Boise State is one win away from basically locking up a berth in one of the "playoff-affiliated" bowls, and tailback Jay Ajayi is the main reason.
The Broncos (10-2) play host to Fresno State (6-6) in the Mountain West Conference championship game Saturday night, and they head into the contest ranked 22nd in the latest College Football Playoff selection committee top 25. Boise State is the only ranked team from outside the Power Five conferences; the highest-ranked team from outside of the "Power Five" conferences is guaranteed a slot in one of the affiliated bowls. In Boise's case, a victory over Fresno State likely means a berth in the Fiesta Bowl.
Ajayi (6-foot-0, 216 pounds), a junior, is the Broncos' key player. He is fifth nationally in rushing yards (1,619) and seventh in rushing yards per game (134.9). He is tied for second nationally in rushing TDs with 24, and his 303 carries also are second-most nationally. In addition, Ajayi has 45 receptions, which is tied for sixth nationally for receptions by a running back.
He is coming off a career-high 229-yard, five-TD performance against Utah State that locked up a berth in the league title game. It was his second 200-yard game of the season and the ninth time he had exceeded 100 yards. It also was his seventh consecutive 100-yard game and the seventh time in a row he had rushed for multiple TDs in a game.
His performance caught the eye of NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks, who wrote, "The 'J-Train' has been a monster running between the tackles for the Broncos, exhibiting outstanding vision, pitter-pat and toughness." Brooks also said that Ajayi has "home-run speed and acceleration" and that "scouts should pay close attention to the burgeoning superstar."
One of Ajayi's 100-yard games this season came against Fresno State on Oct. 17 in a 37-27 win. Ajayi rushed for 158 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter knows that if Fresno is to have any shot at the upset, it needs to stifle Ajayi.
"Ajayi is really running the ball fiercely," DeRuyter told the Fresno Bee. "I mean, he's getting after it. Last week against Utah State, the No. 1 rush defense in the conference, he runs for about 230. He's going to be a load."
Ajayi was born in London -- he remains a British citizen -- to Nigerian parents and moved to the Dallas area when he was 7 after his dad was transferred. Ajayi committed to Boise State after his junior season in high school, then rushed for 2,240 yards as a high school senior. He stuck with his Boise commitment despite entreaties from some Big Ten and Big 12 schools.
He had a rough freshman year in 2011. He was arrested for petty theft, then suffered a severe knee injury that kept him off the field and caused him to redshirt. But he hasn't had any issues, on the field or off, since then, and is on track to graduate in May with a marketing degree. As a junior, he is eligible to declare for the draft after this season.
"There's definitely going to be talk about him going on to the NFL," Boise State coach Bryan Harsin told the Idaho Statesman late last month. "He's got the potential to do that. Whether that happens or that's what he wants to do or it all ends up that way, we don't know yet."
Harsin also said that Ajayi leaving after this season is "definitely a conversation we need to sit down and have."
Mike Huguenin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.