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How Boise State adds up to No. 1 in the nation

The cool-downs after Boise State practices this summer didn’t require an ice tub. Defensive end Ryan Winterswyk and teammates simply ran out of Bronco Stadium and jumped in the Boise River.

Boise State is preseason No.1?

Yeah, we know — go jump in a river.

Why the Broncos? And why now?

The time has come to say fair’s fair.

This has actually been years the making — born of the brow sweat of thousands who dared to dream. “There are people who came long before I got here to set this up,” Winterswyk said.

Reaching the prove-it pinnacle has been a junior college, Division II, I-AA and K2 climb, given that Boise State began in 1892 as an all-girls school (St. Margaret’s Hall), was a junior college until 1965 and did not start playing major-division football until 1996.

The conspiracy that is college football would never allow this to happen — or so the politicians have argued.

The Bowl Championship Series, “rigged” in 1998 by major conference fat cats, was a monopolistic system designed to keep schools such as Boise State out of the national title game.

So where’s your lawsuit if Boise State wins it?

The getting-here took years of resume building, obstacle jumping and perfect-storm timing.

Alas, Boise State could not be denied. Not with some 20 starters returning off a 14-0 team that won the Fiesta Bowl and finished No. 4 in the rankings.

In college football, which has no playoffs, where you start is directly tied to where you finish.

Of course, not everyone is on board. USA Today’s voting coaches have Boise State at No. 5, a peg lower than where the Broncos finished in the final 2009 coaches poll.

Wait a minute: Boise State returns almost everyone off a 14-0 team and starts at No. 5. Alabama loses nearly everyone on defense and checks in as a near-unanimous No. 1?

Old-school biases, though, cannot derail this possibility: For the first time in BCS history, one of the have-nots has a chance to have it.

“The landscape of college football continues to change,” Boise State Coach Chris Petersen said. “For us to play in two BCS games in the last few years, I don’t think many people thought that was ever going to happen eight years ago.”

Boise State is No. 1 because it hammered and nailed until the bridge-to-somewhere was complete. The national christening came with its stunning 2007 Fiesta Bowl victory against Oklahoma.

Earning today’s respect took the Broncos winning 112 games from 2000 through 2009, the most in a decade since Yale had 116 in the 1890s. It took defeating Oregon, the eventual Pacific 10 Conference champion, last year on opening night, and undefeated Texas Christian in the Fiesta Bowl on closing night.

Boise State is No. 1 also knowing it could be over by Monday. Any chance of staying in title contention requires a win against top-10 Virginia Tech on Labor Day at FedEx Field in Maryland.

Big-conference schools can often overcome an early loss and stay in the BCS chase. In 2007, two-loss Louisiana State won the BCS title.

Boise State has no wiggle room. This is the Broncos’ one shot — maybe ever, as the school prepares a move next year from the Western Athletic Conference to the tougher Mountain West.

“Every year it seems like the pressure continues to build and gets worse that it was before,” Petersen said. “But this is how we’ve always felt. To not overwhelm ourselves, we focus in on our day-to-day operations.”

The pressure this time, though, is different.

Boise State is used to being background scenery, not the cover boys for Sports Illustrated’s college football edition.

Seeing yourself on a magazine rack can be an out-of-uniform experience. “You don’t want to be on the cover of SI and then go blow it all,” Winterswyk said.

Gene Bleymaier, the school’s longtime athletic director, summed it up this way: “Up to now we’ve tried to prove everyone wrong,” he said. “Now we’re going to try and prove everyone right.”

There is no cookie-cutter explanation for the Broncos’ rise other than to say winning is in their blue blood. It started at the JC level with Coach Lyle Smith, who went 153-25-6 from 1947 to 1967.

Bleymaier, who played football at UCLA in the early 1970s before coming to Boise in 1981, said former UCLA coach Terry Donahue always told him Boise State was a sleeping giant.

Success in the big leagues is owed to a continuity of succession that started with Dirk Koetter in 1998. He went 26-19 in three years before leaving to become coach at Arizona State. Koetter handed the keys to assistant Dan Hawkins, who went 53-11 in five years and then handed off to assistant Petersen, who has gone 49-4 in four years, with undefeated seasons in 2006 and 2009.

“We’re all kind of the same guy,” Petersen of the lineage.

There is a Boise philosophy. The Broncos have an uncanny knack of identifying under-the-radar, blue-collar players and developing them into stars.

The Broncos found Ian Johnson, the hero of the Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, while scouting a player who would end up at Oregon. Winterswyk, the team’s star defensive end, was a safety at La Habra High who was ready to suit up for Fullerton College when Boise offered him a chance. He was converted to defensive end and has become an All-WAC performer.

Kellen Moore grew up in eastern Washington with his sights set on Washington State, but the Pac-10 traditionally looks down on quarterbacks under 6 feet. Yet, in two seasons at Boise State, Moore has completed 66.7% of his passes for 7,022 yards with 64 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions.

Boise State, if necessary, will use GPS to recruit. There are players from the Netherlands; South Africa; Windsor, Canada; and Bakersfield.

Geraldo Hiwat, a redshirt freshman receiver from Holland, followed junior Cedric Febis, who earlier blazed the trail from Amsterdam. “I didn’t really know about Boise,” Hiwat said. “But when I found out about Cedric, I looked it up.”

Hiwat played five-man tackle football back home but caught Boise’s attention at a summer camp and now has chance to contribute to something special. “I didn’t even know they were good,” he said of his school.

Boise State’s taste of the top could be over by Labor Day — but that’s not the point.

For years, Boise was finished before it started.

No one is handing the Broncos anything this year either, except the only thing they’ve ever asked for: a chance.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/dufresnelatimes


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