Fresno State wraps up its 15 spring practices Saturday. Now eager Bulldogs fans can then let their minds wander five, six, seven months ahead, because this team fits the profile of Group of Five conference champions that played their way into a big New Year's Day bowl games.
With 17 returning starters from a 10-4 team, the Bulldogs have four more than Central Florida did last season when it went 13-0 and beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, three more than Western Michigan had in 2016 when it was 13-1 and played Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
They have four more than Houston had in 2015 when it went 13-1 with a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl and three more than Boise State in 2014 when it beat Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl and finished 12-2.
Fresno State also has a schedule loaded with opportunities to garner national attention. playing at Minnesota, at UCLA and in the Mountain West Conference at Boise State. It gets division rival San Diego State at Bulldog Stadium.
The highest hurdle the Bulldogs will face next season might be the growing Power 5 divide, which despite the history in evidence was dismissed by coach Jeff Tedford.
"I don't really look at it as an issue," he said. "I don't even think about that, to tell you the truth, how we can overcome it or whatever.
"I never go into anything looking at a Power Five or a Group of Five or whatever the things are. I think we have enough good players here to compete with anybody that we play. I think we have the mindset to do that."
Fresno State has not beaten a team from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC since 2012, when it eviscerated a young Colorado team 69-14 behind five touchdown passes from quarterback Derek Carr and 144 rushing yards and two touchdowns from running back Robbie Rouse.
It is 0-9 since, losing by an average of 51.2 to 17.8, and as the gap has grown between the Power Five conferences and the Group of Five, that is not out of round.
In 2017, Group of Five against the Power Five in the regular season with average score:
- American: 4-10, 41.2 to 24.8
- Conference USA: 2-19, 36.8 to 12.3
- Mid-American: 4-16, 33.3 to 17.5
- Mountain West: 3-18, 40.9 to 17.6
- Sun Belt: 1-17, 42.1 to 18.4
Fresno State lost last season at No. 1 Alabama and at No. 16 Washington in its second and third games, before it had all of its pieces in good working order.
It then beat San Diego State on the Aztecs' home field 27-3, dominating a team that had defeated Pac-12 opponents Arizona State and Stanford.
In its final regular-season game, Fresno State beat Boise State 28-17, which has been one of the top Group of Five programs through the past decade. And it defeated Houston in the Hawaii Bowl, which had a victory at Arizona on its resume, beat Oklahoma in 2016 and took down Florida State in that 2015 bowl game.
"We have some big games on the schedule again, some good teams," safety Juju Hughes said. "We want to go out there and show people. Some people think last year was just a fluke, I've heard, so we just want to go out there and prove ourselves again. "
Those first two losses last season fueled the next nine victories, and could come into play Sept. 8 at Minnesota or Sept. 15 at UCLA.
"That boosted our confidence, but since coach Tedford came in he has been telling us that we have talent, we have this and that," inside linebacker Jeffrey Allison said.
"We believed that we could play with Alabama. Washington, we felt we should have done a lot better. We had a lot of mistakes. We know we can play with anybody as long as we put our minds to it and work together."
If they have breached that divide, the Bulldogs could be in line for big things if they can get past two other Mountain West Conference teams, Boise State and San Diego State, that are legitimate contenders to crack that New Year's bowl lineup.
With quarterback Marcus McMaryion, the Bulldogs return 84.3 percent of their passing yards. They have back 95.4 percent of their rushing yards, 83 percent of their receiving yards and their top seven tacklers back from a year ago.
It will not matter if the Bulldogs are not ranked going into the season.
Central Florida did not enter the top 25 until it had played three games. It took Western Michigan six games to crack the polls. Houston played five games and Boise State played 11 before they broke through.
There also are a loss and a lesson driving the Bulldogs.
"Everyone talks about the championship game against Boise, but the game that messed us up was UNLV," outside linebacker James Bailey said. "It was a punch in the face and made us realize we can't be complacent in what we do."
The Bulldogs were 4-0 in the Mountain West and had just beaten San Diego State, the two-time defending conference champion, when they fell to the Rebels 26-16 at Bulldog Stadium.
"That really stunk," Allison said. "We're trying to keep that chip on our shoulder and try to do what we did, but even better."
So go ahead, kick up the feet and get carried away, knowing the Bulldogs won't.
"Coach Tedford does a good job keeping us level-headed, keeping us on this path to where we want to get," Hughes said.
"We have some mature guys on this team and we all know where we want to get and what we want to do. We don't have to think about it."
Group of Five contenders
Boise State (11-3): Quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Alex Mattison return and the Broncos have nine starters back from a defense that ranked third in the Mountain West in total defense. The big games: at Oklahoma State, San Diego State, Fresno State.
San Diego State (10-3): The Aztecs have won 10 or more games three seasons in a row and with improved offensive line play — they return all five starters — could get there again. The big games: at Stanford, Arizona State, at Boise State, at Fresno State.
Memphis (10-3): The Tigers lost quarterback Riley Ferguson and wideout Anthony Miller, but have 15 returning starters. The non-conference schedule is light compared to other contenders, though. The big games: Central Florida, at Missouri.
Florida Atlantic (11-3): Coach Lane Kiffin will make sure the Owls attract attention and outside of Marshall there doesn't appear to be a lot in C-USA. The Owls also have 10 returning starters on defense to lean on. The big games: at Oklahoma, at Central Florida.
Central Florida (13-0): Coach Scott Frost left for Nebraska, but left a lot of talent behind for Josh Heupel with 15 returning starters including nine from an offense that led the nation in scoring. The big games: at North Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Pitt, at Memphis.
If you go
FRESNO STATE FOOTBALL SPRING PREVIEW
- When: 10:30 a.m. Saturday
- Where: Bulldog Stadium
- Admission: Free
- Of note: It's the final session of Fresno State spring football, featuring drills and a scrimmage. Some concessions will be open. Some fans will be invited onto the field to participate in three drills (punt catching, passing accuracy, field goal kicks); those interested can sign up Saturday at a tickets table at the top of the south end zone ramp.