Strangers from a faraway land where they play football on a blue field and borrow their offensive game plan from a video game, the Boise State Broncos came to Atlanta in relative force Saturday.
When the original allotment of 7,500 tickets for Saturday night’s game with Georgia went on sale, the Boise State fans snapped them all up in 14 minutes. They were expecting other reinforcements, pushing their following well past the 10,000 mark.
Of course, they still would be outnumbered 7-to-1, to be expected when one fan base is centered 1,800 miles from the game and the other just 70.
This was not the same Boise State bunch that lost 48-13 to Georgia in 2005. In four of the past five seasons, Boise State has finished with a better ranking than Georgia.
Entering Saturday’s dog-and-pony show, the Broncos were a field-goal favorite over the Bulldogs.
Boise State had won its past four meetings with teams from BCS automatic-qualifier conferences, and six of its past seven.
Yet for all that, the Broncos fans would arrive at Saturday’s game still feeling the need to prove they belonged in the same building with Georgia.
“In some ways it’s an exercise in futility for us,” said Brad Adkins, a Boise State fan in from Seattle. He made himself distinctive by coloring his curly hair blue on top and orange on the sides.
“If we win, we’re still not going to get the respect we deserve. And if we lose, it will be [from the critics], ‘See, we told you so.’”
“People just can’t figure out what to do with teams like us,” Adkins said.
Ken Cortez, a Boise State alum who still lives there, has seen his team make great strides since watching it get thumped in Athens six years ago. Under coach Chris Petersen, the Broncos have won 61 games in the past five seasons. They earned a preseason No. 5 ranking this year.
And still, Cortez said, “Nobody believes in us yet. We have to prove ourselves all the time.”
Now they found themselves in the heart of the SEC, a haughty conference against which Boise State was winless in four previous exploratory missions.
For many of the Idahoans, the long trip to Atlanta was an all-purpose vacation, a chance to get out of the potato cellar and see a part of the world they have never visited.
Some are NASCAR fans. Allen and Sindy Martinson planned on sitting through the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday after a long day at the Georgia Dome.
Scott Askins began following the Braves when they went nationwide on TBS and finally got to see them, twice, in person this week in advance of Saturday’s game.
(His wife, Wendy, gave this dominant impression of Atlanta: “It’s hot here. I’m not used to being sticky.”)
The game with Georgia was serious business, though. Ultimately, every game played outside Boise State’s little corner of the college football world represents a determined reach for respect.
“This is such a big game for us,” Sindy Martinson said. “Win this one, and you never know what is possible.”
Boise State fans testified they received a mostly gracious pregame reception from Georgia fans.
“But there’s always a little condescension,” said Capt. Sam McDowell, a Boise man stationed at Fort Benning in Columbus.
“Like some of the things I heard this morning [from Georgia fans]: ‘Welcome to big-boy football’ and ‘Hey, it’s the little Broncos.’”
Those little Broncos in the past few years have toppled the likes of Oklahoma, Oregon and Oregon State. A year ago to begin the season, they took out Virginia Tech.
The Hokies fans were mostly pleasant, too, said Jeff Russell, another well-traveled fan from Boise.
“Until we walked out of the stadium after the game,” he said, remembering a scene he hoped to replay one more time on another far-off field of traditional green. For Boise State doesn’t come to a game like Saturday’s simply trying to beat the big boys.
“I think we broke their hearts,” he said with a small smile.