College football season inches closer by the day, giving Fresno State fans license to let their imaginations run wild.
Picture this: The Bulldogs steamroll through their schedule and cap a dream season by accepting a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl against a brand-name program.
Yes, that could actually happen. No flights of fancy or high-powered telescope needed.
As things stand now, less than a month before the Sept. 1 opener, Fresno State has all the ingredients it needs to emerge in December as the highest-ranked Group of Five team in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
That’s not a prediction, just me raising and fanning a possibility that’s not as remote as it might sound.
In Year 2 under Jeff Tedford, with most of the key starters returning from last year’s astonishing 10-4 team, the Bulldogs should be equally good if not better. Why not set the bar through the roof?
Fresno State played such stout defense in 2017 that all the offense really had to do was be efficient and avoid mistakes. This year the pieces are in place to be explosive.
What the late-arriving, quick-digesting Marcus McMaryion did last season was remarkable. Still, there’s another level the Dinuba native can attain. After an entire offseason spent learning the intricacies of the playbook and synching with a loaded receiving corps, Saturday nights at Bulldog Stadium could be an aerial display not seen since the days of You Know Who.
Defensively, the losses of coordinator/miracle worker Orlondo Steinauer and key cogs along the defensive line are mitigated by the return of a stellar back seven. When have the Bulldogs had a set of linebackers as good as Jeffrey Allison, George Helmuth and James Bailey, or a duo of safeties as good as Mike Bell and Juju Hughes? The answer to both parts of that question might be “Never.”
Besides the roster and coaching staff, Fresno State has the right schedule. By that I mean September road games against Power Five opponents the Bulldogs can actually beat. No Alabamas or Washingtons in sight.
Despite the excitement over Chip Kelly’s arrival, 2018 shapes up as a transition year for UCLA. The Bruins lost first-round quarterback Josh Rosen and several key players on defense, which is why they were picked fourth in the Pac-12 South. Minnesota, tabbed to finish fifth in the Big Ten West, also has uncertainty at quarterback after finishing 121st in the country in pass offense.
While Fresno State will almost certainly enter as underdogs, both are winnable games. In fact, the Bulldogs’ toughest nonconference foe might just be Toledo, a fellow Group of Five program that has gone 11-3, 9-4 and 10-2 the last three years.
The Mountain West portion of the schedule also sets up nicely. The Bulldogs don’t face any fellow preseason favorites until back-to-back games against Boise State and San Diego State in November. Once we get there, it’ll be clear whether Fresno State was worthy of the hype.
Until then, might as well dream big. Might as well get carried away. Might as well make hotel reservations in the Phoenix area the week between Christmas and New Year’s. If you have to cancel, so what?
Certainly there’s risk involved because dreams can always get dashed. Fresno State fans have all-too-recent personal experience. In 2001, the Bulldogs were 6-0 and ranked No. 8 in the country until crash landing. In 2013, a 10-0 start fizzled in a hail of San Jose State points, 62 to be exact.
But those stumbles occurred during the old system, when Group of Five teams had to go undefeated for a chance at a major bowl. Not anymore. Under the CFP, Fresno State could get there with one loss (like Houston did in 2015) or even two (a la Boise State in 2014) depending on the national landscape.
Anything is possible, just as long as the Bulldogs emerge as MW champs. Which, after what took place a year ago, remains the primary focus.
“I don’t want to be remembered as a Mountain West runner-up,” McMaryion said last month at the conference media meeting in Las Vegas. “That’s definitely something that’s driving me.”
Which brings us to the final additive of this dream scenario: motivation. Fresno State lost the MW title to Boise State after having to play the championship game on the Broncos’ blue turf – even though the Bulldogs won the regular-season matchup one week prior. (The MW has since amended the host-team criteria.)
While losing the MW championship in such a fashion stung at the time, the teeter-totter now tilts in their favor. The Bulldogs know from experience what happens when they stumble against a weaker opponent (i.e. losing at home to UNLV). They’ll be certain to not let that happen again.
What do you get when you combine an expert coaching staff, a talented roster, a favorable schedule and gallons of motivation? You get the makings of a dream.
Time to dream big, Bulldogs fans. That’s what August is for.
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee