No. 3 Boise State has in many ways never played a more important game than it will Monday night, when the Broncos face No. 10 Virginia Tech at FedEx Field.

For all Boise State has accomplished in the last decade — more wins than any major college team and two BCS victories — never before have the Broncos been a serious national championship contender.

That changes if Boise State beats the Hokies at the home of the Washington Redskins in Landover, Md., a far from neutral field, far away from their home blue turf.

With a win, the Broncos take a giant first step toward becoming the first team from a conference without an automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series to reach the BCS title game.

Of course, Boise State coach Chris Petersen wants nothing do with that subject — even though it's been topic No. 1 for Broncos fans since the clock struck 0:00 on their 17-10 Fiesta Bowl victory against TCU in January.

"In terms of a national title, so many things have to happen, even when you're in a BCS conference, let alone where we're sitting now," he said. "So we don't even go there. We just worry about the things we control. My mindset never wavers from that."

That's fine for Petersen, but it's almost impossible to look at the Broncos' schedule and not see grand possibilities if they start 1-0.

Boise State's remaining nonconference slate is at Wyoming and home against Oregon State and Toledo. The last time the Broncos lost a regular-season game on their home blue turf was 2001. As for their Western Athletic Conference opponents, well, the Broncos have lost one conference game in the past four seasons.

So from all angles, the Hokies look like the tallest hurdle between the Broncos and a third consecutive perfect regular season.

Virginia Tech has been one of the nation's best programs for more than a decade and once again the Hokies are one of the favorites in the Atlantic Coast Conference. With mobile quarterback Tyrod Taylor and star tailback Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech's offense should be dynamic.

Boise State's defense, which played its best against the best last season, will be tested.

The Hokies are rebuilding on defense, but defensive coordinator Bud Foster's crew is rarely a pushover. And few teams make as many game-changing plays on special teams as the Hokies.

"Without playing them, but what we know about them, what we've seen on tape, where we're going, I think this is the toughest opponent we've had yet," Petersen said.

For years Boise State has been trying to prove itself worthy of being ranked among the nation's elite teams. Despite all the victories — 112 since 2000 — the Broncos' competition from week-to-week just doesn't stack up to that of teams from leagues such as the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten.

But when they've played top teams in recent years, they've beaten them.

There was the memorable breakthrough victory against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Last season, Boise State opened by beating eventual Pac-10 champion Oregon and finished with a gritty win against TCU in the Fiesta Bowl.

On the strength of that TCU victory and 20 returning starters, Boise State begins this season with its best preseason rankings.

"In the past it was always prove them wrong, now it's been a little bit of a switch," quarterback Kellen Moore said. "The mentality can't change, I still think it's the same preparation needed and all those characteristics have to stay the same. "

There's no need to convince Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer about Boise State's credentials.

"I'm nervous about this game," Beamer said, noting Boise State's experience advantage.

Moore can make opponents uneasy. The junior threw 39 touchdown passes and only three interceptions last year.

"You've got a great quarterback," Foster said. "Their running game is completely underrated. ... And you've got two receivers that are as good as anybody in the country. And then a very, very good offensive line."

With so much talk about what this game could mean to Boise State, it's almost been lost that Virginia Tech could also vault into national title contention by beating the Broncos.

The past three seasons, Virginia Tech has been deflated by an early season loss.

"I think this team is different than the previous teams that lost those games," Taylor said. "This team is more jelled and more together and I think we are at the ultimate goal of playing for the national championship. We all know it starts off with this first game."


AP Sports Writers Hank Kurz in Blacksburg, Va., and Tim Booth in Boise, Idaho, and Associated Press Writer Todd Dvorak in Boise contributed to this report.