On the surface, the Week 1 matchup pitting Bryan Harsin against Hugh Freeze is a clash of two head coaches in similar situations. Freeze took over at Ole Miss in 2012, one season removed from winning a Sun Belt Conference championship at Arkansas State. Likewise, Harsin begins his tenure at Boise State fresh off winning a league title with the RedWolves.
Freeze even advised Harsin when the then-Texas offensive coordinator was a candidate to replace Gus Malzahn at Arkansas State.
“I talked with [Harsin] several times during the search,” Freeze said at SEC media days. “Coach Harsin called me and asked me what I thought…I don’t know what impact that had on his issue, but I was glad to help in any way I could.”
Both enter 2014 with ambitions of leading their programs back onto the national stage. What’s more, the Broncos and Rebels even finished 2013 with matching, albeit contrasting, 8-5 records.
Ole Miss’ 8-5 is a rung on the ladder as the Rebels climb up the ultra-competitive SEC. Returning 15 starters, including quarterback Bo Wallace, Ole Miss has its sights on competing for the SEC West championship.
Beating Boise State on Aug. 28 in Atlanta is a crucial first step toward establishing the Rebels as viable contenders.
Boise State’s 8-5 is a sign of troubling regression. Since running the table in 2009, the Broncos inched back with a loss to Nevada in 2010; a home defeat to TCU in 2011 that denied them the Mountain West Conference championship; and a three-way split of the MWC title in 2012, a season that included a second home conference loss in as many years.
The program’s worst regular season since 2001 ended with Chris Petersen, architect of the Broncos’ Golden Years, leaving for the head coaching vacancy at Washington. In his absence, Boise State lost a lopsided Hawaii Bowl decision to Oregon State–an opponent it had beaten in three of the previous four meetings by scores of 53-34, 42-14 and 37-24.
Indeed, Harsin comes back to a Boise State program in a much different position than when he left it. When Harsin joined Mack Brown’s staff at Texas in 2011, the Broncos had completed their eighth double-digit-win season in the last nine.
Quarterback and Harsin protege Kellen Moore was a Heisman Trophy finalist, adding another chapter to Boise State’s Cinderella story–a story Bryan Harsin was central in authoring.
Four years earlier, Ian Johnson’s carry from a Statue of Liberty handoff via quarterback Jared Zabransky was the play that launched Boise State in the national spotlight.
Harsin dialed up the game-winning play that capped Boise State’s historic upset of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
“We threw it all out right there,” he told Pat Forde for ESPN.com.
The Broncos were successful in the years before the landmark Fiesta Bowl win, going undefeated in the 2004 regular season and winning at least a share of five straight Western Athletic Conference championships from 2002 through 2006.
But the win over Oklahoma–the win earned on a 30-year-old Harsin emptying the playbook–truly established Boise State as a program deserving of respect from college football’s elite.
Beating Oklahoma propelled Boise State to an impressive run that included wins over Oregon in 2008 and 2009, both seasons that ended in 10 victories for the Ducks (the latter included a Pac-10 championship); a defeat of Virginia Tech to open 2010; and a 2011 upset of Georgia in the same venue where the Broncos face Ole Miss.
Harsin was there for four of those marquee victories.
Their win over Washington in the 2012 Las Vegas Bowl was the last hurrah in a run of five straight seasons with at least one defeat of a power conference opponent.
Face Ole Miss is an opportunity for Boise State to keep midnight from striking on their Cinderella story.
Ole Miss’ is a roster loaded with 4-and-5-star talent. Defensive end Robert Nkemdiche was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2013 and fellow 2013 5-star signee Laquon Treadwell is primed to breakout as one of college football’s premier receivers.
Bryan Harsin is operating on Boise State’s tried-and-true formula of going toe-to-toe with underrated overachievers.
The Broncos have a couple big-time stars with running back Jay Ajayi and wide receiver Matt Miller, both of whom can make a splash on the national stage this season.
But Ajayi was Rivals.com’s No. 87 overall prospect out of Texas and Miller was rated the nation’s No. 53 overall wide receiver–hardly the consensus No. 1 recruit Freeze landed in Nkemdiche.
If star ratings impacted the score, Hugh Freeze’s bunch would win in a walk before turning its focus to the SEC. However, more than any program in recent memory, Boise State proved in its heyday that star ratings can sometimes be overrated.