Boise State has a vested interest in the Pac-12 North

Boise State
Photograph by MarcPiscotty/Icon Sportswire

When Oregon State stunned Cal on Oct. 8, earning the Beavers their first Pac-12 Conference win under head coach Gary Andersen, the Week 6 affair featured two big winners.

One was the obvious, Oregon State. The other was a Boise State team some 450 miles away from Reser Stadium and a few weeks removed from a 38-24 win over the Beavers.

Likewise, outside of Corvallis there may have been no bigger supporters of Oregon State’s near-miss, Top 25 upset bid of Utah in Week 7 than the Boise State faithful. Broncos backers can take similar interest in the Pac-12 North race for the rest of the season.

Beyond maintaining a perfect record — a stiff challenge in its own right, and more on that in a moment — the Pac-12 North has the most profound impact on determining Boise State’s postseason fate.

Developments in recent weeks have moved Boise State near the front of the Group of Five chase for the New Year’s Six bowl bid. Front-runner Houston lost at Navy, which was freshly removed from a lopsided loss to rival Air Force.

The Broncos draw Air Force on Black Friday in a contest that, if Boise State were to add to a perfect record, would place it in front of Houston. A Cougar loss to Louisville wouldn’t hurt Boise State in that regard, either.

But Boise State isn’t necessarily a clear-cut leader at this juncture. Another group of Broncos — those from Western Michigan — have moved up to No. 20 in the most recent Associated Press Top 25.

P.J. Fleck has his WMU Broncos unbeaten at 7-0, rolling off wins by double digits almost every week, and boasting a pair of victories against Big Ten opponents.

Western Michigan’s two Big Ten wins are noteworthy when stacking up the Broncos’ resume against Boise State’s, in part because the Big Ten is widely considered the better league this season.

Credit the Big Ten’s top-heavy standings, with Ohio State and Michigan jockeying for College Football Playoff positioning, and Wisconsin demonstrably not far behind either. On the flip-side, blame the Pac-12’s lack of a clear power team, save Washington. But the Huskies’ current status as the Pac-12’s sole hope for a playoff berth is of interest to Boise State.

Like Boise State, Washington has designs on entering Thanksgiving unbeaten. The Broncos’ former head coach Chris Petersen losing then could do wonders for current head coach Bryan Harsin’s squad, with Washington visiting Washington State’s Martin Stadium for the Apple Cup.

More than state bragging rights may be on the line in that one, should both Washington and Washington State’s current trajectories continue. The homestanding Cougars could well be playing for the Pac-12 North, a rather shocking development after an 0-2 start to their campaign.

The second of those two losses came in Week 2 at Boise State.

Indeed, while Western Michigan may boast wins over the more celebrated power conference at this juncture, Boise State has the more impressive win, with Washington State surging since Week 2. The Cougars’ wins, including blowouts of Oregon and Stanford and a dominant performance against UCLA, have them just outside the Top 25.

October 1, 2016: Washington State Cougars quarterback Luke Falk (4) during the game between Oregon Ducks and the Washington State Cougars at the Martin Stadium in Pullman, Washington. (Photo by Steve Conner/Icon Sportswire)

October 1, 2016: Washington State Cougars quarterback Luke Falk (4) during the game between Oregon Ducks and the Washington State Cougars at the Martin Stadium in Pullman, Washington. (Photo by Steve Conner/Icon Sportswire)

Like Washington State, Northwestern recovered from a non-conference slate that included losses to a Group of Five power and an FCS opponent; Illinois State in the Wildcats’ case, Eastern Washington in the Cougars’. However, Northwestern sits at 3-3 overall with a treacherous road to travel in the Big Ten West — particularly given its loss at home to Nebraska.

Washington State has the potential to evolve into a truly marquee win for Boise State. Should the Broncos maintain an unblemished record and the Cougars win the Pac-12, neither feat is out of the question, Boise State suddenly has an argument for playoff inclusion that’s worth at least entertaining.

Remaining perfect is pretty integral to that equation, of course, and it hasn’t been easy for Boise State thus far.

Washington State was the first of three Bronco wins by 11 points or fewer, including last Saturday’s 28-23 escape against a 3-4 Colorado State team. Narrow defeats of the Cougars, Rams and Mountain division counterpart Utah State may serve Boise State well in Week 8, which looks like the Broncos’ highest hurdle for the remainder of the regular season.

BSU rolls out the blue carpet for BYU, which has had a knack for playing close games. The Cougars beat Mississippi State in two overtimes last Friday, the sixth single-digit decision for BYU on the season.

Boise State knows all about BYU nail-biters. The Cougars stunned the Broncos last September in Provo on a Hail Mary in the final minute of regulation.

BYU is the next name on Boise State’s revenge tour. The Broncos already made up for 2015 losses against New Mexico and Utah State. In over a month, they’ll close out with the aforementioned Air Force contest. Should they run the table, it will mark the first time Boise State’s navigated a perfect regular season since 2009, when BSU opened the campaign by beating eventual Pac-10 champion Oregon.

In that regard, there’s precedent for the teams of the Pac-12 to impact Boise State’s postseason outlook. Washington State contending for a league crown and Oregon State showing continuous improvement both elevate the Broncos in a way the Broncos’ conference won’t.

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