Six weeks ago I would never have written this, and six weeks from now I might look silly for doing so.
Oh, well. Here goes: The Fresno State Bulldogs, in their first year under coach Jeff Tedford, are going to play in a bowl game. What’s more, I think there’s a halfway-decent chance they finish the regular season 7-5.
How Fresno State handles New Mexico and specifically the Lobos’ unique triple-option spread Saturday night at Bulldog Stadium will go a long way toward determining the latter.
Still, through five games, the last two decisive victories over longtime rivals that also have first-year head coaches, it’s clear this rebuild is well ahead of schedule.
Enough for me to be comfortable proclaiming Fresno State will win at least six games. Which would be quite a turnaround for a program that went 1-11 last season and 3-9 the one before.
I’m not saying the Bulldogs, at 3-2 and 2-0 in the Mountain West, are a great football team (they’re not) or even a good one. Hard to make any sort of determination when the three teams they’ve beaten (San Jose State, Nevada, Incarnate Word) are a combined 2-16 while the two they’ve lost to (No. 1 Alabama and No. 5 Washington) are both 6-0.
But they’re definitely better than what we’ve seen lately – and, I’m confident, better than at least three of their remaining opponents. Enough for Fresno State to secure its first bowl berth since 2014.
Of the seven remaining opponents, the Bulldogs are better than UNLV, Hawaii and Brigham Young and should win those games. That gets them to six victories. New Mexico is a tossup. San Diego State, Boise State and Wyoming (at 7,200 feet in elevation in mid-November) are the most likely losses, though none are completely out of reach.
Coaching is the biggest reason for this rapid turnaround. Tedford and his assistants have not only infused the program with fresh talent, they’ve gotten the most out of players that were already here. Underclassmen such as Jeffrey Allison, Netane Muti and JuJu Hughes that are rapidly becoming cornerstones.
At the end of last season, I would’ve judged Fresno State, San Jose State and Nevada to be roughly equal on talent, with perhaps a slight edge to the Spartans based on their recent recruiting hauls.
It sure didn’t look that way the past two weeks. The Bulldogs were clearly better than either the Spartans or the Wolf Pack. Big whoop, you might say. San Jose State and Nevada are nobodies. Sure, but those nobodies had beaten Fresno State two straight years.
To bring Tedford back into the fold, Athletic Director Jim Bartko ponied up a contract much heftier than what San Jose State did for Brent Brennan or Nevada for Jay Norvell, both first-time head coaches.
Tedford’s base salary this season ($1.6 million) dwarfs what Brennan ($575,000) or Norvell ($450,000) are making. In Year 1, that investment looks like a good one.
“You get what you pay for,” Bartko replied when presented these facts before Monday’s news conference.
Actually, you don’t. Not always. Or else Fresno State wouldn’t be paying Tim DeRuyter a nice chunk of change to be Cal’s defensive coordinator.
But that’s all in the rearview mirror now. The Bulldogs are motoring ahead with a new coaching staff that has each unit looking organized and prepared. On offense, even the plays that don’t produce positive yards are well-designed and executed to some degree – even against Alabama. On defense, they’re noticeably faster to the football, seldom caught out of position and vastly improved at tackling.
The difference between this season and last has been equal scoops evident and startling.
In truth, me saying Fresno State will win at least six games isn’t even going out on an extreme limb. Not based on statistical evidence and modeling.
The Bulldogs were clearly better than either the Spartans or the Wolf Pack. Big whoop, you might say. San Jose State and Nevada are nobodies. Sure, but those nobodies had beaten Fresno State two straight years.
ESPN’s College Football Power Index, which runs 10,000 simulations to project end-of-season records based on current results and stats, has the Bulldogs finishing 7-5 with a 3.2 percent chance of winning the Mountain West.
Which is three more wins and 3 percent better chance than I’d have given them two months ago.
Convincing columnists and algorithms is one thing. Convincing sell-shocked or disinterested Bulldogs fans is another. The 12,000-seat plunge in ticket sales from Derek Carr Jersey Retirement Night (39,447) to the Nevada game (27,434) was proof of that.
Following the Nevada game, Tedford remarked the stadium “wasn’t as loud as (he) remembered” from his days as a player and assistant. During Monday’s news conference, I asked if he expected louder Saturday night.
“I hope so,” Tedford said. “I hope being homecoming and each week that goes the fans get into it and create that advantage for us. … But we’ll just do our job and I appreciate everyone who comes out to the game.”
Five weeks in, Tedford and his coaches have certainly done their jobs. Well enough to finish the season by playing in a bowl.
NEW MEXICO AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
- Records: Bulldogs 3-2, 2-0 Mountain West; Lobos 3-2, 1-1
- Webcast/radio: AT&T, ROOT (AT&T UVerse 757, 1757; DirecTV 684)/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: New Mexico had a bye week following a 56-38 victory over Air Force, its second win in a row. The Lobos went into the weekend averaging 266.8 rushing yards per game, third in the Mountain West. Running back Richard McQuarley tied a school record with five rushing touchdowns in the victory over Air Force and is leading the Lobos’ attack, averaging 5.9 yards per play and 60.2 yards per game.