Fresno State Football: Are The Bulldogs The Best 0-2 Team In College Football?
The Bulldogs have had a rough start to 2019, but there’s plenty of reason to think the defending Mountain West champs will turn it around.
The answer? Probably. It’s not all about how you start, after all.
The 2019 season has not gotten off to a great start for the Fresno State Bulldogs. Jeff Tedford’s team heads into a bye week saddled with a 0-2 record, with losses to USC and Minnesota already on the ledger, which has caused fans to point fingers at a number of potential culprits.
It galls mostly because these early losses will be memorable in the same way that, for instance, the 2005 Bulldogs couldn’t stop Reggie Bush to save their lives or 2007 Bulldogs couldn’t finish in triple overtime against Texas A&M. There is evidence to suggest, though, that the Bulldogs have shown enough to not only turn things around convincing in the last two weeks of conference play, but remain a tough out in their defense of the Mountain West title.
1. The advanced metrics still think pretty highly of Fresno State.
At the moment, Jeff Sagarin‘s rankings place the Bulldogs at 45th overall after coming up just short against what’s measured as a top-20 schedule. Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings have them at 51st overall, a drop of just five spots in the system’s preseason projection, between Wake Forest and Nebraska, with an offensive ranking (31st) that so far surpasses the 2018 offense (37th).
The Massey Composite, which accounts for 52 different sets of 1-to-130 rankings, puts the Bulldogs at 52nd. The only 0-2 team that has a comparable resume so far is Miami, who have lost both of their games so far by a combined seven points and really snatched defeat from the jaws of victory last Saturday against North Carolina. Sound familiar?
To put the composite in context, Boise State (23) leads the Mountain West pack but the Bulldogs are ahead of most of a group of teams like Utah State (40), Wyoming (56), San Diego State (67), Air Force (71), and Hawaii (76). And don’t forget: The largest win any of these teams have against an FBS opponent is by just nine points, meaning their outlooks could have been a lot different had a handful of breaks had gone against them.
2. Yes, the turnovers are irritating, but they obscure what has really gone wrong so far.
Jorge Reyna, in particular, has been singled out by many because of the fact that he threw game-ending interceptions in both weeks. Marcus McMaryion’s ability to take care of the football was always going to be a high bar to match, and Reyna’s 4% interception rate is three times higher than the quarterback he replaced. That is something that will need to be cleaned up as the season progresses.
What shouldn’t be overlooked, however, is that the defense hasn’t lost much of its proficiency in forcing turnovers, either: After creating 26 takeaways in 2018, the Bulldogs already have seven in these first two games. The offense will need to get better about maximizing those opportunities, as they managed just two field goals on four takeaways and a turnover-on-downs against USC, then scored two touchdowns on three Minnesota fumbles.
What it has struggled with, though, is getting off the field. The Bulldogs’ fortunes on third downs have flipped to date, allowing a 53.6% conversion rate (123rd in the FBS) after holding opponents to 34% over the two previous seasons. They’ve lost in short-yardage situations pretty handily so far, allowing USC and Minnesota to convert eight of ten opportunities on the ground with three or fewer yards to go, and been unexpectedly shaky in obvious passing situations, allowing 9.3 yards per attempt and four conversions on seven passes of third-and-seven-or-more. That seems bound for some regression.
Another pressing issue that can’t be overlooked is that the offense will just need to get better at finishing drives, period. Without counting the two overtime possessions, Fresno State has had 13 trips inside the opponents’ 40-yard line and averaged only 3.69 points per trip. After averaging 4.79 and 4.47 in the past two seasons, this can’t be pinned entirely on Reyna’s turnovers.
3. The kids are alright.
One of the narratives which framed Fresno State’s off-season was just who would step up to replace so much lost production. After two weeks, we have a sense of who could be a difference maker throughout the fall.
Linebacker Justin Rice, for instance, has already accounted for the creation of four turnovers, and 6.5 of the team’s 11 TFLs have been credited to the defense’s new contributors. Wide receiver Zane Pope has moved the chains with seven of his first nine catches, while Chris Coleman and Jalen Cropper have shown flashes of athleticism with the ball in their hands. Reyna himself owns a percentage of 20-yard pass plays (12.1%) that is in line with that of McMaryion (12.5%) and Derek Carr (11.7%), so the only real question that he needs to work out is whether or not he’s the second coming of Brian Burrell or if he’s something more.
4. The Bulldogs have had it worse in non-conference play vs. the Power 5.
Some perspective: The Bulldogs got their heads kicked in by Alabama and Washington, two College Football Playoff teams, in back-to-back weeks just two years ago before winning eight of the next nine games. USC and Minnesota don’t appear to be on quite that same level, but the Trojans just entered the top 25, the Gophers may not be too far behind and a scoring margin of -11 points is a far cry from -63. They are bowl-caliber teams, at a minimum, which is more than can be said about every other Mountain West schedule save for (maybe) Boise State and Nevada so far.
5. The worst is probably over.
The road ahead isn’t without its perils — Utah State doesn’t appear to have lost any of its offensive potency and San Diego State looks revitalized on defense — but, by SP+ right now, those two teams and Air Force are the only top-60 opponents left on the schedule. New Mexico State, Colorado State, UNLV, Nevada, and San Jose State all rank in the 100s, meaning that there should be plenty of opportunity for these Bulldogs to come together and remind everyone why they were the West division favorites to begin with.