Fresno State takes on Alabama on Saturday, playing the No. 1 team in the nation in its home opener and in front of more than 100,000 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The Crimson Tide are on a 65-game winning streak against unranked opponents that dates to 2007, have won 27 games in a row against nonconference opponents and are 10-0 under coach Nick Saban in home openers with an average margin of victory of 32.8 points.
It’s an unenviable task, and the Bulldogs are a substantial underdog. The point spread: 44.
They’ve practiced hard, they played hard last week and now it’s time to go on the road and compete. It’s always about competing in any situation that we’re in.
Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford
The Bulldogs might not show well on the scoreboard at the end of the game, but on the field they will have opportunities to make plays and might even have some openings coming off a 66-0 shutout of Incarnate Word. They likely would take that after losing their past seven games to Power Five opponents by an average of 34 points. Four of those seven were ranked, but none in the top 10.
Here are the things to watch:
1 Tackles for loss – Fresno State did well there in its opener, which should not be overvalued in a matchup against Alabama.
But its defense under coordinator Orlondo Steinauer can give opponents a variety of looks and in doing so could induce some mistakes up front by the Alabama line.
There always is a chance that the Alabama backs could power right through them, but, surprisingly, the Crimson Tide last season ranked 13th of 14 in the Southeastern Conference in tackles for loss allowed. There were 7.2 per game, including 4.5 in two games against Group of Five opponents.
In that one area, at least, Alabama was fairly pedestrian – it ranked 108th in the nation, one spot behind, you’ll never guess, … it was Fresno State.
The Bulldogs’ defense in the opener had nine TFL’s – its best since 2014 when it had 11 in a 28-21 victory over Hawaii – including five from defensive ends.
2 It’s good to receive – Fresno State wideout KeeSean Johnson, who led the Bulldogs in receiving last season and opened 2017 with seven catches for 120 yards in the rout of Incarnate Word, could be in for a big test.
Fresno State squares off against a team ranked No. 1 in the nation for a third time. The Bulldogs lost at No. 1 Oklahoma 52-28 in 2003 and at No. 1 USC 50-42 in 2005. They are 44-point underdogs against Alabama after being plus-28 at Oklahoma and plus-23 at USC.
Johnson put in a lot of work over the summer to become a more physical presence, to get off press coverage, and to compete better against defensive backs for the 50-50 ball.
But Alabama has a habit of limiting an opponent’s best receiver.
The Crimson Tide last week held Florida State’s Nyqwan Murray, the Seminoles’ leading returning receiver, to three catches for 29 yards, all in the first half.
Last season, USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster had one catch for 9 yards against the Crimson Tide and he finished the season with 70 receptions and 10 touchdowns, averaging 13.1 yards per play.
Tennessee’s Josh Malone caught five passes against Alabama, four in the fourth quarter after the Crimson Tide drew off by more than 30 points; Arkansas’ Drew Morgan had 43 yards on five receptions, only one of them resulting in a first down.
The Bulldogs’ Johnson is one of 18 players in the nation with a streak of at least 23 consecutive games with a reception including teammate Jamire Jordan, who has a catch in 25 in a row.
“I feel pretty confident in us as a receiving corps,” Johnson said. “Coach (Kirby) Moore, he has worked on our releases all offseason and all of the details that he has … I feel it’s going to be good.”
3 QB reps – There’s no point to talk of a quarterback controversy at the moment – the Bulldogs have played one game and won 66-0 – but that bye week after games at Alabama and at Washington does loom large.
By that point, the Bulldogs will have a much better idea whether Chason Virgil or Marcus McMaryion is the best option to take them into and through Mountain West Conference play.
They’ve got a good quarterback. They have a couple good receivers. They have some good players on defense. This is going to be a different kind of challenge for us and something our players have to respond to because this is a much improved team.
Alabama coach Nick Saban
In the rout of Incarnate Word, Virgil was on the field for 10 series and 48 snaps as the Bulldogs worked their way to a 43-0 lead. McMaryion played four series and 29 snaps in a cushy spot after all the semi-heavy lifting was done.
The Crimson Tide represent a different challenge, obviously, and coach Jeff Tedford could tip his hand which way the Bulldogs might be headed here if McMaryion gets more opportunity to run the offense in an infinitely more competitive setting.
The transfer from Oregon State is in a catch-up mode, but if a change is made there’s a good chance the Bulldogs are in deep, and gaining reps and experience then could become paramount.
4 Let’s get physical – In the 24-7 victory over Florida State, the Crimson Tide averaged 4.12 yards on 42 rushing plays (173 yards), which was their lowest yards per rush in 14 games.
That did not escape Saban. “I think overall our entire offensive line needs to be a little more physical,” he said. “We need to finish blocks a little better.”
That also could be trouble for the Bulldogs, who are leading the nation in rushing defense thanks in part to a 23-yard loss by Incarnate Word on a bad snap when trying to punt the football.
Fresno State will have difficulty matching Alabama – there are Crimson Tide running backs the size of Bulldogs defensive ends. But the Bulldogs will have to stand in and compete, and Tedford was confident they would take their swings.
“I have no doubt that our kids will compete, that they’ll play hard every down,” he said. “The only thing I can go by is they’ve practiced hard, they played hard last week and now it’s time to go on the road and compete. It’s always about competing in any situation that we’re in. That’s the main thing.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. ALABAMA
- Saturday: 12:30 p.m. at Bryant–Denny Stadium (101,821) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama
- TV/radio: ESPN2/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Records: Bulldogs 1-0, Crimson Tide 1-0
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