Dealing with eight months of doubting

There are some unavoidable repercussions coming out of Boise State’s 31-12 loss to Baylor in the Cactus Bowl Tuesday night. Nationally, the Bronco program is unlikely to maintain its perception as elite among Group of 5 schools. It’s unlikely to be considered the Mountain West’s flagship program, with San Diego State taking that pedestal. It’s unlikely to even be picked to win the Mountain Division next year. It’s unlikely to get so much as a vote when the preseason Top 25 polls come out in August. The doubters will be on every message board and under every rock between now and the 2017 season opener. So Boise State is on its own as it tries to sustain what it’s had the past 18 seasons and make people believe it can continue. Has the page turned? It’s up to the Broncos to prove it hasn’t.

Boise State is the winningest major college team of the new century with 186 victories, four better than Oklahoma pending the Sooners’ Sugar Bowl matchup with Auburn Monday night. So there’s a little bit of pad remaining before the Broncos might be passed on that list. Boise State’s winning percentage since 2000 remains 84 percent. The tradition is incredibly strong. But in a “what have you done for me lately” world, the Broncos cannot live in the past, because they’re not going to be considered that team of the past anymore. Maybe a “new and improved” identity would be appropriate. Something that gets back to the grit that launched them at the turn of the century. But I don’t know what that looks like yet.

Neither player will put the Cactus Bowl experience at the top of his list, but Jeremy McNichols and Thomas Sperbeck have worn Boise State uniforms for the last time, and a statistical recap is in order for two of the most productive offensive players in school history. McNichols leaves with 3,205 rushing yards and 44 rushing touchdowns, as well as 4,848 all-purpose yards and 55 TDs overall. He ended up with the third-best single-season rushing total in Bronco history this year at 1,709 yards. Sperbeck’s school record in receiving yards stops at 3,601. He’s fourth in career catches at 224. With 1,272 yards this year, Sperbeck now holds the top two single-season marks in the record book. He also finished with 80 receptions in 2016, making him the first Bronco ever to post two 80-catch seasons.

More bowl catch-up: Former Boise State quarterback Ryan Finley ended his first season at North Carolina State with a 41-17 victory over Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl Monday. Finley, the extremely rare sophomore graduate transfer, threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns. Finley led the Wolfpack to wins in three of its final four games to ensure a winning season. That may have saved the job of not only NC State coach Dave Doeren, but also offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz, the one-time Bronco O.C. Finley finished with 3,055 passing yards and 18 touchdowns against eight interceptions, with a decent pass efficiency rating of 135.1, 57th in the country.

If there’s one guy we didn’t expect this from, it’s Doug Martin. But it’s been determined the former Boise State star violated the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. That’s why he was a healthy scratch for Tampa Bay’s game against New Orleans last week, and that’s why he is now suspended for four games. “After numerous discussions with people close to me—including Coach (Dirk) Koetter—I am starting the suspension immediately so I can enter a treatment facility and receive the help I truly need,” Martin said in a statement. “My shortcomings in (my personal life) have taught me both that I cannot win these personal battles alone and that there is no shame in asking for help.” Numerous reports say Adderall is the culprit.

Now, where is Tampa Bay going to go from here? Martin’s fifth-year option was declined by the Bucs two years ago because of his injury-plagued sub-par seasons in 2013 and 2014. Then he rushed for 1,402 yards last season and made his second Pro Bowl, earning a new five-year deal worth $35.75 million during the offseason, including $15 million guaranteed. Martin has not looked like himself in the six games since returning from a six-week bout with a hamstring injury. Has he played his last game for the Bucs?

Boise State got out of the gate in Mountain West play with an 83-80 win last night at Utah State, the Broncos’ third straight victory in Logan. The Aggies led just twice during the game, but Boise State couldn’t ultimately shake them until the end. The key for the Broncos was an 11-0 run late in the second half that gave them a 69-61 lead with 2:14 left. Then came a free throw contest in the final minute, with 21 freebies attempted. Boise State amazingly grabbed three offensive rebounds off missed free throws to keep USU at bay. Chandler Hutchison led the Broncos with 21 points, while Nick Duncan added 18 while making 8-of-10 free throws and Justinian Jessup put up 16. The Broncos’ conference home opener is set for Saturday afternoon against Colorado State in Taco Bell Arena.

Going into the Mountain West schedule, coaches almost to a tee described it as a wide-open conference race. So what else did the first night bring? Well, Boise State ended up with the only road win of the bunch. Nevada racked San Jose State 80-55, New Mexico stopped Fresno State 78-73, surprising Wyoming rolled past Air Force 84-72, and Colorado State ran away from UNLV 91-77 with the help of a 29-5 run wrapped around halftime. On the women’s side, Boise State opens its MW schedule tonight versus Utah State in Taco Bell Arena.

There should be some local eyes on ESPN2 today at 4 p.m. It’s women’s college basketball between Connecticut and Maryland, both undefeated. Top-ranked UConn is going for a staggering 86th win in a row. Trying to stand in the way is probably the best women’s player ever to come out of Idaho, Mountain View grad Destiny Slocum, the Terrapins’ starting point guard. Slocum has made an instantly successful transition to the elite level of the college game. As a true freshman, she has started all 12 games for the Terrapins and is averaging 10.7 points and four assists per game. She’s shooting almost 45 percent from the field and close to 42 percent from three-point range. This game is worth a look.

Wednesday’s have not been kind to the Idaho Steelheads this season. The Steelheads came into the game at Rapid City last night 1-6 in Wednesday contests. They led 2-1 after two periods, but then they must have remembered what day it was. The Rush scored a whopping six goals in the third period to skate away with a 7-4 victory. The explosion offset a two-goal performance by Idaho’s Joe Basaraba, who also contributed an assist. The Steelheads have two more games in South Dakota this weekend.

This Day In Sports…December 29, 1982:

Paul “Bear” Bryant coaches the final game of his legendary career in Alabama’s 21-15 victory over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl. Bryant would pass away 28 days later. He coached the Crimson Tide for 25 years, winning 13 SEC championships and six national titles. Bryant began his head coaching career in 1945 with one season at Maryland. He then spent eight years at Kentucky and five more at Texas A&M before going to Tuscaloosa. The win in the Liberty Bowl was the 323rd of Bryant’s career, then the most in college football history.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment Sunday nights at 10:30PM on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 The Ticket. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)