This preview originally published April 3 and has since been updated.
We get used to certain programs doing certain things. It almost starts to feel like a birthright. Certain teams are good at offense and bad at defense, or vice versa. Certain teams play in shootouts, others in slogs.
For the Fresno State Bulldogs, the birthright was 370 points. Since the breakthrough of 2001 — in which Pat Hill’s Bulldogs knocked off title contender Colorado, beat ranked Oregon State and Wisconsin teams, rose as high as eighth in the polls, and finished with 11 wins and 560 points — the Bulldogs scored at least 370 in 12 of 14 seasons. Sometimes they barely did it. But they did it. And they sometimes allowed quite a few more than 370 as well.
Make that 370 points and a bowl bid. That’s not a bad way to go through life, and the prolific Bulldogs usually locked up both parts. From 1999 to 2014, they missed the postseason just twice. They were among the steadiest mid-major programs, even if Boise State’s emergence stole some of their thunder.
In the early stages, Tim DeRuyter looked like Pat Hill II. Fresno State had fallen to 4-9 in 2011, but the former Air Force and Texas A&M defensive coordinator walked in and restored order. He made a good Fresno offense better, and he established his own defensive structure. Fresno State went 9-4 and ranked 31st in S&P+ in 2012, then rose to 11-2 while maintaining a decent No. 46 ranking (17th on offense) in 2013.
This was what Fresno State was supposed to be, and it looked like the DeRuyter hire was going to work out swimmingly. And following 2013, everything fell apart.
From 11 wins in 2013, FS won 10 in the three proceeding years. The defense ranked in the 80s in Def. S&P+ for three of four years — steady, at least — but the offense fell apart. The Bulldogs went from 17th in Off. S&P+ in 2013 to 92nd, then 110th, then a ghastly 123rd.
Fresno State, awful at moving the football! It’s bad enough to be bad; it’s even worse to lose your identity. The Bulldogs had ranked between 17th and 64th in Off. S&P+ every year from 2005-13. And in 2016, it was like it was third-and-9 the moment they walked onto the field.
When you fall from 11 wins to 11 losses in three seasons, your fate is sealed. DeRuyter was fired after a 1-7 start, and interim Eric Kiesau finished the season. DeRuyter landed the coordinator job at California, and back in that role, he could thrive.
Meanwhile, with Fresno State’s former head coach going to Cal, the Bulldogs took a former Cal head coach. I was not exactly blown away.
He’s got solid California connections, and in theory he’s still got decent years to offer. But were the good recruiting ties and memories of great Tedford offenses really enough for Fresno State to so quickly pounce? Without seeing who else the market might have to offer, the Bulldogs nailed Tedford down in early November. It was a safe, uninspiring, and quick hire. That’s odd.
Our immediate impressions of a hire center around upside. The moments before and after a hire are the best times for dreaming big and aiming high. And from an upside perspective, I didn’t love the hire. After tying for the Pac-10 title in 2006, his last six years in Berkeley produced just one top-25 finish and just one finish higher than fifth in the conference.
Tedford was drifting in the years since his Cal dismissal. He sat out a year before becoming the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator, but heart problems prevented him from holding that role long. He spent a year as the BC Lions’ head coach in the CFL, going 7-11, then left to pursue another college job. No real one took shape, and he spent 2016 as a consultant for Chris Petersen at Washington.
My frustration with the Tedford hire stemmed from the fact that Fresno State went after him so quickly. As aimless as his last five years may have been, it’s easy to see the draw. He’s somehow only 55, and he’s got more than a decade’s worth of head coaching experience in an area close to Fresno. And in 11 years at Cal, he suffered only two losing seasons. Granted, they both came in his last three years.
He’s got some work to do. DeRuyter’s failure involved horrific player development. Per the 247Sports Composite, from 2013-16, Fresno State’s recruiting classes all ranked between third and sixth in the Mountain West; the Bulldogs’ average recruit was right on the borderline between two and three stars. But walk-ons and no-star recruits were scattered throughout the two-deep last year and probably will be again in 2017. Not many of those three-star signees matriculated into the starting lineup.
2016 in review
After going just 3-9 with a No. 102 S&P+ ranking in 2015, DeRuyter tried to hit reset in 2016. He brought in two new coordinators and handed his offense over to a redshirt freshman. But while the defense would come around, the offense never stood a chance. The Bulldogs scored more than 22 points just twice all year, and even with a defensive rally, there was no hope.
- First 5 games vs. FBS (0-5): Avg. percentile performance: 23% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.5, FS 4.9 (minus-1.6)
- Last 6 games (0-6): Avg. percentile performance: 21% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.4, FS 4.3 (minus-1.1)
The defense came around, and the offense got worse.
We’ll just go ahead and move on. You can’t glean much from such a terrible season, though it does bear mentioning that Fresno State returns most of its front seven from the defense that came around.
Tedford is taking the “fresh start” thing seriously. In returning to college coaching, he didn’t lean on an old friend to run his offense; he went out and made a creative hire.
Kalen DeBoer went 67-3 in five seasons as head coach at NAIA’s University of Sioux Falls before serving as coordinator at Southern Illinois for four years and Eastern Michigan for three, and after inheriting one of the most hapless offenses in FBS, he led EMU’s attack to a No. 58 ranking in Off. S&P+ last year.
DeBoer’s 2016 EMU offense was based around tempo (23rd in adjusted pace), pass-first principles, and an allergy to moving backwards. Fresno’s 2016 offense was slower and more based on balance and moved backwards more than almost any in the country.
Basically, Fresno State had an all-or-nothing offense that never produced “alls.”
Quarterback Chason Virgil proved exciting with his legs, averaging 5.3 yards per non-sack carry; that catered well to a run-first attack, but Bulldog running backs were almost impossibly unproductive, combining to average 3.6 yards per carry with an opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining five or more yards) of just 29 percent.
Despite Virgil, Fresno State ranked 128th in Rushing S&P+. That meant a redshirt freshman was forced to throw the ball on second- or third-and-long a lot. How do you figure that worked out?
Nearly one-quarter of Virgil’s passes last year came on third-and-7 or more. That’s a recipe for failure, and it didn’t get any better when Virgil got hurt late. In his absence, Fresno averaged just 9 points per game.
Virgil will have a shot at the job, but he’ll have to fend off three-star JUCO transfer Jorge Reyna and three-star redshirt freshman James Quentin Davis [update: Davis has transferred out.]
Based on what the Bulldogs return, though, I would assume DeBoer maintains his pass-first principles. Junior Jamire Jordan is by far the team’s best big-play threat; he caught 19 passes for 345 yards in September before the offense bottomed out, and he had 15 catches for 231 yards in Virgil’s last three games before injury. He is a home run hitter, which makes possession guys like junior KeeSean Jackson and Da’Mari Scott more dangerous. Scott missed 2016 but averaged 9.8 yards per target with a 49 percent success rate in 2015.
In theory, experience could help the run game — every running back returns, as do basically 4.5 starters on the line — but the best boon the ground attack could get is a competent passing game. EMU didn’t get much out of its ground game but still improved dramatically last year. In theory, maybe the Fresno State offense does the same.
Seriously, Tedford gets bonus points for creativity. I gave Nevada’s Jay Norvell credit for hiring some assistants I enjoy, and I find myself giving Tedford credit for the opposite. He had never worked with DeBoer before hiring him, and it appears his only experience with defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer came when Tedford’s BC Lions played the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2015. Steinauer was the Tiger-Cats’ coordinator over the last four seasons.
Steinauer’s Hamilton defenses were high-havoc, ranking second in the CFL in interceptions and third in takeaways in 2016 and finishing two sacks off of the league lead. In 2015, they led the league in takeaways, and in 2014, they were first in rushing average and second in total defense.
He inherits one of the lowest-havoc defenses in FBS. Even though the Bulldogs improved over the second half of the year, they were less than disruptive, ranking 126th in havoc rate. This was a bend-don’t-break unit, allowing 42 gains of 20-plus yards all season (fifth in the country), but opponents were allowed five yards any time they wanted.
This makes Steinauer’s CFL experience interesting. The three-down CFL basically starts every drive on a second-and-10, but every set of downs for the Fresno State defense basically started on second-and-5, once the opposing offense got its easy first down yardage. Steinauer knows what to do when an opponent is leveraged behind schedule, and Fresno State’s secondary was efficient when opponents had to pass. But opponents have to get there first.
It appears Fresno’s front seven will be experienced and physically impressive. The Bulldogs return six of their top seven tacklers and four of their top five linebackers. There could be a problem with tackle depth as they move from a 3-4 to more of a 4-3 (or, as Steinauer described it in perfect coachspeak, a “multiple” defense), but the tackles will be in the 300-pound range and the ends around 260. And in James Bailey and Nela Otukolo, the Bulldogs have a couple of potentially exciting junior linebackers.
Stopping the run is mission No. 1 in the MWC West, and physically, the Bulldogs might be better at it. But they now might have to deal with far less experience in the secondary. Free safety Stratton Brown and starting corners Tyquwan Glass and Jamal Ellis are gone after combining for seven tackles for loss, five picks, and 18 breakups. Steady junior safety DeShawn Potts remains, but sophomores like safety Mike Bell and corners Juju Hughes and Jaron Bryant could be counted on heavily, as could a trio of JUCO transfers.
More than any other unit, turnover in the secondary typically leads to regression. Can a new scheme and energy offset that? Will Steinauer have the pieces he needs to do damage on passing downs? Will Fresno State even force passing downs?
DeRuyter’s pest parting gift to Tedford might be the special teams unit, which ranked 41st in Special Teams S&P+ despite a freshman punter and freshman kickoffs guy. Kody Kroening made 15 of 17 field goals last year (seven of which were 40 yards or longer), Jamire Jordan has potential as a kick returner, and Fresno’s kick coverage unit was impeccable. And with everyone back, I’d be surprised if the Bulldogs didn’t crack the top 40 here in 2017.
So they’ve got that going for them.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|7-Oct||at San Jose State||105||-4.3||40%|
|21-Oct||at San Diego State||52||-19.1||13%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||115|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||114 / 100|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-13.2 (116)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||85 / 82|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-9 / -3.9|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||-2.1|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||58% (77%, 40%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||2.3 (-1.3)|
In his first go-round, Tedford inherited a one-win Cal program and turned things around. The Bears went 7-5 in his first year, and by his third they were winning 10 games and narrowly missing out on a BCS bowl.
I do like Tedford’s potential to raise Fresno’s floor, and I would be surprised if the Bulldogs don’t exceed their 4.2 projected wins. But with this schedule, another turnaround to seven wins would be a miraculous job. Fresno State must travel to Alabama and Washington in non-conference play and face both of last year’s MWC division champions (San Diego State, Wyoming) on the road. Four home games against teams projected 110th or worse in S&P+ should assure that the win total rises, but the Bulldogs will need to win every semi-winnable game to bowl.
That’s putting the cart ahead of the horse. Fresno State was really bad in 2016, and the Bulldogs were bad in the most anti-FS possible way. When you fall as far as this program did, you don’t make specific plans. Score in the mid-20s or low-30s a few times, and 2017 is a success.
Tedford’s job over the next couple of seasons is not only continuing Fresno State’s top-half-of-the-conference recruiting averages, but developing three-star guys into three-star players. He made some interesting hires that could pay off, but getting talented athletes to play like talented athletes is step one.