Fresno State Football: Why The Bulldogs Can Win the Mountain West
The Fresno State Bulldogs aren’t quite the favorites to win it all, but there are plenty of reasons why they can defy the odds.
As good a bet as any.
The Fresno State Bulldogs are a week away from the start of the college football season but most indications suggest that Kalen DeBoer’s crew is flying under the radar.
Though our staff predicted that the ‘Dogs would finish second in a wide-open West division, prognosticators on the aggregrate project them to finish fourth. They have the fifth-best SP+ projection and the seventh-best F/+ projection in the Mountain West Conference, which suggests a team perfectly suited to land a fine bowl bid but not to rise much above that.
The Bulldogs have beaten the odds with enthusiasm before, though. In 2017, Fresno State began the year ranked 115th by SP+ and ended it at 81st overall. One year later, they began projected 44th and, twelve wins later, finished 16th. And while last year’s COVID weirdness led to a campaign that feels like a mild disappointment in retrospect, it’s easy to feel optimistic about DeBoer’s chances to maximize the opportunity that has presented itself, more so than a raft of competitors in the conference.
1. More continuity on the offensive line can only help.
With a new starter at left guard and without a normal summer to prepare, the Bulldogs’ offensive line was already set for a fair amount of transition even without the added challenge of navigating a pandemic once things got underway. Only Nevada had fewer than three sacks against Fresno State, and a unit which could at least boast the same starting five in its first four games got ravaged after two November matchups got canceled, ending with a 8.7% sack rate allowed that almost has to get better.
Fresno State also blocked for Ronnie Rivers and other running backs about as well as they had in the previous two seasons. Syrus Tuitele and Quireo Woodley are the most significant losses from last year’s unit, as well, so while this year’s iteration may not be elite, being above average is attainable and could be more than enough to enable the offense to tap into every part of the playbook.
2. The offense is comically loaded.
Quarterback Jake Haener, running back Ronnie Rivers and wide receiver Jalen Cropper are the obvious stars, but a number of reinforcements — from the transfer portal, or back from injury or sitting out 2020 — puts Fresno State firmly in the territory of, maybe, having way too many options.
Rivers was as dangerous as ever last fall doing everything out of the backfield, but while the rest of the running backs struggled to replace his production when he was slowed by injury late in the season, past precedence could make for some impressive rebounds. Jordan Mims flashed explosiveness reminiscent of his time as a lead back in 2017, while Jevon Bigelow looked solid, if not spectacular, in the finale against New Mexico.
Add Utah transfer Jordan Wilmore and redshirt freshman Malik Sherrod, the latter of whom has turned some heads in fall camp, and you have a backfield that should be more prepared for injury luck than most.
The same holds true for the pass catchers, as well, with Chris Coleman and Jamal Glaspie the only departures of note. Cropper, Keric Wheatfall and Josh Kelly each averaged over 14 yards per catch in 2020, the only trio in the Mountain West to achieve that feat. Zane Pope got healthy at the end of the season and scored a pair of touchdowns to remind everyone why he was the team’s leading receiver in 2019. Washington transfer Ty Jones is a 6-foot-4 red zone headache waiting to happen, while Emoryie Edwards is back after sitting out 2020.
And this says nothing of a tight end group that is more experienced and can expect its own clean bill of health. Juan Rodriguez had his season cut short by injury in the opener against Hawaii, but he’s back with Rory Hanson, Raymond Pauwels Jr. and promising freshman Tre Watson. It’s a lot of names who can provide a lot of looks for opposing defenses to deal with and adapt as needed like few teams could on paper.
3. The tradeoffs to improve on defense are manageable.
Will the Bulldogs sport the third-best sack rate in the country again this fall? Probably not, but don’t let that particular battle against regression distract you from the fact that mitigating big plays more effectively comes down to doing more than creating havoc.
For instance, the defense did a pretty good job more often than not in setting up winnable situations, allowing a first down on first or second down just 22.7% of the time. That ranked 14th nationally while their average third-down distance created, 7.3 yards, ranked 31st… but they allowed a 47.7% third-down conversion rate when garbage time is filtered out, which ranked 110th in the FBS. They were horrid in short-yardage situations with a 86.7% power success rate allowed (117th), but also didn’t get into the backfield as often as you’d expect with the dynamic pass rush (15.8% stuff rate, 96th overall).
In short, opponents learned they could make the Bulldogs pay dearly for mistakes and, as ESPN’s Bill Connelly noted, that’s how Fresno State ended up ranking 125th in marginal explosiveness rate allowed. That metric is almost guaranteed to veer back toward average and the only question is by how much.
4. They get the favorites at home.
Nevada and Boise State are Las Vegas’s current betting favorites to claim the conference crown, so it’s worth noting that Fresno State is one of three teams in the Mountain West who will host both the Wolf Pack and the Broncos this season (Colorado State and San Diego State are the others).
While the Bulldogs will also have to travel to San Jose State and Wyoming, the Spartans and Cowboys have their own questions to resolve like every contender in the Mountain West, so while it isn’t the easy road to the championship, there are no “no hope” road games on the conference slate.
5. While not everyone saw them at their best last fall, they proved they can beat teams they should.
Stumbling in the season opener against Hawaii was a mild surprise, but you have to grade the final two losses to Nevada and New Mexico on a curve since the pandemic and injuries did a number on overall availability. In between, they strung together convincing wins over Colorado State, UNLV and Utah State, which is half the battle every year.
If this Fresno State team plays up to its potential, all it will take to earn a chance at another championship is winning one or two games that are most likely to be 50-50 propositions. Considering how rough and tumble the Mountain West is primed to be in 2021, that’s about as good as gets. The Red Wave is more than ready to get behind another winner.