Fresno State Bulldogs (2000: 7-5)
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Coach and programPat Hill has been so much more to the Fresno State program than the coach who has won 20 games the last three years and put the Bulldogs' program on the map. He has given the program an attitude. Case in point: last year's Silicon Valley Bowl.
The Bulldogs fell behind Air Force, 34-7, before rallying to trail 37-34 with 14 seconds left. They needed a 33-yard field goal to tie the game. Instead of kicking the ball, Hill, whose teams are always good on special teams, faked the kick and tried to give his offense a couple of cracks at the end zone. The fake fell short, but the message was delivered. Hill doesn't mind taking chances and putting his faith squarely on the shoulders of his players.
Under Hill, Fresno has become one of the more successful programs in the West. Over the last 30 games, the Bulldogs are 19-11. Only Air Force and Oregon have better records during the same stretch.
With 15 starters -- many of them two-year starters -- returning, improving on last year's seven wins is a possibility. The Bulldogs play 13 regular-season games and there are no cupcakes, also a trait of the program under Hill. The Bulldogs open against Colorado in the inaugural Jim Thorpe Classic and have Oregon State, which finished last season ranked among the nation's top five, coming to the Valley. A week later, the Bulldogs pack for a game at Wisconsin.
Hill believes the tough schedule early in the year has always made his team better late. With the WAC balanced below Fresno, it could be the kind of springboard to going through the league unbeaten.
The non-conference schedule also helps in keeping fans in Fresno coming back. Last year, Fresno played in front of the four largest crowds in school history in its first four home games. The season average of 41,369 was more than 300 fans above Bulldog Stadium's capacity.
This season, more than 30,000 season tickets have been sold, making the Bulldogs, and their high-powered offense, one of the Valley's toughest tickets.
OffenseAll the firepower is there for Fresno State. The receivers returning have impressive numbers. Three starters are back on the offensive line. Senior quarterback David Carr is headed for a breakout year. The only thing Hill has his fingers crossed on for his offense is the health and consistency of his running backs. Fresno has three of its top four rushers back, but none of them gained more than 400 yards.
Hill's offenses have been outstanding in his four years because he has had the luxury of having an experienced leader each season. In his first two years, Billy Volek led the Bulldogs. Last season, Hill turned the reins over to Carr (6-3, 225) and Fresno was even better. Carr avoided the interception trouble that plagued Volek and threw for 23 touchdowns on his way to being voted second team All-WAC.
With a bevy of talent back at receiver and a backfield that is once again healthy, Carr should have an even better year that last season when he threw for 2,729 yards, the sixth most in school history.
UTEP's Lee Mays is the top receiver in the WAC. But no receiving corps in the league, as a whole, can touch the talent and overall depth Fresno has. The Bulldogs return their top eight receivers, including three who have been first or second-team All-WAC during their careers. In 2000, the eight combined for almost 2,800 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. The concern, just like the running backs, is health.
Last year, seniors Charles Smith (5-9, 175) and Rodney Wright (5-9, 175), both of whom were All-WAC in 1999, were the top receiving duo in the country until an ankle injury to Wright in the fourth game of the season against Rice cost him six games. Before the injury, Wright was fourth in the nation in receptions.
Defense and special teamsThe only area where Hill has to raise his eyebrows with concern is at linebacker. All three starters, all of whom earned some sort of All-WAC honor last season, are gone. Two of those starters, Orlando Huff and Tim Skipper, had more than 100 tackles and were the heartbeat of the defense.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, their secondary and defensive line are the best in the conference. The bad news is that the linebackers have to learn on the fly against a schedule that doesn't allow much room for error.
The Bulldogs' 4-3 scheme is built around quick defensive ends and senior Alan Harper (6-2, 285), one of the most dominating defensive tackles in the country. Harper, a two-time first-team All-WAC choice, is one of three returning starters on a line that has some young depth and, along with an experienced secondary, should help the Bulldogs be one of the top defenses in the conference once again.
The Bulldogs return two All-WAC safeties and a bevy of depth and speed that will make Fresno one of the best pass defenses in the country.
The leaders are senior safeties Anthony Limbrick (6-1, 205) and Vernon Fox (5-10, 200). Both have been first-team All-WAC selections and are the most physical and imposing safeties in the league.
Where the Bulldogs really make their mark on special teams is in creating havoc for other teams. In the last four years under Hill, Fresno has blocked 27 kicks, including seven last year.
Bottom lineFresno has the nation's third-longest home winning streak, but the overall schedule will be the biggest test in 2001. Three games are against teams that won bowl games a year ago. Only the game against Oregon State, one of the top teams in the nation, is at Bulldog Stadium.
If the Bulldogs can get through the early part of their schedule and avoid any slips as a result of the brutal schedule, a bowl game and a WAC title should await.