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 As much as Western Athletic Conference teams would prefer a guaranteed ticket to the BCS, the WAC is doing just fine getting there the hard way.
It's good to be the WAC these days.
A WAC team has been in a Bowl Championship Series game each of the last two years and will be trying to beat the system and the big leagues again. The new national baseball champion (Fresno State) also hails from the WAC, leaving the conference on a high as football season approaches.
But football is the game WAC teams have established themselves as perennial pests to schools that have much higher profiles and bigger budgets.
``A lot of teams don't respect the WAC for some reason. I don't know why,'' Fresno State tight end Bear Pascoe said. ``We've got great teams. We've got great athletes.''
Pascoe's classmates on the Fresno State baseball team backed his argument in June by winning the College World Series, upsetting Georgia - from the powerhouse Southeastern Conference - for the championship.
The Fresno State Bulldogs were picked by the WAC coaches as the preseason football favorite and Boise State was No. 1 in the media poll.
The goal is to win the league, then hope for an invitation to the BCS. Champions from the non-automatic qualifying leagues such as the WAC can earn automatic berths by it's not easy. Only three teams have busted the BCS (Utah from the Mountain West was first in 2004) and in all three cases it took an unbeaten record to crack the lineup.
Hawaii went 12-0 during the regular season last year and went to the Sugar Bowl, where the Warriors were humbled in a 41-10 loss to Georgia. It was a setback for the WAC's national image, but one that could easily be made up with another season like Boise State had two years ago.
The Broncos' overtime over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl and assortment of trick plays to complete it affirmed Boise State - and the WAC - as legitimate threats to college football's bluebloods.
``It's closing the gap that everyone believes is there,'' said Boise State running back Ian Johnson, who scored on the gutsy 2-point conversion call that beat the Sooners.
Sure, it was two years ago. But few have forgotten what the Broncos did and perhaps started with the Fiesta Bowl appearance.
If the WAC gets a third straight BCS berth, nobody will be able to say it's because of a soft nonconference schedule. Fresno State opens at Rutgers and also faces Wisconsin and UCLA. And the Bulldogs have to close the regular season on the blue turf of Boise, where the Broncos haven't lost a regular season game since 2001.
Boise State's nonconference schedule includes visits to Oregon and Southern Miss as the Broncos try to quickly replace large chunks of their traditionally high-powered offense. Gone are quarterback Taylor Tharp and five other offensive starters, including left tackle Ryan Clady - the first Bronco to leave school early for the NFL. He was the 12th overall pick in the draft.
Coach Chris Petersen said Clady's draft position is an indicator of how far the Broncos' success - much like their preseason position as one of the favorites despite having a new quarterback and four new starters on the offensive line.
``I hate the polls. I'd like to be picked right about the middle of the pack, then we just go do our thing,'' Petersen said. ``Would I pick us second? Heck, I don't know.''
A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
FRESNO STATE - Key players: QB Tom Brandstater, Sr.; TE Bear Pascoe, Sr. Returning starters: 10 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: After going 4-8 in 2006 - coach Pat Hill's first losing season since 1998 - Fresno State went 9-4 last fall and is looking to win the league for the first time since tying for the 1999 championship. If the Bulldogs make it through the nonconference season without a loss, they'll be making a run for the BCS.
BOISE STATE - Key players RB Ian Johnson, Sr.; OT Andrew Woodruff, Sr.; K Kyle Brotzman, So. Returning starters: 4 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: The Broncos slipped from the top of the WAC last year, but to No. 2. ... Johnson has rushed for 3,417 yards and scored 45 career touchdowns.
NEVADA - Key players: QB Colin Kaepernick, So.; QB Nick Graziano, Jr.; RB Luke Lippincott. Returning starters: 8 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: The Wolf Pack attack could have a diverse look behind Kaepernick and Graziano. Graziano was the starter a year ago, but a foot injury ended his season five games in and Kaepernick took over - playing well enough to be named WAC freshman of the year. At 6-foot-6, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Graziano, but still raw.
LOUISIANA TECH - Key players: RB Patrick Johnson, Sr.; S Antonio Baker, Jr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: In his first season, coach Derek Dooley took the Bulldogs from 3-10 to 5-7 and 4-4 in the WAC. ... Johnson needs 1,170 rushing yards to break the school record.
HAWAII - Key players: LB Solomon Elimimian, Sr.; LB Adam Leonard, Sr.; QB Inoke Funaki, Jr. Returning starters: 4 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: New coach Greg McMackin inherits a team that averaged 43 points and 512 yards per game last season, but is missing much of the 2007 offense. Colt Brennan, who passed for 4,343 yards and 38 touchdowns, and 13 other starters are gone. ... Hawaii has a tough stretch in October with a visit to Boise State followed by a home game against Nevada.
NEW MEXICO STATE - Key players: QB Chase Holbrook, Sr.; WR Chris Williams, Sr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Holbrook passed for 3,866 yards and 26 touchdowns as a junior and gets his top receiver back in Williams, who caught 11 touchdowns in eight games then missed the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. ... The Aggies are trying to end a 48-year postseason drought. Their last bowl appearance was the Sun Bowl in 1960.
SAN JOSE STATE - Key players: WR Kevin Jurovich, Sr.; CB Christopher Owens, Sr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: The Spartans ended a five-year run of losing seasons in 2006 by going 9-4, but slipped back to 5-7 last fall. ... San Jose committed 14 only turnovers in 2007 - including just three lost fumbles.
UTAH STATE - Key players: QB Sean Setzer, Sr.; LB Jake Hutton, Sr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: The Aggies were outscored 406-247 last year and are 6-29 in three seasons under coach Brent Guy. Utah State has six home games for the first time in 10 years.
IDAHO - Key players: RB Deonte Jackson, So.; LB JoJo Dickson, So. Returning starters: 11 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: Coach Robb Akey begins his second season with the Vandals still looking for his first WAC win. Idaho was 1-11 in Akey's debut. ... The Vandals have not had a winning season since going 7-4 in 1999.

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