ATHENS, Ga. (AP) – Utah showed that it’s possible for a lesser-known school from one of the so-called mid-major conferences to claim a spot among the BCS bigwigs. Rest assured, Boise State was paying attention.

The Broncos would like to play in one of those bowls with a revered name, such as Sugar or Fiesta. And there’s no better way to get started on what is no longer such an improbable quest than with a victory.

The opponent: No. 13 Georgia, a national powerhouse over the last three years. The site: Between the Hedges at Sanford Stadium, one of college football’s most storied venues,

If Boise State wins, everyone will have to acknowledge they’re more than just a flashy offense with a blue field.

“We’ve pushed our guys harder than we ever have before,” coach Dan Hawkins said. “We have a decent amount of talent and experience. We’ve played in a decent amount of big games. We’ll go down there and cut it loose.”

Boise State was in the running for a Bowl Championship Series berth last year, going 11-0 during the regular season. But the strength of schedule wasn’t on par with Utah’s, so it was the Utes who claimed a spot among the big boys in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Broncos settled for the Liberty Bowl, gaining plenty of respect even though their 22-game winning streak ended with a 44-40 loss to Louisville.

At No. 18, the Broncos have their first preseason ranking since the school moved to Division I-A nine years ago.

Imagine what a win over the Bulldogs would do for Boise State’s reputation.

“They’re strong, fast, talented, well-coached – all of the above,” Hawkins said.

Georgia can’t let itself get caught up in Boise State’s feel-good story. Sure, much of the nation would probably like to see the Broncos pull off an upset. But the Bulldogs, coming off their third straight Top 10 finish, have some pretty lofty goals in mind, too.

“If they beat us, it would be their biggest victory ever,” safety Greg Blue said. “But it means a lot to us, too. We’re trying to get a national championship.”

Boise State appears to be catching Georgia at a good time. The Bulldogs must replace several key players, including David Greene, the winningest quarterback in Division I-A history, and defensive stalwarts Thomas Davis and David Pollack, who both went in the first round of the NFL draft.

But they’ve gotten used to winning in these parts, going 34-6 over the last three years, capping off each season with a bowl win. Georgia has finished third, seventh and seventh in The Associated Press rankings during that span, a feat accomplished only one other time in school history (the Herschel Walker-era Bulldogs had four straight top 10 finishes at the start of the 1980s).

“We don’t feel like underdogs,” linebacker Tony Taylor said. “Some people may say that since we’ve got a lot of new faces all around the defense and everybody is trying to step up, but we don’t feel any weaker than last year.

Certainly, the Bulldogs don’t expect a major drop-off with D.J. Shockley at quarterback. The new starter is fully immersed in the offense, having spent the last three years backing up Greene and usually getting two or three series a game.

Georgia has only one loss outside the Southeastern Conference in Mark Richt’s four years as coach. But many of the 17 wins came against pushover teams.

Granted, Boise State is receiving $600,000 – its biggest check ever – and won’t get a return visit from Georgia as part of the deal. Still, the Broncos are a much better team than previous non-conference opponents such as Northwestern State or Middle Tennessee.

“Playing this team is like playing any other team in the SEC,” said defensive end Quentin Moses, who is taking Pollack’s spot in the lineup. “If you feel like you’re one of the best teams in the country, you want to play the best competition.”

Georgia will have its hands full with Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky, who directs an offense that put up a staggering 48.9 points per game last season, just behind Louisville for national scoring honors. The Broncos have all sorts of trick plays, fake punts and multiple motion from constantly shifting lineups, but that obscures what they really are – a very solid running team.

“They try to wear you down,” Blue said. “People fail to realize they run the ball good.”

Georgia is the first of two straight opponents from BCS-affiliated conferences on the Boise State schedule. Next week, the Broncos travel to Oregon State.

“If we beat Georgia Saturday, trust me, the headline Sunday is: Can you beat two BCS teams back to back?”‘ Hawkins said. “No matter what happens, two minutes after Georgia, I’m going to say, Guys we got Oregon State.”‘


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