Fresno State's new coach Tim DeRuyter said before the season that the Bulldogs would challenge for a Mountain West title in their first year in the conference.
After achieving that honor, DeRuyter now tries to coach the Bulldogs to their first bowl victory since they beat Georgia Tech in the Humanitarian Bowl in 2007. Fresno State is attempting to win 10 games in a season for the first time since 2001, when David Carr led the Bulldogs to an 11-3 season.
DeRuyter's championship pledge before the season was extremely bold considering Fresno State underwent a coaching change after finishing 4-9 under embattled Pat Hill. The Bulldogs, with a handful of NFL prospects on their roster, lived up to DeRuyter's words and tied for the conference title with Boise State and San Diego State.
DeRuyter's successful 9-3 season has the Bulldogs in the Hawaii Bowl opposite SMU and former Hawaii coach June Jones, a nemesis for Fresno State when the teams were in the WAC.
DeRuyter's preference was to play in the Las Vegas Bowl because of the proximity of Fresno to Las Vegas for fans and the chance to play a Pac-12 program. He is appreciative, however, of the fact that pro prospects such as junior quarterback Derek Carr, senior running back Robbie Rouse and senior safety Phillip Thomas get to show off their skills in a bowl environment.
"There's an advantage (of playing) in the Vegas Bowl for our fan base and players' families," DeRuyter said. "But there's not any bad bowls. An old athletic director of mine told our staff 'There's no bad bowls or no bad beers.' Enjoy it. Enjoy whichever one we have."
While Fresno State won seven of its last eight games, SMU played .500 football all season and became bowl eligible at 6-6 in the last week of the season by upsetting Tulsa 35-27.
Much has changed for SMU since the 2009 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. Since making their first bowl appearance in 25 years, the Mustangs' return to Honolulu marks their fourth straight bowl game.
But one thing that hasn't changed is SMU's underdog status. The Mustangs are listed as 12-point underdogs to Fresno State in most lines, similar to the point spread of their 2009 Hawaii Bowl game against Nevada. SMU won that one, 45-10.
"You can use being the underdog as motivation," SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert said. "Nobody thinks you can win."
PREDICTING THE HAWAII BOWL
Fresno State is riding the wave of a five-game winning streak and seven of its last eight games. Defending the pass, the Bulldogs' primary strength, is SMU's most glaring weakness.
The pick: Fresno State 31, SMU 20
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Derek Carr is the younger brother of NFL quarterback David Carr. Derek Carr isn't too shabby himself, having completed 311 of 457 passes for 3,742 yards, 36 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
--S Phillip Thomas was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award after tallying eight interceptions, tops in the nation. He returned three interceptions for touchdowns, had nine total takeaways, forced four fumbles and led Fresno State with 82 tackles, including 12 for loss.
--RB Robbie Rouse is listed at 5-foot-7 but he actually is an inch or two shorter, but there is no denying he plays big. He is called "Mighty Mouse" by his teammates because of what he gets out of that strong diminutive body. He gained at least 100 yards in nine games with a career-best 261 on 36 carries at Nevada on Nov. 10.
--LB Ja'Gared Davis, playing in his school-record-tying 52nd career game, did a little bit of everything in a 35-27 victory over Tulsa on Nov. 24. He blocked a punt to set up the game's first score, forced and recovered a fumble to set up the second touchdown, and then intercepted a pass to set up SMU's third TD drive.
--QB Garrett Gilbert ran for 111 yards against Tulsa, becoming the first SMU quarterback to post a 100-yard rushing game since Justin Willis had 114 versus Memphis in 2007. Gilbert has passed for 2,720 yards this season.
--CB Chris Parks jumped into a starting role in a secondary decimated by injuries. But he had his best performance against in the regular-season finale against Tulsa, helping limit big pass plays.