For the second time in a month, the Kibbie Dome will play host to an opponent carrying the sort of national respect and recognition that mid-major programs rarely receive. Both of those opponents have a few things in common — quarterbacks who will play on Sundays in the very near future and a legitimate possibility of cracking the BCS picture come December.
Northern Illinois and Fresno State are, bar none, the nation’s best mid-major programs, this season.
Flip the calendar back three years ago and you’ll find another common denominator — close and competitive football games with the University of Idaho. The Vandals one-upped the Huskies in a 2009 DeKalb, Ill., heart-stopper but came out on the wrong end of another gut-wrenching finish in a 23-20 loss to Fresno State one year later.
The separation between the Vandals and their newly-crowned mid-major heavyweights commenced almost immediately.
NIU went 11-3 one year after losing to the Vandals, while Fresno State finished the 2010 season 8-4. Naturally, the Huskies and Bulldogs would meet in the Humanitarian Bowl, where NIU routed Fresno State 40-17.
It’d be unjust to say the Vandals could be on the same national platform, had they nipped Fresno State in 2010 and advanced to a second straight bowl game. The Bulldogs and Huskies were blessed with two of the nation’s top quarterback prospects in Derek Carr and Jordan Lynch.
That’s not to say, it wouldn’t be intriguing to ponder what could’ve been had a few more things fallen into place.
But now Idaho looks up in awe at Fresno State, a program that has done far more right than wrong since the two last met in 2011. That was the last time they would clash as members of the Western Athletic Conference.
The relationship they share is that of a little brother and big brother. Idaho needs a role model of some sort and Fresno State can act as that older sibling. The Vandals surely have a ceiling — undefeated football and BCS bowls aren’t in the cards at the moment, nor will they be within the next five years. The Bulldogs aren’t quite there yet either, but their model is one that a large portion of FBS mid-majors can and should follow.
Franchise quarterbacks are seldom seen in the “second tier” of the FBS ranks. The Derek Carrs and Jordan Lynchs of the world don’t often sit on Mountain West and Mid-American doorsteps and Idaho shouldn’t expect to be gifted one.
What it should expect is a legitimate shot at finishing near the top of a weak Sun Belt Conference, a season from now.
But rebuilding and continuity are synonymous when it comes to college football. Fresno State’s rise to national prominence has come after the Bulldogs have missed out on just two bowl games in the new millennium.
Whatever’s in the water down in the California’s Central Valley, Rob Spear and Paul Petrino should take a sip.
If anything, give FSU Athletic Director Thomas Boeh a ring and be sure to take notes.
Theo Lawson can be firstname.lastname@example.org