2011 Season Preview: The Fresno State Bulldogs And The Art Of Playing Hard To Get

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

There was a moment in time when Fresno State was Boise State. With a rugged-looking "football coach" of a football coach who was willing to play anybody anywhere, and with a golden-boy quarterback, the Bulldogs took out an elite Colorado team, whipped Oregon State and Wisconsin and reached eighth in the country before suffering an upset loss to, who else, Boise State. That team still finished 11-3 overall and served notice that Pat Hill was a coach to watch, David Carr was a potentially elite quarterback, and Fresno State was going to be a thorn in the side of west coast football for a while.

That was 10 years ago. Since then, Hill's Bulldogs have been consistently … almost good. They have finished with a winning record in 11 of the last 12 seasons, won at least eight games in nine of 12, and won at least nine in five of 12. This is a solid mid-major program. But they have found ways to tease fans, consistently hinting at serious athletic potential before settling into their 8-5 groove and watching conference mate Boise State play in BCS bowls. They have mastered the art of playing hard to get.

Perhaps a bit alarming, however, is the fact that they have neither improved nor regressed over the last three seasons, barely playing above the level of an average WAC team. Momentum has been hard to come by for FSU, and while opportunity is briefly presenting itself -- they have a year off from Boise State before joining them in the Mountain West next year -- this team has to replace a majority of its best playmakers. Hill's program is not fading, but it's not improving either, and beginning in 2012, the competition gets a little stiffer.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 4-9 | Final F/+ Rk**: 73
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Cincinnati 28-14 W 24.2 - 13.7 W
18-Sep at Utah State 41-24 W 28.4 - 31.3 L
25-Sep at Ole Miss 38-55 L 31.7 - 40.5 L
2-Oct Cal Poly-SLO
38-17 W 29.9 - 35.7 L
9-Oct Hawaii 27-49 L 24.9 - 28.8 L
16-Oct New Mexico State 33-10 W 22.3 - 26.6 L
23-Oct at San Jose State 33-18 W 21.8 - 28.8 L
6-Nov at Louisiana Tech 40-34 W 26.0 - 33.0 L
13-Nov Nevada 34-35 L 33.1 - 24.7 W
19-Nov at Boise State 0-51 L 6.7 - 27.8 L
27-Nov Idaho 23-20 W 21.4 - 15.4 W
3-Dec Illinois 25-23 W 36.9 - 26.4 W
18-Dec vs Northern Illinois 17-40 L 24.4 - 35.9 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 29.0 49 30.0 83
Adj. Points Per Game 25.5 77 28.4 64

For most of the first half of Fresno State's season, the offense and defense had a perfectly inverse relationship. The better the offense played, the worse the defense played, and vice versa. Overall, the struggles outweighed the positives, but an easy schedule allowed the Bulldogs to jump out to a 6-2 start. They'd have beaten an average opponent only once in that span (their performance against Cincy was quite solid). Then, as the schedule improved, so did the Bulldogs' defense. At least until the bowl game.

First Eight Games: Fresno State 26.2 Adj. PPG, Opponents 29.8 (-3.6)
Last Five Games: Fresno State 24.5, Opponents 26.0 (-2.5)

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 73 79 67
RUSHING 90 95 83 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 52 55 49 89
Standard Downs 82 98 70 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 62 48 77 112
Redzone 76 85 70
Q1 Rk 50 1st Down Rk 46
Q2 Rk 92 2nd Down Rk 100
Q3 Rk 70 3rd Down Rk 84
Q4 Rk 80

Numbers and eyeballs sometimes disagree. Last year, Fresno State's line produced two all-conference performers (center Joe Bernardi, tackle Kenny Wiggins), a second-team all-conference tackle (Bryce Harris) and a seventh-round draft pick (guard Andrew Jackson). But using advanced stats as a guide, the Bulldogs had the 13th-worst line in college football. They were not particularly proficient at opening holes for a good running back -- little Robbie Rouse (1,129 yards, 5.5 per carry, +15.3 Adj. POE, 8 TD) -- and they constantly got quarterback Ryan Colburn lit up, to the tune of 36 sacks and a No. 112 ranking in Adj. Sack Rate.

If the stats are right, then the losses of Wiggins, Bernardi, Jackson (injured most of 2010) and guard Devan Cunningham won't matter nearly as much as it seems at first blush. The larger losses came when Colburn (2,817 yards, 7.8 per pass, 63% completion rate, 23 TD, 9 INT; 301 pre-sack rushing yards, +1.0 Adj. POE) and star receiver Jamel Hamler (812 yards, 15.0 per cach, 69% catch rate, 6 TD) ran out of eligibility. To rank 52nd in Passing S&P+ despite putrid sack numbers says the actual throwing-and-catching part of the passing game was quite strong, and the two best components are gone. They are probably not irreplaceable, but they were strong.

Of course, the passing game may not matter as much if the run-first Bulldogs can actually run the ball. Rouse ranked 22nd in the country in Adj. POE because he generated solid numbers despite a lack of blocking, but backup A.J. Ellis (281 yards, 3.7 per carry, -2.9 Adj. POE, 3 TD in eight games) produced poor numbers, and again, the line really did not do their job very well. Former blue-chip running back and UCLA Bruin Milton Knox enters the fray this year; he brings a tough running style to the table, which could be a nice complement to the shifty Rouse.

Other tidbits:

  • So for 10 years, you've been attempting to re-discover the magic you found a decade ago. You're also looking to replace a pretty good quarterback. Where do you turn? Did the Carrs have any more children that could take snaps for you? Yes, actually! After barely losing a QB battle with Colburn as a true freshman in 2009 and redshirting last season, Derek Carr takes over. He isn't perfectly NFL-sized like his brother -- in fact, he's built more like a wide receiver (6-foot-3, 190) -- but the quarterback position has come naturally to him for quite a while.

    (My favorite blurb from that article: "Best advice Dave ever gave me was: 'Don't be an idiot.' That means don't throw into double coverage, because that's what idiots do. And don't stay out past midnight and get into trouble like an idiot because that's when most problems occur." Good advice.)
  • So who catches Carr's passes? You've got an interesting short-and-long combination in big-play man Jalen Saunders (462 yards, 15.4 per catch, 64% catch rate, 3 TD as a freshman) and possession receivers Rashad Evans (424 yards, 10.9 per catch, 78% catch rate, 4 TD) and A.J. Johnson (241 yards, 12.1 ). You've also hit-or-miss sophomore A.J. Johnson (241 yards, 12.1 per catch, 54% catch rate, 1 TD), injury-prone speedster Devon Wylie and former Cal commit Josh Harper. Options, in other words. You've got options. Saunders has to be considered the most intriguing; his 8.7 yards per target was an outstanding number for such a young player.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 47 26 57
RUSHING 78 41 97 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 31 23 34 69
Standard Downs 40 17 62 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 92 93 94 5
Redzone 81 43 93
Q1 Rk 53 1st Down Rk 60
Q2 Rk 55 2nd Down Rk 63
Q3 Rk 67 3rd Down Rk 56
Q4 Rk 71

Last year's Fresno State offense was fast but injury-prone. The defense was potentially even faster but prone to awesome glitches. The Bulldogs had one of the most efficient mid-major defenses in the country, but when they suffered a breakdown, it was an enormous one. They were relatively young, and experience may tamp down some of the big plays, but a couple of the players they must replace were outstanding and explosive.

Stats and eyeballs may disagree from time to time, but opinions on now-departed defensive end Chris Carter (43.5 tackles, 16.5 TFL/sacks, 4 FF) were unanimous: he was a stud. The WAC Defensive Player of the year, Carter was among the nation's Top 25 in tackles for loss and the Top 10 in forced fumbles. He and all-conference tackle Logan Harrell (34.0 tackles, 14.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) made for one of the most ferocious 1-2 combinations in the country. Along with outside linebacker Travis Brown (56.5 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU), they gave Fresno State a top ten pass rush. Now it's just Harrell (and Brown), hoping that replacements like Donahvaughn Pritchett (10.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks), Nat Harrison (8.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks) and other little-used ends can somehow replicate Carter's magic. It's hard to get your hopes up too much on that one.

The depth Fresno State lacks at end, they may make up for at tackle. Harrell is complemented by Chase McEntee (10.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks), Anthony Williams (12.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks) and Nikko Motta (8.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks in seven games). Granted, Harrell and I would make for a solid pair of defensive tackles; Harrell and these other players give the Bulldogs one of the deeper mid-major units in the country.

  • So Fresno's strength is a little weaker now ... is their weakness a little stronger? Reply hazy, try again later. Safety Philip Thomas (51.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 9 PBU, 2 FF) had a playmaker's stat line as a sophomore, but it is hard to absolve him from the number of big plays Fresno State allowed. If he and Derron Smith (25.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks as a freshman) can avoid some of the extremes they saw in 2010, then the cornerback position should be solid enough to make this an improved unit. Isaiah Green (27.5 tackles, 8 PBU), Jermaine Thomas (21.5 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PBU in eight games) and L.J. Jones (14.0 tackles as a redshirt freshman) give FSU some solid play atop the depth chart.
  • At linebacker, Travis Brown and Kyle Knox (55.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks) give Fresno some missiles out the outside, but Jeremiah Toma (10.5 tackles as a redshirt freshman) faces pressure in replacing all-conference middle linebacker Ben Jacobs (62.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks). Jacobs was a stabilizing force on a defense full of instability.

Fresno State's 2010 Season Set to Music

"1nce Again," by A Tribe Called Quest
"All Over Again," by Johnny Cash
"At It Again," by Pat McGee Band
"Do It Again," by The Kinks
"Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)," by Jay-Z
"Hello Again," by Dave Matthews Band
"Here We Go Again," by Ray Charles
"Not You Again," by Dinosaur Jr.
"Sick Again," by Led Zeppelin
"Won't Get Fooled Again," by The Who

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Outside of the Big Four of Boise State, BYU, TCU and Utah, five mid-major programs have played at least one game as a Top 10 team in the last 20 years: Fresno State (three times in 2001), Colorado State (three times in 1994), Louisville (four times in 2004), Tulane (once in 1998) and Hawaii (once in 2008). Only No. 7 Louisvile can top Fresno State's No. 8 ranking.

Eighteen non-"Big Four" mid-majors, meanwhile, have played at least one game as a Top 25 team: Air Force, Ball State, Bowling Green, Colorado State, East Carolina, Fresno State, Hawaii, Houston, Louisville, Marshall, Miami (Ohio), Nevada, Northern Illinois, Southern Miss, Toledo, Tulane, Tulsa and Wyoming.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 70
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 83
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -11 / -2.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (7, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.5

Pat Hill has figured out how to always field one of the faster, more athletic mid-major teams in the country. It is the breakdowns that consistently make them a tease instead of a force. If the offense stays healthy, and a more experienced defense can limit breakdowns, then the loss of playmakers like Chris Carter and Jamel Hamler can be overcome. Tackle Logan Harrell is incredible, there's a Carr at quarterback, and the skill position roster is deep. But a decade of evidence suggests that minimizing breakdowns is far from guaranteed.

As always, the schedule is interesting. Boise State and Ole Miss come to Fresno, while seven road games -- including trips to California, Nebraska, Nevada, Hawaii and San Diego State -- await Fresno State in 2011. The most important trip is an October 22 jaunt to Reno that may decide the WAC title. The Bulldogs will be as athletic as most of the teams on their schedule, but the Bulldogs could struggle to overcome both recent history, home field advantages and Nevada in the WAC race. While the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 gives Nevada a 90% chance of finishing 6-1 or better in conference, Fresno State is only given a 16% chance. Another bowl trip is semi-likely (they are given a 41% chance of finishing 7-6 or better), but the Bulldogs will have to prove they are no longer just a tease before the numbers -- and the eyeballs -- believe them.

 

 

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! Download your copy now; paper copies are due later this week .

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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