There were college football thrillers in Reno, Nevada, and Fort Worth, Texas, last weekend. You were probably only watching one.
The latter captured the attention of the entire sport, as TCU knocked out Oklahoma, 37-33, to improve to 4-0 and jump into the top 10 in the national rankings. But the former was just as exciting.
In Reno, Boise State held off a late comeback attempt from Nevada to win, 51-46. It was an exciting football game, but you'd have to dig through scores to find it, far from the glow of the Horned Frogs, who were plastered on the fronts of websites all across America.
TCU is a Big 12 contender with another headliner on the way. The Horned Frogs are ranked in the top 10, while Boise State, which used to occupy the rankings, is a middling mid-major that's a few days removed from losing to Air Force.
It's a stunning change five years in the making for two programs that met on one of the biggest stages in college football in January 2010.
That game, the 2009 season's Fiesta Bowl, was dubbed as the championship of the mid-majors. It probably shouldn't have happened. The college football world wanted to see a matchup of Florida, Penn State, Georgia Tech, or Iowa against one of the little guys. But instead, we got No. 4 TCU vs. No. 6 Boise State, two programs that had proved they were majors, at least for the time being.
NFL mainstays Andy Dalton and Doug Martin recorded points. The game racked up a solid Nielsen rating of 8.2, which was on par or better than most of the other major bowl games of its era, and it was more entertaining than most of the other BCS games that season.
Boise State gained its second BCS bowl win in four seasons, and seemed to have established its staying power. But five years later, it's TCU that's living it up among the riches of power college football, while the Broncos are stuck in place.
How did we get here? It's been an eventful five years.
There are other substantive ties that made TCU a better fit to make it to college football's big-time than Boise State, but the Horned Frogs' run up college football's ladder might be best attributed to good timing. Whereas Boise State arguably peaked with that 14-0 season in 2009, TCU one-upped its own Fiesta Bowl run the next year, with a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.
Already an attractive team to major conferences due to its location, TCU was in play during the biggest conference realignment in recent history. The Horned Frogs had committed to join the Big East a month before their Rose Bowl win, and while the Big East was a step up from the Mountain West, realignment back on the Plains provided more enticing options.
With Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M and Missouri all leaving, the Big 12 needed to add two teams to continue to be a viable conference. TCU was rising again at just the right time, and unlike Boise State or Utah, it provided more than just on-field success. The Horned Frogs fit in geographically with the Big 12, allowed the league to further supplant itself in Texas, and had been conference-mates with many Big 12 teams back in the days of the old Southwest Conference.
As the pieces moved, TCU left the Big East for the Big 12 before its first move had even happened. Utah went to the Pac-12. Boise State, which had joined the Mountain West in hopes of strengthening its schedule with teams like TCU and Utah, was left with an invitation to the collapsing Big East.
Despite both teams' success in the previous years, and despite Boise State's proven ability to captivate a national audience, TCU always had a better chance of upward mobility. Some of it was luck, some of it was timing, but TCU's rise, coinciding with Boise State being left behind, showed that staying power went beyond wins and losses. This was obvious throughout conference realignment, but it's still stunning just how quickly the Horned Frogs separated themselves, while the Broncos were left behind.
Even when TCU entered the Big 12, there were questions. Could this program sustain the momentum it had built in the Mountain West? Could it ever be as dominant in the Big 12 as it was in the Mountain West?
The transition was a bit rocky.
The Horned Frogs began the 2012 season ranked 20th in the AP Poll, and they reached as high as 15th, before falling to 7-6 and a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Michigan State. 2013 was even worse, as injuries sent TCU to a 4-8 record with a number of close losses to top teams, but no good wins.
But while Boise State put together a two-loss 2012 season that ended in a top-15 finish in the Coaches Poll, and a still-respectable 8-5 (6-2) finish in 2013, it was clear that the tide had already permanently shifted in TCU's favor.
Since TCU's announcement of the Big 12 move in October 2011, the Horned Frogs appear to have received a recruiting boost:
|Year||TCU 247Sports Composite ranking|
A recruiting advantage is the most important advantage a team can have, and TCU took advantage of that in its move to the Big 12. Meanwhile, Boise State was not afforded that luxury, and has seen no significant bump since moving from the WAC to the Mountain West in 2011.
|Year||Boise 247Sports Composite ranking|
The recruiting advantage may be missing from Boise State, but it's setting TCU up for longterm success. That's become obvious this season, as the recruits from the solid classes of 2011, 2012, and 2013 mature. With winning will come more recruiting success, and with the Big 12 has come more stability.
Up in Boise, the longterm is looking bleaker by the season. Star coach Chris Petersen took off for Washington. The power conferences, in which TCU is nested firmly with support, are giving themselves more advantages to separate themselves from schools like the Broncos. Just half a decade removed from coming so close to the big stage, Boise State president Bob Kustra is bitter.
Kustra has been a staunch critic of the BCS and high-resource school spending in the past. On Wednesday he accused most of the reforms of being a guise for those large schools "to outspend their Division I colleagues."
He said "absurd specialization in staffing and coaching accounts" is a problem.
"How embarrassing to spend all that money and then have someone with half the budget or less beat you on Saturday," Kustra wrote.
And who can blame him, having to watch TCU secure its spot among the big boys? That it happened so quickly and without much of a fight is even more astounding.
This week, TCU will play Baylor in a top-10 matchup that could decide the outcome of the Big 12. The Horned Frogs couldn't have dreamed of this stage five years ago, not even after their first BCS bowl bid. Back in Boise, the Broncos will take on Fresno State in a game inconsequential outside of the Mountain West.