Since joining the Mountain West in 2012, Fresno State has been one of its most successful programs. They’ve played in four bowl games, won the West Division three times, shared a conference title, and won another one outright. With all that recent success, combined with their history, it’s jarring to remember where they were in 2016. They were coming off the lowest point in the history of the program. They had just wrapped up a 1-11 season, their third straight losing campaign, and had just fired their coach. The once-proud Bulldogs appeared to be on a downward spiral. Coming back from those kinds of doldrums typically takes years.
Tim DeRuyter piloted the ‘Dogs during their first five seasons in the Mountain West. DeRuyter had replaced the legendary Pat Hill, wearer of the Fu Manchu, conqueror of giants. Hill’s years were marked by stunning upsets and near-misses against titans of college football. In all, Hill’s teams defeated 17 AQ opponents. Even when Hill’s teams didn’t beat their power conference foes, they consistently put up a fight. Like in 2005, when they played USC, arguably the most talented team in college football history, and gave Pete Carroll all he could handle:
For all his accomplishments, however, Hill could only muster a WAC title in 1999. When DeRuyter took over in 2012 and immediately won Mountain West titles his first two years, it looked like Fresno had finally gotten over the hump. However, records of 6-8, 3-9, and 1-11 in subsequent years ultimately doomed DeRuyter.
Enter Jeff Tedford. The former Cal head coach and quarterback guru took the helm last season in a widely-mocked move and immediately restored the program. Their 10-4 finish marked just the second time in NCAA history that a team went from double-digit losses to double-digit wins in a single season. It was nothing short of stunning.
The Bulldogs will look to build upon that success in 2018. With Tedford and most of their 2017 core returning, they look like the surest bet in the conference this side of Boise.
The Players (Offense)
The void left by former star and current Oakland Raiders’ QB Derek Carr looked dark and unforgiving until last season. Marcus McMaryion, a cast-off from Oregon State, stepped into the starting role in week 5 last season. McMaryion played some excellent football despite missing spring ball and part of fall camp in order to graduate from OSU. No one will mistake him for Carr, but his efficiency and mobility were major assets in Tedford’s system. Now a senior, McMaryion will look to improve where it matters most: on third down. With a full off-season in Fresno behind him and a coach known for getting the most out of his quarterbacks, McMaryion looks to take a significant step forward this season.
The Supporting Cast
Virtually all of the talent around McMaryion returns as well. 1,000-yard receiver KeeSean Johnson – pictured at the top of this post – will feature heavily in the offense for a second-straight season. The receiving corps will also feature Fresno native and Oklahoma transfer Michiah Quick, who had an outstanding spring. Veteran Delvon Hardaway has been granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, rounding out the deepest, most talented group of receivers in the MWC. Hardaway looked promising as a red-shirt freshman in 2014, but nagging injuries have kept him from reaching his full potential. All indications, however, are that he’s healthy and ready to contribute this season.
The Bulldogs relied on a three-headed monster at running back last season, and all three heads return. Ronnie Rivers, Jordan Mims, and Josh Hokit allowed Tedford to constantly rotate fresh legs. The Bulldogs were able to wear down several opponents late in games. Tedford will rely on his running backs to open things up for McMaryion, especially as the season wears on.
The entire tight end depth chart returns as well, including Mackey Award Watch List member Jared Rice. Rice finished last season strong and adds yet another target for McMaryion.
3/5 of the offensive line – including the outstanding Netane Muti and the gargantuan Micah St. Andrew who, at over 340 pounds, will play center this year – also return. This group significantly aided McMaryion’s development last season and absolutely road-graded opponents in the running game. With so much returning talent, Fresno State has the potential to be one of the top offenses in the conference.
The Players (Defense)
As good as the offense was last season, Fresno State’s defense was the real reason they turned things around so quickly. This group gave up an astonishing 17.9 points per game, the fewest in the valley since 1991. They narrowly missed a top-ten finish in total defense nationally, coming in at 11th. Coordinator Orlondo Steinauer swooped down from Canada and then flitted away back to the CFL after the season. Linebackers coach Bert Watts gets the promotion to DC, and it will be up to him to keep the machine running. The job shouldn’t be too difficult, however, because he’s got quite a bit of talent to work with.
The Bulldogs return their entire back seven, including all-MWC and Butkus Award Watch List member Jeffrey Allison leading the best group of linebackers in the conference. George Helmuth and James Bailey are a notch below Allison in talent, but Helmuth in particular has a nose for the football. All three make plays around the ball and can stop the run and cover well. This group will continue to give offenses all kinds of problems this season.
In the secondary, Mike Bell and Juju Hughes might be the best safety combo in the MWC, while corner Jaron Bryant is a relentless ball-hawk who hauled in four picks last season, scoring twice.
While the back-end of the defense could scarily be even better than last season, the defense as a whole may take a step back. That’s because they lose four defensive linemen who were absolutely integral to their success. The line was good enough last season to put pressure on opposing QBs without blitzing, freeing up Allison, Hughes, and co. to make plays. With an entirely new starting unit up front, there will, at the very least, be some growing pains this season.
Still, the defense remains the strength of this team, even if they do take a bit of a step back.
Jeff Tedford came home last season. He played quarterback at Fresno State from 1981-82 after starting his career at Cerritos College. After graduating, he embarked on a six-year playing career in the Canadian Football League, after which he spent three years as an assistant coach with the Calgary Stampeders. He returned to Fresno as the quarterbacks coach in 1992 and was promoted to Offensive Coordinator in 1993, where he remained until 1997. He held the same position at Oregon from 1998-2001 before getting his shot to be a head coach at Cal in 2002, taking over a team that had gone 1-10 the previous year (sound familiar?).
Tedford spent 11 seasons in Berkeley, winning PAC-10 Coach of the Year Honors twice and leading the Golden Bears to a share of the conference title in 2006. He never quite pushed the program into the upper echelon of college football, but he did gain a reputation as a developer of fine quarterbacks, his best work without question being Aaron Rodgers. His glory years at Cal included top ten finishes and bowl wins, and he successfully turned the program from an afterthought in the PAC-10 to a consistent contender.
His latter years in Berkeley were forgettable, however, and he was eventually fired after the 2012 season. He took 2013 off and returned to coaching as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator in 2014. Heart surgery kept him away from the team, however, and his first NFL coaching stint never got off the ground.
In 2015, he went back to Canada as the head coach of the BC Lions but resigned after only a single mediocre season. He spent 2016 as a consultant for Chris Petersen at Washington before accepting the Fresno State job.
His early success in Fresno is fascinating. It looked for all the world like Tedford had flamed out as a head coach. His final three seasons at Cal were mediocre to say the least, and his time in Tampa and Canada similarly unimpressive. His return to Fresno surprised many. With a 10-win season under his belt, the 56-year-old Tedford appears content to stay in Fresno for the foreseeable future. While most G5 coaches are looking for a payday elsewhere, Fresno may have struck gold in Tedford: a competent, winning coach who actually wants to be there. Bulldogs everywhere rejoice.
The Schedule (with Milquetoast Predictions!)
September 1 – vs. Idaho – W
Poor Idaho. The WAC disbanded after the 2012 season, leaving the Vandals without a home. They joined the Sun Belt in 2013, but the conference made up of teams from southern states felt Moscow, ID was geographically undesirable. Weird. They were unceremoniously booted from the conference after last season and will drop down to FCS beginning this year. Idaho may have once been a threat to one of the MWC’s better teams – they beat Colorado State in a bowl game just two seasons ago – but as an FCS program, they are simply another lower-division team the MWC must defeat. Fresno smacks the Vandals upside the head with reality in this one.
September 8 – @Minnesota – L
Minnesota’s head coach, the disturbingly enthusiastic PJ Fleck, is the kind of under-40 wunderkind every football team should be looking for. The NFL’s Sean McVay, 32, took the previously moribund LA Rams to the playoffs last season, and just two years ago, Fleck, 37, had his Western Michigan Broncos giving Wisconsin all they could handle in the Cotton Bowl. In his second year at Minnesota, this game serves as a kind of litmus test for Fleck. Win convincingly, and it’s a sign that the Golden Gophers are trending upward. Lose, and he may have to row his boat somewhere else. Fleck is a smart coach and Minnesota has superior depth, if not talent, to Fresno. No Hill-era upsets here.
September 15 – @UCLA – L
UCLA was a twice a victim to Pat Hill’s Bulldogs, once in a bowl game and once at the Rose Bowl. Chip Kelly, the former scoreboard-breaking Oregon head coach who almost broke his brain in the NFL, is back in college hoping to turn the Bruins around. Fresno State is a good team, but the talent at UCLA cannot be ignored, and it will be interesting to see what a capable head coach can do with it. At minimum, the Bruins should be energized, and that should be enough to fend off Mountain West opponents.
September 29 – vs. Toledo – W
Here’s where the Bulldogs can make their early-season statement. Toledo is a good G5 team. They’re the defending MAC champions coming off an 11-3 season. Fresno State, however, is better by just about every conceivable measure. A decisive win here will a) help take the sting out of back-to-back P5 losses and b) build some confidence going into conference play.
October 6 – @Nevada – W
Nevada looks to be on the way up, but they’re not quite at Fresno’s level. The Bulldogs’ attacking defense will likely be too much for the young Wolf Pack to handle. Fresno won a 41-21 game last season during which their defense forced six turnovers. That’s not likely to happen again, so expect a closer game, but Fresno State remains the better team.
October 13 – vs. Wyoming – W
Two great defenses likely mean a similar game to last season’s 13-7 slug-fest and Fresno State victory. Wyoming was without Josh Allen – who has dandruff the size of mice – so the game served to foreshadow this season. Wyoming’s defense will be enough to get them some wins this season, but not here. Look for McMaryion to make one or two plays and for the defense to hold serve.
October 20 – @New Mexico – W
Fresno State trounced the Lobos last season 38-0, and nothing out of Albuquerque indicates better days on the immediate horizon. Bob Davie could well be a fired coach walking by this point in the season.
October 27 – vs. Hawaii – W
The Bulldogs went to the rock last season and came away with a 31-21 victory that was not nearly as close as the score indicates. McMaryion had one of his best games, tossing four TDs, and the Bulldogs built a 31-7 lead before the timezone difference caught up to them. Expect a shellacking this time. Hawaii is on the kind of spiral few programs work their way out of, and wins on the mainland will be hard to come by.
November 3 – @UNLV – W
UNLV inexplicably beat Fresno State last season 26-16. It was an ugly game for the Bulldogs. McMaryion was inefficient, KeeSean Johnson lost a fumble, and UNLV won the field position battle all night. It was easily Fresno’s worst game of the season, including 25+ point losses to Alabama and Washington. With another year of experience, don’t expect this team to turn in performances like that this season.
November 17 – vs. San Diego State – W
Here it is. The division championship game. The Bulldogs curb-stomped an excellent Aztecs team last season, 27-3. Fresno’s defense really announced itself in this game, holding future NFL first-round draft pick Rashaad Penny to just 69 yards. It was a shocking result that, in retrospect, should have been expected.
SDSU won’t be shocked this season, but their days of owning the west division are likely over, at least for now. The winner of this game is likely to be take the crown for the foreseeable future, and in 2018, it belongs to Fresno State.
November 24 – vs. San Jose State – W
This rivalry was fun once. In 2013, Fresno State came to San Jose the day after Thanksgiving with an undefeated record and BCS dreams in their hearts. David Fales out-dueled Derek Carr in a thrilling 62-52 upset that probably ranks as the biggest win in San Jose State’s history.
Don’t expect the rivalry to be fun this year. Fresno State is miles ahead of SJSU. The Bulldogs won this game last season 27-10 in the football version of holding the palm of your hand against your little brother’s forehead while he wildly swings himself to exhaustion. The Spartans’ only hope to stay within three touchdowns is if Tedford and co. have the division sewn up by now and decide to rest their starters for the championship game.
Total: 9-3 (7-1)
Last Word: Fresno State Unleashed
Fresno State has, miraculously, inexplicably, recovered from the worst three-year stretch in their history, and they have positioned themselves well for success going forward. They have the coach, the history, and the support to remain contenders in the west for the foreseeable future. The question will be whether they can surpass Boise. I don’t see it happening this season, but in 2019 and beyond, they may well do it. For 2018, expect a rematch of last December’s MWC championship game between these Bulldogs and their renewed Bronco rivals.
Up Next: Hawaii!
The Rainbow Warriors struggled last season and lost whatever momentum they had gained from their 2016 bounce-back year. Can third-year coach and UH alum Nick Rolovich turn it around again?