Most everybody has a sloppy uncle.
You know the type. He came over for Thanksgiving — clutching a $6 bottle of wine — and remains encamped in the guest room. He seated himself at the head of the table, carved the choicest pieces of white meat and piled his plate high with cranberry sauce.
He’s coarse, laughs at his own jokes and refuses to leave. Every year you hesitate before inviting him, but he’s family after all. You kind of have to.
Fresno State right now is doing a great sloppy uncle impersonation. The 6-6 Bulldogs, who will either be one game above .500 or one game below following Saturday’s Mountain West Conference championship game, are headed to their third straight bowl under coach Tim DeRuyter.
It doesn’t matter whether a team that has been blown out four times (twice on its home field) deserves a bowl berth. Let alone one that lost to UNLV. In this case, deserve takes a backseat to process — and the need for a conference to fill its bowl slots.
Someone will (gulp) swallow hard and invite them. Only because they must.
Both MW division champions are assured postseason berths. So say the rules, which were clarified recently. Fresno State did its part Saturday night by outlasting visiting Hawaii 28-21 (albeit barely) to wrap up the West and conclude the regular season with its third straight victory.
“We’re never going to apologize for winning,” DeRuyter said afterward. He said it more than once.
DeRuyter is right. The Bulldogs don’t owe anyone an apology, but at 6-6 it’s only natural to feel a little sheepish.
Fresno State has beaten only five FBS opponents. It can count the victory over FCS Southern Utah to reach the required minimum bowl hurdle of six wins.
Four weeks ago, the Bulldogs were on life support with no defibrillator paddles in sight. The coaching staff was under fire. The quarterback situation was a mess. The defense couldn’t stop Laton High.
Then something remarkable happened. Or maybe it wasn’t so remarkable after all. Maybe it was just the level of competition.
Beat San Jose, Nevada and Hawaii in succession (two lousy teams and a mediocre one — let’s be honest), and Fresno State is suddenly division champs. Everything is right with the world and back as it should be.
Uh, if you say so.
It might be fool’s gold, this 3-0 finish, but you’d have to be moron to push it away.
The Bulldogs deserve to be in this position. They beat both San Diego State and Nevada, the other main West Division contenders, to blot out a couple of unsightly conference losses.
It’s just hard to quantify if Fresno State is a good football team or a so-so one that took its lumps early and got hot at the right time. Not at 6-6. Not without winning a conference title or a bowl.
“I’ll let other people define” whether we’re a good team, DeRuyter said. “We’re a division champion and we’ve got a chance to be a conference champion, which is our ultimate goal. If we find a way to do that, we’re a pretty good football team.”
If Fresno State manages to snag a road win next week against a superior opponent, there will be no argument.
Until then, however, the Hawaii game produced some lingering doubts.
In the first half, the Bulldogs played like a good team. They moved the chains at will, scored touchdowns in the red zone and forced five Rainbow Warriors punts.
Play like that, and you can picture Fresno State winning a third straight MW title. Even its first bowl under DeRuyter.
Then came a second half in which the Bulldogs had just five drives. Two ended in interceptions, two ended in punts and the fifth ended the game.
Play like that, and you can picture Fresno State losing at home by four touchdowns to 4-8 Wyoming.
So which team is this, really? We have two more games in which to find out. Although these Bulldogs deserve credit for turning their season around, let’s see how it ends up before etching anything in granite.
A year ago Fresno State entered the MW championship game 10-1 (remember, the Colorado game got canceled). That’s a long, long way from 6-6, but don’t tell that to senior receiver Josh Harper.
“I feel the same way,” Harper said after playing his final game at Bulldog Stadium. “A championship game is a championship game, and we’re in it.
“The records go out the window. Whoever wins the championship game is the champion no matter the record.”
Harper speaks the truth. If the Bulldogs become conference champs, those six losses won’t matter. Of course, if they lose or lose badly, those six losses become accusatory index fingers by the rest of the conference.
Funny thing. Fresno State could’ve beaten both UNLV and Wyoming and found themselves in this exact same position: playing for the MW championship on the road.
Except no one could accuse an eight-win team of overstaying its welcome.
Unlike these 6-6 Bulldogs — and your sloppy uncle.