So you think the Pac-12 has problems? Once stone-cold pillars, USC and UCLA are melting like glaciers. Only two Pac-12 teams have made the College Football Playoff in its five seasons—and they both got whomped.
And the eyeballs issue is so acute that commissioner Larry Scott is thinking about 9 a.m. kickoffs to get into the East Coast television window.
But wait. There’s. . . Fresno State.
The Mountain West champion Bulldogs are barely a blip on college football’s radar. When people think about the Group of Five, it’s UCF, Boise State and maybe a couple others. Nobody gets to Fresno.
They’re not merely stuck in the West Coast time zone. They’re in the San Joaquin Valley time warp. You can’t get to there from here. I know. I did it once.
But what a football environment! Illinois played there on a Friday night, on Dec. 3, 2010. Bulldog Stadium kind of reminded me of that bar where the Blues Brothers band played in the Belushi-Ackroyd classic. You know, the one where the musicians were protected by chicken wire. Except that visiting teams have no protective chicken wire when they walk through the Fresno crowd to and from their dressing room. Beer is not a novelty at Bulldogs games.
Fresno State won that night 25-23 against an Illinois team that had smoked Northwestern 48-27 at Wrigley Field in its previous game. In its next game, Illinois would whip Baylor, led by Robert Griffin III, in the Texas Bowl 38-14.
The point is, Fresno knew how to win then. And it still knows how to win.
That was certainly the case last year, when the Bulldogs finished 12-2, including wins vs. Pac-12 residents UCLA (38-14!) and Arizona State (31-20) in the Las Vegas Bowl. Fresno split with Boise, losing on the blue turf 24-17 during the regular season and returning to Albertsons Stadium to win the Mountain West title game 19-16 in overtime.
Fresno’s only other loss came 21-14 in a goofy, mistake-filled early-season trip to Minnesota.
There will be some new faces on the field. But that hasn’t been a deterrent for third-year coach Jeff Tedford, who has gone 10-4 and 12-2 since inheriting a team that had gone 1-11. That’s 22-6 in two years, if you’re keeping score at home.
Accomplished quarterback Marcus McMaryion is gone, but senior Jorge Reyna, who won the job in the spring, is expected to be a playmaker, not a caretaker. He’ll hand off to Ronnie Rivers, who torched Arizona State for 212 rushing yards in their bowl meeting. On defense, the line returns in good shape, but the linebackers will be new.
They will need to be ready. Fresno State opens at USC and follows with a home date against Minnesota. The Trojans are desperate to win for coach Clay Helton. The Gophers are uber-confident after finishing strong in 2018 under effervescent P.J. Fleck.
So yes, the Bulldogs, who don’t play Boise in the regular season, could start 0-2. And still go on to have a pretty good year.
But they also could start 2-0 if the savvy Tedford, 57, who had a good run at Cal and knows his stuff, keeps the Bulldogs barking.
The question is, will anybody notice?