March 25, 2009
A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. Other than a sudden five-game tear to close his junior campaign in 2007, quarterback Tom Brandstater was only a so-so starter for the better part of three years, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but mostly just ... so-so. A three-year starter, though, is a three-year starter, and Brandstater's durability left no room to bring the young 'uns along; of the three returning QBs with a chance to win the job, only Ryan Colburn has taken snaps in a game, and they weren't relevant snaps.
Reading the tea leaves, one of those three, true freshman Derek Carr can probably be eliminated as a favorite by virtue of being a true freshman, unless he wildly defies his middling profile. That leaves Colburn, the patient, gutty, fifth-year senior, against nicely named redshirt freshman Ebahn Feathers, a short (5'11"), quick kid who athletically fits the profile of a slot receiver or cornerback more than a quarterback. FSU has never had anything but a plodding, pro style slinger under center, so unless there's a facelift on his behalf, Feathers might find it a tough fit.
What's the Same. Everyone handling the ball will be familiar, though only receiver Seyi Ajirotutu counts as a possible gamebreaker. Fresno was in good company in terms of backfield depth last year, when it was one of five teams (along with Florida, USC, Oregon and Georgia Tech) that produced three different runners over 600 yards, though it's clear Ryan Mathews is the first option as long as he's physically capable. Mathews had a big freshman year in '07 and roared out of the gate last September with 160-yard rushing games in the wins at Rutgers and UCLA and another 106 total yards in the overtime win over Toledo. He didn't play another full game the rest of the year, and while Lonyae Miller and Anthony Harding both finished with over 800 yards for the season, the record is not in their favor: After a 3-1 start with Mathews in the lineup, including the aforementioned road wins over the Knights and Bruins, the Bulldogs were 4-5 the rest of the way with Mathews out or only playing sporadically -- and those four wins were all against the murky bottom of the WAC: Idaho, Utah State, New Mexico State and San Jose State. Against eventual bowl teams, they were 0-5, and typically stagnated on the ground.
Projections might call for a three-way split with Mathews, Miller and Harding all returning, but Pat Hill was already acknowledging at the start of spring drills Monday that Mathews will get the majority of carries if he's 100 percent, which seemed to be the plan before he went down last year.
How's that job search going guys, that's great! Well, see you around. Both lines were decimated by graduation, though that can only be considered a bad thing for one of them: The defense finished next-to-last in the WAC against the run, and dead last in yards per carry allowed for the second year in a row. The '07 defense allowed five teams over 200 yards on the ground before the end of October, yes, but at least it pulled itself together over the second half of the season. Last year's edition was just helpless: Toledo ran for 297, UCLA ran for 234, Louisiana for 280, Nevada for 472 (!), Boise State for 246 and Colorado State for 362, a near-postseason record 285 of those by New Mexico Bowl hero Gartrell Johnson alone. UCLA! UCLA couldn't run on anybody ... except the Bulldogs.
So it's no great loss that D-line regulars Ikenna Ike, Jon Monga, Michael Stuart and their 41 career starts are shuffling along to begin no doubt productive adult lives, though there's no indication anyone of particular interest is coming behind them. Two notes of optimism: a) The top three linebackers were only sophomores, and two of them, Chris Carter and Ben Jacobs were second team all-WAC; and b) It can't get any worse than than allowing 5.6 yards per carry.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Unless someone asserts himself in a way no one expects, the quarterback duel won't be settled in the spring ... or in the summer ... or even, necessarily, before the start of conference play:
The biggest role of all - quarterback - won't be cemented for weeks, even months, coach Pat Hill said. Ideally he'd like to name a starting quarterback this spring. Not happening, though, he said.
The coach, in his 13th season as leader of Fresno State's football program, said he might not be able to settle on quarterback until the third game of the season.
It seems obvious Colburn will get the benefit of the doubt, as he's been in the program and paid his dues, etc. But if you can't tell them apart that deep into the season, just go with the young guy. It's not going to work out this year, anyway. You'll never regret it. Just go with the young guy.
Best-Case. With a new quarterback behind an almost entirely new offensive line, improvement seems like a long shot, but 7-6 last year was vastly underachieving: Among some of the WAC games Fresno lost, the Bulldogs will always be a favorite against Louisiana Tech, and even in a rebuilding year, Hawaii and Nevada are toss-ups at worst. Even with another loss to Boise State (Pat Hill's teams are just 1-7 against Boise since the Broncos came into the WAC in 2001), FSU can still take hold its ground by taking two of those three, and can improve if it adds the usual upset against either Wisconsin, Cincinnati or Illinois outside of the conference. Boise has a firm grasp on the title of WAC frontrunner, but as Fresno is as consistent as any other team in the conference, first runner-up and a consolation bowl is there for the taking, as usual.
Worst-Case. The last time Fresno put a new quarterback in the cockpit, the offense crashed and burned in a 4-8 heap that included unconscionable losses to Utah State and San Jose State. Assuming, at worst, a .500 WAC record -- that would still mean another round of losses to the likes of Hawaii, Louisiana Tech and Nevada -- the probable o-fer against Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Illinois could leave them cold at 6-6, or even 5-7.
Non-Binding Forecast. That might sound harsh for a team that's won at least seven games nine out of the last 10 years, but the general trajectory here has been down since the first half of the decade. Fresno was supposed to compete with Boise State for the WAC championship last year, didn't come close, and comes back with a much more nondescript outfit that won't carry any expectations beyond another also-ran conference finish and forgettable bowl game. The triptych of Midwestern road trips outside of the league is typically brutal, and Fresno has never lost fewer than two WAC games in Hill's tenure. That's five losses, assuming nothing else goes wrong; as few obvious positives as return here, that's not a good assumption.