End of rebel era for TCU, Boise State

FORT WORTH, Texas -- A big-time college football battle is on tap Saturday afternoon starring the predominant little-sister schools that together have continually rocked the BCS hierarchy and reshaped the public's perception of the entire system.

The Mountain West Conference championship will likely be decided on Boise State's blue turf as the nation's perennial non-AQ powers, the TCU Horned Frogs (7-2, 4-0) and the No. 5 Broncos (8-0, 3-0), tangle for a fourth time since their introduction at the Fort Worth Bowl in 2003 just as both were unsuspectingly building programs that would soon start taking down the game's giants and rattling the BCS cage.

This third meeting in the last four years, and the first since the Fiesta Bowl's shameful pairing of the two in the 2010 game, marks their first non-bowl encounter and, obviously, first as conference foes.

And therefore it comes with a bit of irony. For two schools that have largely paralleled one another in their national rise and torment of the BCS, a conference game is detrimental to the rebel cause.

TCU, relegated to a non-BCS bowl this season after its Rose Bowl championship in January, seeks a win that would prevent Boise from a second BCS berth in three years and a third in six years.

A Boise victory would not only keeps its BCS aspirations alive, but would again spark debate on the validity of a little sister playing in the national championship game.

Perhaps, more than anything else, this matchup also comes with a measure of sentimentality. This first and last conference meeting would appear to be the last of any kind between TCU and Boise State for the foreseeable future.

"But," Boise coach Chris Petersen said, "who knows how these things keep turning out?"

Yes, there is no predicting anything in these shifting sands of conference realignment, but the sadness here relates not so much to the end of this mini-rivalry as it does to the end of an era.

These so-called little sisters, the mighty underdogs that spawned rooting interests far beyond their fan bases, made the despised BCS ranking system more riveting from week to week, and spurred national discourse from the inequities of the BCS to Boise's and TCU's credentials to vie for a championship.

TCU is leaving the lowly non-AQ world for the Big 12 next season, and Boise State is mulling an offer to migrate to the Big East. Both are obvious moves because they put the schools in the all-important AQ conferences where they can showcase their programs on a grander scale and the institutions can reap tens of millions of dollars more in revenue.

Utah, a former BCS-buster in its own right, made the leap this year, abandoning the Mountain West for the immediate struggles in the Pac-12.

One by one, the rebels are joining the establishment. Again, those are wise business decisions, but as long as the BCS is here, these defections will dull college football, if even just a bit. The underdogs will be gone and so, too, will the incessant flashpoints of debate they stirred.

"Boise changed the landscape of college football back in 2005 when they beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that. I know Chris probably doesn't, in his way, he doesn't say anything, but it changed."

The Frogs did their part by beating Big Ten co-champ Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl in January, batting down a pass attempt in the end zone to secure the historic victory. TCU has defeated an AQ team in nine consecutive seasons, but that streak's only chance at staying alive would have to come in a bowl game after Baylor's 50-48 season-opening win in Waco.

In September, Boise State traveled to Atlanta and knocked off the SEC's Georgia Bulldogs. Last year it was Washington, D.C., to beat the ACC's Virginia Tech Hokies. The two previous seasons, the Pac-12's Oregon Ducks were twice victimized.

Starting next season for TCU and likely Boise, too, those types of victories won't be celebrated as David vs. Goliath triumphs, but rather essential steps to contend for conference championships, let alone national crystal.

A year ago, Boise and then TCU dominated the discussion as each made statements for national title consideration. The Broncos bowed out after a shocking defeat at Nevada the day after Thanksgiving. TCU needed Oregon or Auburn to lose for a possible top-two ranking in the BCS standings as public sentiment -- and disgust -- grew louder in favor of a title spot reserved for a little sister.

Boise, with a convincing win over the Frogs on Saturday, would again be at the center of that debate -- perhaps for the last time.

"To tell you the truth, and this is the honest-to-God truth, I just don't think about things like that," Petersen said. "All we think about is just trying to win and to do our best and we always tell our guys that. It doesn't really matter what conference we play in, it's just about controlling what we can control and if we do well and play to our potential and are consistent, then good things will happen for us and this program.

"And so all this stuff that has swirled around us, I just really have not got caught up in that at all. So many other people have and make a big deal about it, but it just has not been a big deal to us."

If Boise State does join a watered-down Big East, it will have the easier road back to the BCS than TCU playing in the meatier Big 12.

"The bottom line to it is to keep longevity as a coach and as a program to move forward, you need those things to happen," Patterson said of the Frogs' move to the Big 12.

With some sadness from afar, the curtain appears to be closing on the little-sister era for two of the teams most responsible for fanning the flames of BCS discontent.

Saturday's showdown should be quite the capper before these rebels officially latch onto the establishment.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com.