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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 52: Fresno State

The fertile San Joaquin Valley. Yes, this is what the "V" on the Fresno helmets stand for.

This can go one of two ways for the Bulldogs. On one hand, Boise State’s departure for the Mountain West can open up the WAC — long Boise’s playground — for Fresno State, which has battled Nevada for second place in the conference for the better part of a decade. On the other, no more Boise State may spell no more WAC, which has benefited greatly from the Broncos’ tendency to break into the national title conversation. Obviously, the latter scenario is out of Fresno State’s control. Nevertheless, what does the future hold for the program? One thing will never change: the Bulldogs will continue to play anyone, anytime, anywhere, regardless of conference affiliation.

Conference
WAC

Location
Fresno, Calif.

Nickname
Bulldogs

Returning starters
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 62

2009 record
(8-5, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 53

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Cincinnati
  • Sept. 18
    at Utah St.
  • Sept. 25
    at Mississippi
  • Oct. 2
    Cal Poly
  • Oct. 9
    Hawaii
  • Oct. 16
    New Mexico St.
  • Oct. 23
    at San Jose St.
  • Nov. 6
    at Louisiana Tech
  • Nov. 13
    Nevada
  • Nov. 19
    at Boise St.
  • Nov. 27
    Idaho
  • Dec. 3
    Illinois

Last year’s prediction

The big games are Louisiana Tech and Hawaii: sweep that pair, and the team will finish no worse than third in the conference, and possibly second. It will be tough to win in Hawaii, but certainly doable. My prediction: 7-5, 5-3 in the WAC, with a split of Hawaii and Tech. Should Fresno be ranked higher than No. 62? If the vast majority of your wins come against the worst your conference has to offer – as was the case last fall, and as I believe will be the case again in 2009 – this is where you fall.

2009 recap

In a nutshell A fairly typical Fresno State season: losses to a few B.C.S. conference teams, Boise State and one other team from the WAC; wins over the rest. Perhaps a little less than typical: the Bulldogs beat only one bowl team all season — Idaho — while winning five games against either F.C.S. competition or F.B.S. teams with four or less wins on the year. Nevertheless, this wasn’t a bad team. Not in the least, in fact, though Fresno’s continuing struggles on defense remain a concern. The Bulldogs allowed 28.4 points per game, the third consecutive year the team had allowed at least 27 points per game. However, some of the defensive struggles can be attributed to the better teams on Fresno’s schedule: the three B.C.S. conference teams averaged 38 points per game on the Bulldogs, and Boise State and Nevada scored 51 and 52 points, respectively. Good thing the offense was strong: 33.8 points per game, a program-high since 2005, thanks to one of the best running games in the country.

High point Seven victories in eight games to end the regular season. Fresno’s 6-1 close to WAC play earned it sole possession of third place in the final conference standings. The Bulldogs also scored its yearly victory over a B.C.S. conference opponent, beating Illinois by 53-52 thanks to a wacky last-second two-point conversion. That win gave the program at least one win over a B.C.S. conference team in each of the last three seasons.

Low point A sluggish start to the season. In hindsight, Fresno State’s 1-3 month of September came as a result of losses at Wisconsin (by 34-31), home to Boise State (by 51-34) and at Cincinnati (by 28-20). Few teams have as impressive — not sure if that is the right choice of word — a resume of losses. The Bulldogs beat ever team they were supposed to beat, some in convincing fashion, until allowing Wyoming to hang around long enough in the New Mexico Bowl to pull out a win.

Tidbit A quick look at the Pat Hill coaching tree. Among head coaches: Lane Kiffin, Jeff Tedford, Ruffin McNeill, Trent Miles (Indiana State) and Dennis Wagner (Western Carolina). Among the noteworthy college assistants: Andy Ludwig, Jim McElwain, Frank Cignetti, Doug Nussmeier, Andy Buh and John Baxter.

Tidbit (special teams edition) The Pat Hill-led Bulldogs have excelled on special teams, both in blocking kicks and in the return game. In fact, Fresno State leads the nation in blocked kicks since 2002 with 49, ahead of Texas (45), Louisiana-Lafayette (40) and Florida (38). Since 1997, when Hill first took over, Fresno has scored 39 touchdowns on special teams: 20 on punt returns, eight on kickoff returns and 11 via blocked kicks.

Former players in the N.F.L.

26 WR Seyi Ajirotutu (San Diego), WR Bernard Berrian (Minnesota), QB Tom Brandstater (Indianapolis), QB David Carr (San Francisco), S Tyrone Culver (Miami), CB Moses Harris (St. Louis), CB A.J. Jefferson (Arizona), DT Louis Leonard (Carolina), OG Logan Mankins (New England), CB Richard Marshall (Carolina), RB Ryan Matthews (San Diego), CB Marcus McCauley (Washington), RB Lonyae Miller (Dallas), WR Marion Moore (Miami), TE Bear Pascoe (New York Giants), DT Bryan Robinson (Arizona), S James Sanders (New England), DT Jason Shirley (Cincinnati), RB Clifton Smith (Tampa Bay), TE Stephen Spach (Arizona), QB Billy Volek (San Diego), C Ryan Wendell (New England), WR Chastin West (Green Bay), LB Sam Williams (Oakland), WR Paul Williams (Tennessee), RB Dwayne Wright (Philadelphia).

Arbitrary top five list

Best college football helmets
1. Michigan.
2. Alabama.
3. Nebraska.
4. Texas.
5. Florida State.

Coaching

Pat Hill (U.C. Riverside ’73), 100-65 after 13 seasons in Fresno. Hill’s record places him fourth on the WAC’s career wins list, and his total of 10 career bowl appearances with the Bulldogs is third-best in the history of the conference. Last fall’s eight-win finish gave Fresno State three consecutive winning seasons after slipping to an atypical 4-8 in 2006. All told, only two of Hill’s 12 teams have finished below .500 (1998, 2006). Still, the Bulldogs — largely due to Boise State’s ascension — have stayed out of the national conversation over the last four years, struggling to land the marquee win that defined the early years of the Hill era. In fact, there have been some rumblings about Hill’s future with the program; the university would be foolish to let Hill walk, but it’s hard not to ignore how Fresno has ceded the conference to the powerful Broncos. While Fresno had seen success before his arrival (Jim Sweeney won 144 games), Hill has taken the Bulldogs onto the national stage. Not surprisingly, Hill played a major role in Fresno’s success under Sweeney, serving as the offensive line coach from 1984-89. The Bulldogs won at least nine games four times over that six-year span, finishing with an overall mark of 53-16-1. That stretch as a Fresno assistant was Hill’s third collegiate stop, following stints as the offensive line coach at Utah (1977-80) and U.N.L.V. (1981-82). After two seasons at Arizona (1990-91), Hill moved on to the N.F.L., where he spent five years with the Baltimore Ravens (1992-6). He has won at least eight games eight times, most notably in 2001, when he led the Bulldogs to an 11-3 mark and, briefly, a top 10 ranking. As long as Hill is in Fresno, the Bulldogs are a near-lock for bowl eligibility.

Players to watch

It’s rather daunting, the prospect of replacing the nation’s leading rusher. All I can suggest to Fresno State is this: take it a game at a time. And please, don’t be too much pressure on sophomore Robbie Rouse’s shoulders: he can be a dangerous weapon, but Rouse won’t be able to carry the load quite like Mathews. If Rouse shows himself able to serve as an every-down guy, however, he’s very capable of a 1,000-yard season. He showed flashes of that type of potential last fall, when he rushed for 479 yards and 4 scores — on 5.8 yards per carry — while serving as Mathews’ reserve. The big key, of course, is whether Rouse is ready to top the 200-carry mark (Mathews carried the ball 276 times last fall): only twice did the sophomore have more than seven carries, only once more than 10. After seeing Rouse play last fall, I’m more willing to say he’s rested, not inexperienced. And he’s the next 1,000-yard Fresno back.

Depth is a concern behind Rouse, however. Fellow sophomores Michael Harris and A.J. Ellis were little-used in 2009, but entered the summer holding the second spot at the position. With questions about Rouse’s every-down durability, it will be key for Fresno to identify at least one, if not two, reserve backs ready to help carry the load.

Likewise at receiver, where Fresno State moves forward without Seyi Ajirotutu and Chastin West, experienced hands responsible for much of the team’s damage in the passing game. Ajirotutu in particular will be difficult to replace. Yet the Bulldogs do return a good amount of talent at the position, led by junior Jamel Hamler; he finished second on the team last fall in receptions (37), receiving yards (503) and touchdowns (5). Hamler was somewhat overlooked last fall, a result of playing across from Ajirotutu, but enters this season as the undisputed leader of the receiver corps. He’ll be treated as such by opposing secondaries. He’ll be joined in the starting lineup by senior Devon Wylie, a big-play guy a year ago, while Fresno hopes players like sophomore Rashad Evans and junior J.J. Stallworth are poised to break into the mix. The Bulldogs inked a number of talented receivers in their recent recruiting class, but would love to redshirt most, if not all of them.

This offensive line is the real deal: five returning starters, four of them seniors, four of them multiple-year starters, two of them the recipients of all-WAC accolades a season ago. The right side of the line is superb: Andrew Jackson, one of the nation’s top interior offensive linemen, at guard; second-team all-WAC pick Kenny Wiggins at tackle. And you wonder why Fresno was so imposing in the run game — this duo can dominate. Not to say the rest of the group is anything less than strong. Senior center Joe Bernardi, entering his fourth season in the starting lineup, is an all-WAC performer. Senior left guard Devan Cunningham is a two-year starter; he’s the new guy. Actually, the newest piece of the puzzle is junior left tackle Bryce Harris, a converted defensive lineman who last fall took on the task of replacing Bobby Lepori on the weak side.

It’s time for this defense to start carrying its weight: have some pride, play like the Fresno State units of old, do your job. Quite simply, last season — the last few years, in fact — just won’t cut it. I’m adopting a wait-and-see approach with this defense, though it’s good to see that Fresno returns much of last year’s unit, including six starters among the front seven; regardless, it’s tough to ignore the fact this same cast of characters were responsible for 2009′s inept performance.

All four starters return up front: ends Kenny Borg and Chris Carter, the latter one of the better defensive linemen in the WAC; and tackles Chris Lewis and Cornell Banks. This group is talented, particularly Carter; this makes last season’s production, especially against the run, all the more difficult to understand. There might be a slight shakeup in the starting lineup, however, as Borg’s availability — he suffered a painful injury late last season — remains a question mark. If Borg, who also missed the 2008 season due to injury, does not return, Fresno could either move Lewis outside or promote junior Donavaughn Pritchett into the starting lineup; if Lewis moves to end, junior Logan Harrell is the likely starter alongside Banks on the interior of the line. Carter is really good; Pritchett has potential; and the Bulldogs have some young interior linemen coming up through the ranks. Nevertheless, this group — the same group, with a few departures, as a year ago — is a question mark.

Senior Ben Jacobs is the star of this defense: the leader of this group, as well as the glue that holds this group together. The inept performance against the run certainly cannot fall on the senior middle linebacker’s shoulders, as Jacobs led the Bulldogs with 106 tackles; no other defender made more than 65 stops. Fresno returns junior Kyle Knox at one outside linebacker spot, though Knox will have his hands full holding off fellow junior Shawn Plummer, a key reserve last fall. Knox will need to pick up his game to retain his starting job. While that pair will fight it out on the weak side, the strong side role will fall to sophomore Travis Brown, whose debut season went well. Depth will come from the loser of the weak side battle and youngsters Daniel Salinas and Jeremiah Toma, who shared time behind Jacobs in the middle.

While it did allow 24 touchdowns on the year — while intercepting only eight passes — the Fresno State secondary wasn’t that bad last year. The group must replace a pair of starters, however: cornerback A.J. Jefferson, who doubled as a premier return man, and strong safety Moses Harris, a second-team all-WAC pick as a senior. Isaiah Green will step in for Jefferson; he was part of the rotation a year ago, eventually starting in Jefferson’s stead for the New Mexico Bowl. He’ll join returning starter Desia Dunn — entering his third season in the starting lineup — to give Fresno a pair of capable cornerbacks, though depth is an issue. Sophomore Jermaine Thomas is the most experienced returning reserve; he played in only seven games last fall, though did pull down one of Fresno’s few interceptions. The Bulldogs will need at least two of its freshmen — redshirt or true — to step up, obviously.

Even with Harris exhausting his eligibility, I like the Fresno safety duo. Senior Lorne Bell, a second-team all-conference selection last fall, will move from free to strong safety, replacing Harris. The free safety role will fall to sophomore Phillip Thomas, who led the Bulldogs with two picks in his debut season. The secondary will need a healthy Terrence Dennis, however, in order to have optimum depth at safety.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback It’s not often that an incumbent senior starter under center sees his hold on the starting job challenged by a relatively newcomer, but Ryan Colburn, for the second consecutive fall, will need to prove himself to the Fresno State coaching staff. Statistically, Colburn was solid last fall, his first year in the starting lineup: 2,459 yards passing with 19 touchdowns against nine interceptions. Yes, his touchdown-to-interception ratio was not bad; however, Colburn’s decision making remained a work in progress. Too often Colburn made inappropriate throws; occasionally, his poor choices led to Fresno State losing games — see Wisconsin, and to a lesser degree, Cincinnati. To be fair, Colburn went from cringe-worthy in the early going to steady down the stretch, and left the season playing with newfound confidence. Regardless, he’ll have to hold off the future of the program: sophomore Derek Carr, who landed slight playing time in his debut season. Carr, an early arrival last spring, was in the mix for the starting job last season before ceding the job to Colburn. Expect an even more heated competition when the Bulldogs return to the practice field in the fall. Fresno State has a quarterback controversy, but this is a very good thing: if Colburn maintains his grasp on the starting role, the Bulldogs will have an experienced, able hand at the front of the offense; in that case, Carr will likely redshirt. If not, Carr is ready to take over for the first of three years in the starting lineup.

Game(s) to watch

As is typically the case, two games against B.C.S. competition worth keeping an eye: home for Cincinnati in the season opener, at Mississippi three weeks later. Expecting the Bulldogs to beat Boise State — even at home — is asking too much, so the home date with Nevada on Nov. 13 will be for second place in the WAC.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The WAC will be Boise State’s playground, at least for one more season. Fresno State and Nevada are very good teams — both capable of landing nine wins — but neither has what it takes to unseat the Broncos, one of the best squads in the country. In that case, the question should not be why I don’t have the Bulldogs first in the WAC, but why I don’t have them second. For one reason: Fresno, unless major strides have been made in the spring, does not have what it takes on defense. As noted, Fresno has been on a downward spiral on defense over the last four years; since, one could say, U.S.C. dropped 50 points on the Bulldogs in November of 2005. Will this year be any different? There’s no reason to think so, in my opinion. We’re entering prove-me-wrong territory with this defense: until they show me something, it’s only fair to expect an underwhelming performance. This is unfortunate, as Fresno has the pieces in place to get it done on offense. Yes, Mathews is gone, as is Ajirotut. Doesn’t matter: I love this offensive line — four senior starters, remember — think Rouse can have a major impact on the ground, and, in a strange way, like the fact that Fresno is experiencing a quarterback controversy. If the Bulldogs can develop a stouter front seven, this could be a 10-win team: losses to Boise State and one of the three B.C.S. conference opponents. It’s just impossible to make such a prediction; Fresno needs to show us something first. I do think the Bulldogs are a lock for eight wins, with second place in the WAC coming down to a home game against Nevada.

Dream season Boise State is the clear leader in the WAC, but Fresno races past Nevada for the second spot: 9-3, 7-1 in conference play.

Nightmare season For the first time since 2006, the Bulldogs win less than seven games. In fact, Fresno finishes below .500 for only the third time under Hill.

In case you were wondering

Where do Fresno State fans congregate? Both Bark Board and Red Wave Report give you an avenue for Fresno State chatter and provide solid recruiting coverage. Additional information can be found at The Bulldog Bounce and at the Web site of The Fresno Bee. As always, list any blogs, message boards or local beat reporters I may have missed.

Up Next

Who is No. 51? Our next program boasts four legitimate national championships, with the titles coming in pairs.

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Comments

  1. george howley says:

    Interesting question-The closest I can get to is Nebraska but I thought they won five although they had a pair of backto back championships

  2. Baggie says:

    Auburn? I know they have 4

  3. Rookierookie says:

    Since this is way too low for Nebraska, I’m thinking out of Georgia, Cal or MSU. Not sure what the criteria for “legitimate” is, though.

  4. Jim Narby says:

    #51 – definitely NOT nebraska.

  5. fosterwalrus says:

    Michigan state is the only one that really makes sense

  6. Brandon says:

    I could see Auburn since they won in 57, 58 and 1913 & 1914 but that seems low for them.

  7. wildcat6 says:

    Could be Michigan, since they won in 1901-02 under Fielding “Hurry Up” Yost and 1931-32 under Harry Kipke. However, they also won in 1948 under Bennie Oosteraan, and 1/2 a title in 1997 with Lloyd Carr.

    Strangely, the team that fits is Nebraska. 1970-71 with Bob Devaney and 1994-95 with Tom Osborne.

  8. 'Catatonic Tim says:

    Michigan State ’51-52, ’65-66

  9. Jeff says:

    Cue Jim Narby?

  10. havik912 says:

    well this time i know it isnt Air Force or Temple haha, i haven’t the slightest on this one

  11. wildcat6 says:

    The proverbial fly in the ointment for Nebraska could be that title they shared in 1997 with Michigan. Would that be considered “legitimate?”

  12. Seth says:

    Michigan has 11 (or, if you insist, 10.5) national championships. Most of them are about as undisputed as it gets, given the period (ie are recognized by one or more of NCF, Helms, or Billingsley). While you could dispute a few of them, and people have done so, you’d have to work pretty hard to whittle 11 down to just 4. Especially since the 1901-1904 Wolverines didn’t lose a game, and tied Minnesota just the once.

  13. Molly Iams says:

    Ohio State has the best helmets!

  14. Dave S. says:

    I’m forever perplexed with the love for no-nonsense helmets like Alabama’s and Nebraska’s (and, for that matter, Penn State’s, which also often garners undue acclaim). Sure, they do well not to have gone with something gaudy, and I’ll even grant that they look good. But the Best? USC and Virginia should replace Bama and Nebraska.

    Paul: I agree on U.S.C. But there is something about the simple helmets, particularly Alabama’s. But you’re right in the fact that if Western Kentucky had that type of helmet, they wouldn’t be on the list. If it means anything, U.C.L.A. — I love the powder blue — came in sixth.

  15. Molly Iams says:

    Paul – you would love the Powder Blue. -Molly Iams Leibowitz

  16. TresselBall says:

    Paul, time to break out the radon kit. Methinks vapors are dulling your football acumen – you just said that school up north has the best helmets.

    Seth – I have respect for my foe (well, pre-rrod anyways) but weren’t a lot of those championships paved with wins against high schools and the sisters of the poor?

  17. Dr. Klahn says:

    The next team is Michigan State. National champions in 1951-1952 and 1965-1966.

  18. Burnt Orange says:

    Excellent helmet list but substitute LSU for Florida State. If you are taking requests – how about worst helmets, best/worst uniforms ?

    Paul: Will do. Has to work with the team, however. Did the helmets for Fresno because I mentioned the “V” on the back of theirs. Worst helmets is too good a topic not to make a top five list of.

  19. Seth says:

    TresselBall says:
    July 13, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    Seth – I have respect for my foe (well, pre-rrod anyways) but weren’t a lot of those championships paved with wins against high schools and the sisters of the poor?

    * * *

    I don’t disagree with this sentiment — or with the sentiment, held by a number of people, that maybe the statistics and W/L records we have inherited from the time before African-Americans were even allowed to play ball in most parts of the country are worthless / meaningless.

    I will say, though, that insofar as we can agree that ANY championships should be recognized before, say, 1950 — and I think most people would agree they should be — we can’t really hold the scheduling standards of the era, or the era’s conference alignments against any schools claiming such championships. No school that played football in the late 19th and early 20th centuries refrained from playing schools with which it would now be logistically impossible to schedule a game. This is just a fact.

    I’d put it like this: When Yost won consecutive national championships around the turn of the century, he played the teams in the Western Conference: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Chicago, Northwestern, etc. He beat them all, except (as I mentioned above) when he tied Minnesota. Then he went to the inaugural Rose Bowl and beat Stanford.

    With victories over Stanford, Chicago, Iowa, Indiana, and Northwestern, I’d say the 1901 Wolverines had as much of a claim to a national title as any of the Ivy League schools or military academies — even though the NCAA records national championships for Yale, Michigan, -and- Harvard for that year. Yale played Trinity (Connecticut) and something called Orange A.C. (I’m assuming an agricultural college?) that year; Harvard played and beat Yale after bowling over the likes of Bowdoin and Yates.

    Again: it’s not false to assume that Michigan played opponents which would be deemed far beneath it if they were to play today. The data are, however, somewhat misleading if you judge yesterday’s records by today’s standards — the teams, the schools, the leagues, the entire institutional framework were all completely different back then.

  20. Jeff says:

    “well this time i know it isnt Air Force or Temple haha, i haven’t the slightest on this one”

    Har har har…

  21. huskyskins says:

    Washington would be favored in a neutral site game against Fresno State.

  22. MyManDon says:

    My take on what to expect from Fresno this year is slightly different (albeit biased) as an FSU fan. Pragmatically thinking, the presnap assessment is pretty close to being correct no big argument from me on that. However, if you consider the intangiables, then it’s not a great stretch to think this could be a breakout year for Fresno State. With most teams winning comes in cycles- and I’d have to say Fresno State peaked in 2005 3/4 into game with USC and have been on a self-depreciating slide ever since losing in LA. Having said that I think the cycle is on upswing and winning 10 games (including at Boise, yes) is doable. Fresno plays to the competition often IMO not because they lack the talent, but because they lack the motivation to get the job done which will not be the case this year. In 2010, they NEED to prove something, that is – Fresno state is not a weak team left behind by Boise State, but in fact were in many years Boise State’s toughest competition during their rise to greatness – so what better way to prove that than to send them away but by kicking their asses out the door? Nobody will predict this, but it very well could happen this way IMO. Do we need to wait and see, sure. I’m just saying beating Boise this year on the blue turf is going to be very sweet indeed. Well, one can dream a little . . .

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