Boise State and TCU pushed toward the top of the Bowl Championship Series standings last season, only to find there was no room for them there.

Both started the regular season with outsized ambition, finished it undefeated and were rewarded with an unsatisfying matchup against each other in the Fiesta Bowl. Three days later, in a BCS championship game featuring two teams from power conferences, No. 1 Alabama beat No. 2 Texas, 37-21.

"There was still a perception out there that a team like Boise State doesn't belong in the elite group of schools," said Karl Benson, the commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference, voicing a sentiment that many TCU supporters would agree with.

No team from a conference without an automatic BCS bid has reached the title game since the current system began in 1998. This fact has stood as an impassable wall at the end of every unbeaten season for teams like Boise State of the WAC and TCU of the Mountain West.

But this season, the portion of the championship dream over which these teams have no control may be finally working in their favor.

The coaches' poll makes up a third of the BCS standings, and the skepticism that once seemed to limit the teams has been replaced by admiration in the minds of voters.

Boise State is ranked No. 5 after starting last season at No. 16.

TCU is No. 7, a 10-spot improvement from a year ago. The climb to the top is no longer so steep.

"We were a pretty well-kept secret," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "But now I think more people are paying attention."

Boise State (third) and TCU (sixth) are ranked even higher in the Associated Press poll, which is not a factor in the BCS standings but does indicate how teams are perceived. The Harris Interactive Poll, which makes up a third of the BCS rankings and is released in late September, is voted on by news media members and former players, coaches and administrators. The final third of a team's ranking is made up of a combination of six computer polls.

"They're being viewed as programs and not just as teams," said Wright Waters, the commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference, which does not have an automatic BCS bid. "The preseason polls are evidence people have recognized them for what they've accomplished. It takes time to get the respect of voters."

For Boise State and TCU, it has taken time as well as a few marquee victories, some not even their own.

In 2004, Utah went 12-0 and defeated Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, becoming the first team from a conference without an automatic bid to be a part of the BCS. The Utes also went 13-0 in 2008, when they beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Boise State, which began playing in what is now the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1996 and is moving to the Mountain West next year, has finished the regular season without a loss in four of the last six years. The Broncos' signature moment was a wild 43-42 overtime victory over Oklahoma in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl. It capped a 13-0 season.

But the novelty soon faded. They started the 2007 season ranked 23rd in the coaches' poll. In 2008, Boise State was unranked in the preseason, went 12-0 and ended up in the Poinsettia Bowl, their sterling performance not enough to overcome their low preseason status. Still, the team's success became harder and harder to overlook.

"If we can play well and do what we've done consistently over the last four or five years, it does give us an opportunity we haven't had before," Boise State Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier said. "It is now time to prove people right."

Petersen said he used to tell his players to ignore the rankings so they would not be discouraged. This year, he wants them to ignore the polls so they do not become overconfident.

"I think they're a complete team and also a very motivated team," said J.P. Giglio of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., who gave Boise State its lone first-place vote in the AP poll. "You can't help but be impressed with what they've done when they've had the opportunities."

The Broncos return all but one starter from the 14-0 team that beat TCU in last season's Fiesta Bowl. On Sept. 6, Boise State plays Virginia Tech, ranked No. 6 by the coaches, at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. It also has a home game against Oregon State, which the coaches have at No. 22.

TCU will face Oregon State on Sept. 4 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Although the Horned Frogs do not have a second marquee nonconference game against an opponent like Virginia Tech, the Mountain West is considered a more difficult league than the WAC.

Unlike Boise State, the Horned Frogs have a rich history. They won national championships in 1935 and 1938 and played in six Cotton Bowls, two Sugar Bowls and one Orange Bowl from 1935 to 1958. But the program faltered; its victory over Southern California in the 1998 Sun Bowl stopped a 41-year winless drought in bowl games.

TCU's athletic director, Chris Del Conte, recently saw a man wearing a T-shirt that chronicled the Horned Frogs' rise from mediocrity to the Fiesta Bowl. Del Conte said a boy asked the man to explain the shirt because he did not believe there was a time when the program struggled.

"Last year, the BCS game wasn't the crescendo; it was the jumping point upward," Del Conte said. "Our quest is a national championship."

A trip to the BCS title game by Boise State or TCU would have implications well beyond this season and could potentially alter the landscape of college football. It could boost the Mountain West's chances of landing an automatic BCS berth, and it would give hope to similar programs with big dreams.

"If you play for the championship, that's a whole other stratum," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said.

Of course, the opportunity that comes with a high ranking can quickly vanish. If Boise State stumbles against Virginia Tech or if TCU loses to Oregon State, their conference schedules probably would not be strong enough to make up for the missteps. Their national-championship hopes will almost certainly be gone, and the skeptics will try make sure they do not return anytime soon.

For now, there is a feeling of opportunity surrounding the Broncos and the Horned Frogs, a sense that the impossible is now possible.

"They have a chance to work their way into the system," said the former Southeastern Conference commissioner Roy Kramer, one of the architects of the BCS. "Perhaps this is the year."