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No. 25 Boise State, Fresno State clash in first of two

Back-to-back meetings occur routinely in Major League Baseball, sometimes in the NBA, but are quite rare in college football.

The Mountain West Conference game between No. 23 Boise State and Fresno State on Saturday at Bulldog Stadium in Fresno, Calif., is one such exception.

Both the Broncos (9-2, 7-0) and Bulldogs (8-3, 6-1) clinched their respective divisions of the Mountain West with wins last Saturday. The two meet Dec. 2 for the conference championship as a result. This is the first such matchup of consecutive contests within the same season since UCLA and Stanford played on back-to-back weeks in 2012.

"The matter of fact is we're going to play two games, and we'd like to win both games," Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said in his press conference. "If we think like that, if we're iffy on, 'Hey, if we win one of the two, let's win the second,' we've completely derailed what we're trying to do with the season."

One key difference then and in Saturday's Boise State-Fresno State encounter is that Stanford had already secured home-field advantage for the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game when it visited the Rose Bowl on the final week of the regular season. Hosting the Mountain West Championship Game could be at stake Saturday.

The Mountain West determines home-field advantage via College Football Playoff committee and a computer composite, rather than straight head-to-head. A Fresno State victory would not ensure back-to-back games at home against Boise State, but the win could bolster the Bulldogs' standing in the rankings.

Any temptation either Harsin or his counterpart, Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford, might have to limit the use of their playbooks is mitigated. Past results bear the significance of home-field advantage: Prior to San Diego State's win at Wyoming last season, home teams went 3-0 since the inauguration of the Mountain West Championship in 2013.

The first two champions were Fresno State and Boise State, both making their first appearances in the title game since 2014. Each program took a different path back to championship contend in the years since.

Boise State was the media's preseason pick to win the Mountain division in both 2015 and 2016, but the Broncos stumbled in critical, late-season games each season. For Fresno State, a divisional title marks the culmination of a surprising, quick turnaround under first-year coach Tedford following a slide to the basement of the conference.

Fresno State finished the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons with losing records, bottoming out a year ago at 1-11 with no wins against FBS competition.

"I can't be prouder of this team, and I can't be happier for them," Tedford said in his post-game press conference, following the Bulldogs' 13-7 win Nov. 18 at Wyoming. "The turnaround that they've made, the belief and confidence, the hard work they've put in, the coaching staff has done a phenomenal job. It's a great feeling when all the hard work pays off."

Along with the arrival of Tedford and a new staff, Fresno State gained a boost from quarterback Marcus McMaryion, a transfer from Oregon State. A product of nearby Dinuba, Calif., McMaryion passed for 11 touchdowns in two seasons at Oregon State, but was on a carousel with the starting quarterback job routinely changing.

McMaryion settled in as leader of Fresno State's offense by the start of conference play on Sept. 30 against Nevada, replacing Chason Virgil. McMaryion threw 10 of his 12 touchdown passes since.

"These are the moments I came home for," McMaryion said following the Wyoming win. "It's a blessing to be here and to share moments like this with these guys."

The local quarterback leads Fresno State's effort to retain the Milk Can Trophy, awarded to winner of this rivalry series not played since 2014 due to divisional scheduling. The Bulldogs last claimed the Milk Can in 2013 when another local product, current Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, led a comeback in a 41-40 Fresno State win.

The 2013 encounter was a classic in the vein of the 2001 meeting, which solidified the fledgling series as a rivalry. When both programs were members of the now football-defunct Big West Conference, Boise State stunned a Fresno State team with BCS championship aspirations, 35-30. The upset helped launch the national profile of Boise State football, replacing Fresno State as the region's preeminent non-power conference program.

Saturday's meeting could have the makings of another classic, with Fresno State this time seeking to play the role of spoiler.

"Fresno (State) has always been a very good football team historically," Harsin said. "They're playing well very, they're playing very confident, they have a defense that's No. 1 in the (Mountain West)."

That defense, ranked No. 12 in the nation by allowing just 17.3 points per game, clashes with a Boise State offense putting up 34.8 points per game behind the dynamic pass-catch combination of quarterback Brett Rypien and wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. Rypien has 14 touchdown passes against just four interceptions. Wilson has made six scoring grabs and caught 58 passes total for 1,008 yards.

The contrast should make for a competitive matchup -- whether in first edition or repeat.

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