A tough but manageable non-conference slate kicks off Saturday, when the Bulldogs take on a perennial Big Ten power in a raucous environment.
Kickoff – 5 p.m. Sept. 3 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln
2015 – 6-7, 3-5 Big Ten
Coach – Mike Riley (99-87 overall; second season at Nebraska)
Returning starters – 11 (5 offense; 5 defense)
Players to watch – QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. (3,030 pass yds, 22 TDs); RB Terrell Newby (765 rushing yds); WR Jordan Westerkamp (65 catches, 918 yds); S Nate Gerry (79 tackles, 4 INTs); CB Josh Kalu (75 tackles, 3 INTs)
Scouting report – Armstrong is a four-year starter with many of his key targets back. If the unit reduces turnovers – the Cornhuskers threw 21 interceptions and lost six fumbles – and Armstrong boosts his completion percentage from his 55.2 percent of last year, Nebraska has a chance to be one of the tougher offenses Fresno State will face. If not, the Huskers’ propensity for giving away the ball could be the confidence booster the Bulldogs defense needs to kick-start the season. Defensively, the Cornhuskers will be young up front after losing four tackles. But Gerry and Kalu, along with cornerback Chris Jones, solidify the secondary. Nebraska was predicted by the media to finish second in the Big Ten’s West Division.
SACRAMENTO STATE HORNETS
Kickoff – 7 p.m. Sept. 10 at Bulldog Stadium
2015 – 2-9, 1-7 Big Sky
Coach – Jody Sears (13-33 overall; 9-14 entering third season at Sac State)
Returning starters – 17 (8 offense, 8 defense)
Players to watch – LB Manoah Pearson (77 tackles, 2 sacks), RB Jordan Robinson (979 total yards, including 809 rushing), OL Jonathan Bade, DL George Obinna (33 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and DL Ben Sorensen (34 tackles, 3 sacks)
Scouting report – Sac State tied for last in the FCS Big Sky a year ago. The expectations aren’t very high this year, either, with the Hornets projected 11th in the 13-team conference, according to the coaches’ preseason poll. Sac State does have some talent with Robinson fifth in rushing yards among returning Big Sky running backs. Sac State has nine players from the Fresno/Visalia area, including ex-Buchanan High standout Sorensen.
Kickoff – noon Sept. 17 at the Glass Bowl
2015 – 10-2, 6-2 Mid-American Conference
Coach – Jason Candle (1-0, first full season as head coach at Toledo)
Returning starters – 14 (8 offense, 4 defense)
Players to watch – RB Kareem Hunt (973 rushing yds, 12 TDs), RB Terry Swanson (923 rushing yards, 7 TDs), WR Corey Jones (55 catches, 577 yards), DT Treyvon Hester (34 tackles, 6.5 for loss), S DeJuan Rogers (67 tackles, 12 pass deflections)
Scouting report – Fresno State’s trip to Toledo will be anything but easy – traveling from one midsized city to another three time zones away. The Rockets bring back key cogs in running backs Hunt and Swanson. Quarterback Logan Woodside, who redshirted last season, threw for 2,263 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2014. Candle served as offensive coordinator last season before taking over as interim coach for the bowl game.
Kickoff – 1:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at Bulldog Stadium
2015 – 6-7, 3-5 American Athletic Conference
Coach – Phillip Montgomery (entering second season at Tulsa)
Returning starters – 14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Players to watch – QB Dane Evans (4,332 yards, 25 TDs, 62.9 percent), WR Josh Atkinson (76 catches, 1,071 yards), RB D’Angelo Brewer (837 rushing yards, 6 TDs), LB Matt Linscott (107 tackles, 5 sacks), LB Trent Martin (104 tackles, 14 for loss)
Scouting report – Evans last season ranked seventh in the nation with an average of 333.2 passing yards per game. And the senior will have the 6-foot-2, 208-pound Atkinson back as his primary target. Also back is Keevan Lucas, who missed the final nine games of 2015 with an injury, but in 2014 totaled 1,219 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Tulsa ranked 21st in the nation while averaging 37.2 points per game but also allowed 39.8, eighth-worst nationally.
Kickoff – 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1 at Sam Boyd Stadium
2015 – 3-9, 2-6 Mountain West
Coach – Tony Sanchez (entering second season at UNLV)
Returning starters – 13 (6 offense, 6 defense)
Players to watch – WR Devonte Boyd (54 catches, 904 yards, 7 TDs), WR Kendal Keys (43 catches, 515 yards, 6 TDs), RB Lexington Thomas (506 rushing yards, 3 TDs), LB Tau Lotulelei (70 tackles, 11.5 for loss), DE Jeremiah Valoaga (4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks)
Scouting report – The Rebels are turning to former Nebraska quarterback Johnny Stanton. He flourished last year at Saddleback College, passing for 3,471 yards and 27 touchdowns to earn All-America honors. He also rushed for 752 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’ll have talented receivers to work with in Boyd, Keys and Darren Woods Jr. UNLV’s defense, meanwhile, allowed 33.7 points per game.
NEVADA WOLF PACK
Kickoff – TBA Oct. 8 at Mackay Stadium in Reno
2015 – 7-6, 4-4 Mountain West
Coach – Brian Polian (18-20 entering fourth season at Nevada)
Returning starters – 16 (9 offense, 5 defense)
Players to watch – QB Tyler Stewart (2,139 yards, 15 TDs), RB James Butler (1,342 rushing yards, 10 TDs), WR Hassan Henderson (52 catches, 741 yards), SS Asauni Rufus (105 tackles, 1 INT), FS Dameon Baber (6 INTs, 8 pass deflections)
Scouting report – The Wolf Pack has logged back-to-back 7-6 seasons. One area Nevada has excelled at is limiting mistakes, committing a conference-low 12 turnovers last season. Stewart is a senior and has proven he can pass (123.1 efficiency) and run (323 rushing yards last year). New offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey has the luxury of working with nine returning starters. In addition, kicker Brent Zuzo, on the preseason Lou Groza Award watch list, converted 17 of 19 field goals last season. The Wolf Pack allowed 405.4 total yards per game, seventh in the Mountain West.
SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS
Kickoff – 7 p.m. Oct. 14 at Bulldog Stadium
2015 – 11-3 overall, 8-0 Mountain West
Coach – Rocky Long (108-92 overall; 43-23 entering sixth season at San Diego State)
Returning starters – 15 (7 offense, 7 defense)
Players to watch – RB Donnel Pumphrey (1,653 rushing yards, 17 TDs; 28 catches for 416 yards, 3 TDs), LB Calvin Munson (98 tackles, 9.5 sacks) , CB Damontae Kazee (8 INTs, 15 pass deflections), S Na’im McGee (81 tackles, 7 pass deflections), S Malik Smith (77 tackles, 5 INTs)
Scouting report – The Aztecs return the Mountain West’s Offensive Player of the Year in Pumphrey and Defensive Player of the Year in Kazee, along with a lot of other talent. That has some picking San Diego State as the top team to come out of the Group of Five conferences. The Aztecs enter 2016 on a 10-game winning streak. Quarterback play could be an issue with sophomore Christian Chapman having just two games of experience as a starter last season. The Aztecs’ forte, however, is defense. They allowed a Mountain West-low 287.3 yards per game last season while generating 34 turnovers (23 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries).
UTAH STATE AGGIES
Kickoff – 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium in Logan
2015 – 6-7, 5-3 Mountain West
Coach – Matt Wells (25-16 entering fourth season at Utah State)
Returning starters – 11 (6 offense, 3 defense)
Players to watch – QB Kent Myers (60.8 percent passing, 1,593 yards, 16 TDs), RB Devante Mays (966 rushing yards, 9 TDs), TE Wyatt Houston (25 catches, 307 yards, 3 TDs), DE Ricky Ali’fua (24 tackles, 4 sacks), CB Jalen Davis (51 tackles, 3 INTs)
Scouting report – The Aggies are working with new coordinators. And with only three defensive starters back, Utah State certainly is in transition. Defense has been the Aggies’ strength during Wells’ first three seasons, ranking third in the Mountain West in 2015 with 332.5 total yards allowed per game. Mays finished 10th with an average of 74.3 rushing yards per game.
AIR FORCE FALCONS
Kickoff – 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at Bulldog Stadium
2015 – 8-6, 6-2 Mountain West
Coach – Troy Calhoun (67-50 entering 10th season at Air Force)
Returning starters – 14 (4 offense, 9 defense)
Players to watch – RB Jacobi Owens (1,092 rushing yards, 7 TDs), RB Timothy McVey (742 total yards, 13 TDs) WR Jalen Robinette (26 catches, 641 yards, 5 TDs), SS Weston Steelhammer (80 tackles, 5 INTs), CB Roland Ladipo (79 tackles, 3 INTs)
Scouting report – Coming off a divisional title and runner-up finish in the Mountain West championship, the Falcons have the momentum, experience and talent to contend for a conference title. Quarterback Nate Romine is back after a season-ending knee injury two games into last season. Still, the Falcons averaged 33.8 points per game, second best in the conference. The running attack generated 319.4 yards per game, fourth best in the nation. Air Force also returns most of a defense that racked up 37 sacks.
COLORADO STATE RAMS
Kickoff – 12:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at Hughes Stadium in Fort Collins
2015 – 7-6, 5-3 Mountain West
Coach – Mike Bobo (entering second season at Colorado State)
Returning starters – 12 (6 offense, 4 defense)
Players to watch – QB Nick Stevens (60.8 percent passing, 2,679 yards, 21 TDs), RB Dalyn Dawkins (867 rushing yards, 2 TDs), OL Fred Zerblis, LB Kevin Davis (101 tackles, 14 for loss), LB Deonte Clyburn (74 tackles, 7 for loss)
Scouting report – The Rams have one of the Mountain West’s top returning quarterbacks in Stevens, who passed for the fifth most yards in school history and led the conference in touchdown passes. Colorado State also is set at running back with Dawkins and Izzy Matthews. Both rushed for at least 140 yards in a game last season. And four of five starters are back on the offensive line. The defense will be rebuilding after graduating the majority of its line and secondary.
Kickoff – 4 p.m. Nov. 19 at Bulldog Stadium
2015 – 3-10, 0-8 Mountain West
Coach – Nick Rolovich (first season as head coach at Hawaii)
Returning starters – 11 (5 offense, 4 defense)
Players to watch – WR Marcus Kemp (36 catches, 563 yards, 2 TDs), OL Dejon Allen, DE Makani Kema-Kaleiwahea (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks), LB Jahlani Tavai (56 tackles, 3 sacks), LB Jerrol Garcia-Williams (89 tackles, 1.5 sacks)
Scouting report – The Warriors, who opened the 2016 season early with a 51-31 loss to Cal in Australia, are the only FBS team on the Bulldogs’ schedule that had a worse record than Fresno State a year ago. Hawaii, which hasn’t been to a bowl since 2010, might endure more of the same in the rookie season for Rolovich, who was Nevada’s offensive coordinator. Senior Ikaika Woolsey won the starting quarterback job and will try to get comfortable executing Hawaii’s new run-and-shoot/read-option offense.
SAN JOSE STATE
Kickoff – 12:30 p.m. Nov. 26 at Bulldog Stadium
2015 – 6-7 overall, 4-4 Mountain West
Coach – Ron Caragher (59-44; 15-22 entering fourth season at San Jose State)
Returning starters – 15 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Players to watch – QB Kenny Potter (1,984 passing yards, 415 rushing), TE Billy Freeman (48 catches, 586 yards, 6 TDs), Nick Oreglia (37 tackles, 2 forced fumbles), LB Christian Tago (125 tackles, 9 for loss), S Maurice McKnight (100 tackles, 2 forced fumbles),
Scouting report – The Spartans have quarterback stability in Potter but are looking for playmakers. Last year’s standout running back, Tyler Ervin (who rushed for 300 yards against Fresno State), is gone; and top receiver Tyler Winston (35 catches, 368 yards, 2 TDs) will miss the season for academic reasons. San Jose State had the conference’s best pass defense a year ago, allowing an average of 157.8 yards. But the Spartans will be working with a new defensive staff after coordinator Greg Robinson retired. Tago should continue to make a lot of plays after ranking 21st in the country with 9.6 tackles per game.