5, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

The sun has just begun its assault on the desert surrounding the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas and already Chris Petersen, the Boise State coach, has finished one cup of coffee and one interview in what will be a long day full of both. "I hate these things," he says.

Petersen is referring to the Mountain West Conference media day, filled with questions he is unwilling or unable to answer -- the expansive, reflective, season-defining types that generate only drama. In moments like these, the angular Petersen, with the commander-tight lip, likes to remind everybody he is just a football coach. He is not much for the politics and maddening math surrounding the BCS. "I just have no control over that," he says.

Oh, but he does. More than he may like. Boise State's season opener on Sept. 3 against Georgia is an ESPN showcase at the sold-out Georgia Dome. It's the Broncos' first game as members of the Mountain West and a chance for them to get their first win against an SEC team. The Broncos, 7-4 in bowl games since 1999, are used to the spotlight. But the tenor and tension surrounding this game are different. Nothing less than the future of the MWC may be on the line.

At the end of this season, the BCS will evaluate the four-year performances of the five conferences that are not BCS-bowl eligible, including the MWC, and determine which, if any, should be granted an automatic berth into BCS bowl games for the next two years. At the end of 2013, the BCS will do another evaluation, this time of all 11 NCAA conferences, to see which will get those automatic berths from 2014 to 2017.

What goes into the four-year evaluation? The BCS looks at three criteria for each conference: the average rank of its highest-rated team; average computer ranking of all its teams; and the percentage of its teams that rank in the Top 25. To be an automatic qualifier, a conference must be among the top six in the first two categories and roughly half as good as the best conference in the third category.

Brad Edwards, BCS analyst for ESPN, says the MWC ranks fourth in the first category and fifth in the third. But it ranks a distant seventh in the average computer ranking of its teams. "The Mountain West really lacks depth," Edwards says. "It has too many teams year after year that are in the lower tier of the nation, which drags it down."

That's among the reasons the conference needs the Broncos to lift it up. So a season-opening defeat to the Bulldogs could derail not only Boise State's chances at a BCS bowl game this season but the chances the MWC has of an invite to college football's New Year's party.