Before the 2014 Fresno State Bulldogs came along, the 2011 UCLA Bruins were the only team in major-college football history to go 6-8.
It cost Rick Neuheisel his job.
Tim DeRuyter needn’t worry about that. Fresno State’s third-year coach has more job security than most in his chosen profession thanks to a 26-14 career record, two shiny Mountain West Conference championship trophies and a guaranteed contract through 2018.
Still, it would be a Plastic Man-like stretch to say everything is hunky dory.
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Under normal circumstances, any bowl loss, even one as lopsided as the Bulldogs’ most recent Hawaii Bowl appearance, would be insufficient cause for alarm.
But these don’t feel like normal circumstances. Coming off two previous bowl blowouts, DeRuyter upped the ante. He spoke about the importance of finishing .500 and sending out the seniors the right way. He talked about how this team, compared to the previous two, hadn’t really accomplished anything and exported physical practices to the island.
None of that mattered. Against a Rice team supposedly their equal, the Bulldogs were so badly outplayed and outcoached you might’ve thought someone in the traveling party dug up a cursed tiki doll.
More so than either the 2012 Hawaii Bowl or the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl, this 30-6 drubbing will cast a long shadow over the offseason.
Because now doubt starts to creep in whether next year will be any different.
How can it not?
DeRuyter hasn’t been available for interviews these last couple days but gave some honest, plain-spoken answers during Wednesday’s postgame news conference.
He used terms like “not acceptable” and “something we’ve got to fix” to describe the 6-8 season before adding, “We’ve got a higher standard than that here, and we’ve got to go back to work in January.”
Clearly, there will be much to keep him occupied over these next nine months.
Despite how poorly the season ended, I don’t expect DeRuyter to make significant changes to his coaching staff or the offensive and defensive schemes.
Nor, at this juncture, should he be compelled to. Not simply to mollify the reactionaries on Twitter or Bulldogs message boards. But DeRuyter needs to evaluate every aspect of his program and be 100% honest in those evaluations. On too many occasions this season his team was either thoroughly outplayed or looked completely unprepared.
It could be personnel. It could be coaching. It cannot be easily dismissed.
Let’s start on offense. To cement his starting quarterback status, probably all Brian Burrell needed was a decent outing in the Hawaii Bowl. Instead he played dismally, prompting DeRuyter to insert Zack Greenlee late in the third quarter and declare the job wide open.
So come spring, we’ll have Burrell competing against Greenlee, who hasn’t shown much in either of his two extended appearances, freshman Kilton Anderson and much-hyped early enrollee Chason Virgil, who received a gentle-but-firm admonishment from Derek Carr on social media for his excited but inconsiderate re-tweeting.
Sounds like a recipe for uncertainty. Judging by how DeRuyter handled things this season, we may not find out who starts the 2015 opener against Abilene Christian until the Bulldogs burst from the tunnel.
Compounding the questions at quarterback, Fresno State will enter next season without a proven, cast-iron receiver. Aaron Peck looks the part but has never attained any measure of consistency, and young guns Delvon Hardaway and Da’Mari Scott haven’t developed as hoped.
So if you’re keeping score at home, the Bulldogs don’t have a starting quarterback or starting-caliber receivers. Yet barring a major overhaul, they’ll continue to run a spread offense that relies primarily on those position groups.
No, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. Especially when you have a stud tailback like Marteze Waller, or have seen promising understudies Dontel James and Kurt Scoby. Not to mention three returning starters on the offensive line.
Heck, anything’s better than a bubble screen on fourth-and-1. No matter who made the call, or who didn’t check out of it. That play hasn’t worked all season.
On defense, DeRuyter’s area of expertise, Fresno State hasn’t been anything special since 2012. Susceptible to the big play in particular.
Yet now that unit must find a way to replace its anchor up front, nose tackle Tyeler Davison; its glue in the secondary, free safety Derron Smith; and its leading tackler, middle linebacker Karl Mickelsen.
Making matters worse, three guys expected to play key roles next season, defensive end Maurice Poyadue and linebackers Xavier Ulutu and Michael Lazarus, were suspended from the Hawaii Bowl for violations of unspecified athletic department policies.
Ulutu and Lazarus were arguably the two top recruits in the 2014 signing class. Not the ideal way to show you’re a future program cornerstone.
DeRuyter’s critics, of which there are a growing number, are fond of pointing out he has only managed to win with Pat Hill’s players.
That might be technically true, but no more for him than for any other college football head coach who experiences early success. It’s the way the system is designed.
DeRuyter isn’t a worse coach today than he was a season or two ago, when he was winning all those games with Derek Carr and Davante Adams.
He will end up being one, though, if he ignores the dashboard warning lights and proceeds as if everything is running smoothly.