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September 2, 2011

Big game for Boise may be bigger for UGA

The same year that Boise State established itself as college football's most dangerous upstart with its Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma, the SEC began its string of five consecutive national titles.

Ever since, the two camps have engaged in one of college football's biggest arguments: How might Boise State fare in the rough-and-tumble world of the SEC?

Five years later, we'll finally get a Boise State vs. SEC matchup that could help settle the argument, even if Georgia's 14-12 record over the past two seasons hardly qualifies it as a top SEC program. The game's most notable BCS-crasher finally matches up against the nation's premier conference Saturday night at the Georgia Dome.

Making the game even more enticing is that both teams desperately need a win. Boise State opens each season knowing one loss will knock it out of contention for a BCS bid. The Broncos, ranked seventh in the coaches' poll, also have reason to believe they could have an outside shot at playing for the national title if they're one of only two unbeaten teams at the end of the regular season.

"I kind of feel the same as last year," Boise State tailback Doug Martin said. "We're just kind of lying in the weeds like we do every year."

This game could mean even more for Georgia, ranked 22nd in the coaches' poll. The Bulldogs are trying to erase the memories of last season's 6-7 disaster, which marked their first losing record since 1996. A victory over a top-10 opponent would give Georgia a shot of adrenaline heading into next week's SEC opener against defending East Division champion South Carolina. A loss would have the Bulldogs staring at the realistic possibility of a 0-2 start.

"We want to show everybody how hard we've worked this offseason and get this program back on track," Georgia center Ben Jones said. "6-7's not acceptable here at Georgia."

This game also is important for Georgia coach Mark Richt. Hailed as one of the best coaches in the country after leading Georgia to two SEC titles and six seasons of double-digit wins in his first eight years on the job, Richt now finds himself on the hot seat. He scheduled this game in part because he thought a victory over Boise State could change the perception of Georgia as a program on the decline.

"I don't personally think that the season is riding on the one game," Richt said. "It's really not. It's a game that we absolutely want to win. It's a game that we expect to win. ... It really has no bearing on the Southeastern Conference race, so it doesn't really get in the way of that goal."

The idea that Georgia needed to beat Boise State to gain nationwide respect underscores how much things have changed since the Bulldogs throttled the Broncos 48-13 in the 2005 opener.

This marks the first time since that Boise State has faced an SEC opponent, but neither team is thinking much about what happened in 2005. Boise State has won two Fiesta Bowls since then. In its past two openers, Boise State has knocked off BCS-bound teams from Oregon and Virginia Tech. Boise State's only loss in the past two seasons was last November's 34-31 overtime decision at Nevada in which former Broncos kicker Kyle Brotzman missed a 26-yard field goal at the end of regulation.

That 48-13 shellacking happened six years ago. As far as the Bulldogs and Broncos are concerned, it may as well have occurred 50 years ago.

"You might hear on Twitter or Facebook some older guys, something like about that," Jones said, "but on campus everybody knows it's a new Boise team and a new Georgia team. Every year's different."

This season, Boise State has more star power than the Bulldogs. Senior quarterback Kellen Moore finished fourth in last season's Heisman balloting. Martin, senior offensive tackle Nate Potter and senior defensive tackle Billy Winn joined Moore on the Rivals.com preseason All-America team. The only Georgia players to make that team were kicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler, though Jones did make Rivals' list of the nation's top 100 players.

Boise State arguably has bigger names and greater experience on its roster, but Georgia likely has more depth and talent across the board. That's just a fact of life when any team from outside the six major conferences - even one as potent as Boise State - is facing an SEC program.

"They're just bigger and faster than we are," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said, "and bigger and faster than [what] we normally see."

Sure, the Bulldogs are bigger and faster than Boise State. But are they better? We'll find out Saturday.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Boise State rush offense vs. Georgia rush defense: Doug Martin is back for Boise State after rushing for 1,260 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. The return of LG Joe Kellogg and C Thomas Byrd should give Martin plenty of running room in the interior of the line, though the Broncos are breaking in two new starters on the right side. Georgia is counting on the emergence of NT Kwame Geathers to help strengthen a defense that allowed South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore, Auburn's Cam Newton, Colorado's Rodney Stewart, Florida's Trey Burton, Georgia Tech's Anthony Allen, Mississippi State's Chris Relf and UCF's Latavius Murray to exceed the 100-yard mark last season. The addition of junior college transfer Jonathan Jenkins at nose tackle also could help, though he might need some time to develop. Edge: Boise State.

Boise State pass offense vs. Georgia pass defense: Boise State QB Kellen Moore is a proven winner and arguably the best quarterback in the country other than Stanford's Andrew Luck, but the Broncos' lack of experienced receivers could cause him to struggle Saturday. Matt Miller has talent, but how long will it take him to develop chemistry with Moore? Boise State's receiving corps took a hit Friday with the announcement that Geraldo Boldewijn would sit out the Georgia game while the NCAA reviews his eligibility. Don't be surprised if Moore throws often to senior WR Tyler Shoemaker and senior TE Kyle Efaw if only because he's more familiar with them. Boise State's young receivers will be working against a veteran Georgia secondary that features senior CB Brandon Boykin. The question for Georgia is whether it can mount much of a pass rush now that Justin Houston has moved on to the NFL. Georgia doesn't return anyone who collected more than two sacks last season. Preseason All-America OT Nate Potter heads a Boise State line that protects its quarterback as well as just about any school in the country. Edge: Boise State.

Georgia rush offense vs. Boise State rush defense: This matchup is the game's biggest mystery. Georgia's top two running backs are a converted linebacker (Richard Samuel) and a true freshman (Isaiah Crowell). It's worth noting that Samuel actually started his college career at running back before moving to defense last season and that Crowell was one of the nation's most highly coveted running backs in the 2011 recruiting class. But we still have no idea how these guys will fare against a Boise State defensive line that ranks among the best in the nation. DTs Billy Winn and Chase Baker helped Boise State limit Virginia Tech's vaunted rushing attack to less than three yards per carry last fall. The Broncos aren't perfect against the run - they allowed Nevada to rush for 269 yards last year - but they have much more of a track record than Georgia's running backs. Edge: Boise State.

Georgia pass offense vs. Boise State pass defense: Aaron Murray heads into his sophomore season as the SEC's best quarterback, though he could need some time to adjust to life without star WR A.J. Green, the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Georgia doesn't have any Green-caliber receivers on its roster, but the Bulldogs do have one of the nation's best tight ends in Orson Charles. Senior FS George Iloka is an All-America candidate who leads a secondary that also has CB Jamar Taylor as a returning starter. Boise State ranked second nationally in pass efficiency defense last year, but they didn't face many quarterbacks in Murray's class. Two of the quality quarterbacks they faced last year - Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick - had solid performances. The key to this matchup could be how well Georgia's offensive line handles a Boise State defense that led the nation with 48 sacks last season. Edge: Georgia.

Boise State special teams vs. Georgia special teams: This could be the game's biggest mismatch. Georgia has the nation's best kicker/punter tandem in Blair Walsh and Drew Butler. Walsh is 8-of-12 on career field-goal attempts from at least 50 yards out. Butler won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter in 2009 and was a finalist for that honor last season. Boykin has three career 100-yard kickoff returns, and he issued a Tweet this week begging Boise State to kick the ball to him. Georgia also had excellent coverage units last season. Boise State will have a new kicker and a new punter this season. If this game is close, Georgia's significant special teams advantage could make the difference. Edge: Georgia.

Boise State coaching staff vs. Georgia coaching staff: Boise State coach Chris Petersen has a 61-5 career record and proved last season he can lead a team to a season-opening victory over a big-time opponent in hostile territory. Georgia coach Mark Richt is occupying one of the hottest seats in college football. Georgia has continuity on its staff with the return of offensive coordinator Mike Bobo - who has taken plenty of barbs from fans lately - and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. This will mark Brent Pease's first game as Boise State's offensive coordinator, as Texas hired away Bryan Harsin during the offseason. Edge: Boise State.

X-factor: Georgia lacks proven wide receivers - and Boise State is in a similar situation. But both teams have quality pass-catching tight ends. Boise State's Kyle Efaw caught five touchdown passes last season. Boise State also has Gabe Linehan, a second tight end who has shown plenty of promise in the preseason. Georgia's Orson Charles is an All-America candidate. As each quarterback attempts to develop chemistry with his new wide receivers, the tight ends for each team could get plenty of passes thrown in their direction Saturday.

Boise State will win if: The best way to deal with an unfriendly crowd is to take an early lead. That plan worked for the Broncos in last season's opener against Virginia Tech in Landover, Md. Boise State needs to get in front early again Saturday. Boise State can get that early lead by giving Moore time to throw. Boise State's veteran defensive line also must win its battle with Georgia's offensive line. The Broncos can't let the Bulldogs develop faith in their rushing attack.

Georgia will win if: As good as Murray is, he won't beat Boise State by himself. Georgia has to have a balanced offense. That means Samuels and Crowell are going to have to establish some semblance of a rushing attack. Georgia also must exploit its advantage in the kicking game. Butler needs to help Georgia win the battle of field position. And if this game comes down to a field goal - one way or the other - the Bulldogs have to like their chances.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Boise State 27, Georgia 17
Tom Dienhart: Georgia 31, Boise State 28
David Fox: Boise State 31, Georgia 24
Mike Huguenin: Boise State 27, Georgia 21
Steve Megargee: Georgia 27, Boise State 24

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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