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Jeff Tedford made Fresno State’s turnaround look really, really easy

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The Bulldogs’ fortunes changed dramatically in Tedford’s first year, and he’s got enough to make another division run.

NCAA Football: Hawaii Bowl-Fresno State vs Houston Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

I wasn’t blown away by Fresno State’s hire. The school quickly scooped him up instead of playing the field, and I wasn’t sure about doing that for what I felt was a a low-upside, high-floor candidate. From last year’s FS preview:

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. 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.

We don’t yet know what to expect from the 56-year-old former Cal head coach over the long term, but I was painfully wrong about that “low-upside” thing.

Fresno State got back to playing decent offense. Oregon State transfer Marcus McMaryion, who came along after the preview was written, completed 62 percent of his passes with few crippling mistakes and a propensity for well-timed scrambles, and the Bulldogs improved from 123rd in Off. S&P+ to a far healthier 68th. That alone would have brought the Bulldogs close to the “miraculous” seven-win mark.

They didn’t stop there. They also turned in perhaps their best defensive performance ever. The Bulldogs had never ranked higher than 30th in Def. S&P+ — their best showings had been 34th in 1986 and 38th in 2012. They were 13th last year.

They were 23rd in overall S&P+, their fourth-best showing ever. They won seven games in the Mountain West alone. They whomped San Diego State on the road, came three points short of a conference championship, and beat Houston in the Hawaii Bowl to complete a stirring turnaround.

How in the world do you top that?

Barring a run to the national title, there’s no way to leap at that magnitude again. But sustaining most of last year’s gains would be a nice first step. Typically a leap like this is followed by a bit of a step back. A change at defensive coordinator and extreme turnover for an active defensive line should assure that.

However, with McMaryion and most of his supporting cast returning, along with most of the defensive back seven, Fresno’s still going to have the talent to make a run at another division title.

Offense

Fresno State’s 2016 offensive radar looked like an imploding star. The Bulldogs were mediocre at avoiding sacks and occasionally making chunk plays through the air. They were awful at almost everything else.

In 2017:

  • The relative strengths turned into strengths. Fresno ranked second in Adj. Sack Rate and 37th in Passing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays). They gave up sacks on only 1.3 percent of their passing-downs pass attempts, the lowest rate in the country.
  • The run game went from dismal to efficient. Granted, there were no big plays (129th in Rushing IsoPPP), but the Bulldogs never moved backward (sixth in stuff rate) and created constant third-and-manageables.
  • They were extraordinarily prepared, ranking 19th in Q1 and Q2 S&P+.

These strengths allowed the Bulldogs to stay on schedule and get ahead, especially early in conference play. That’s a hell of a confidence builder.

Almost all of the key pieces of the offense return. No. 2 receiver Da’Mari Scott departs, as do two starting linemen (second-team all-conference center Aaron Mitchell and honorable mention right tackle David Patterson), but that’s it.

NCAA Football: Hawaii Bowl-Fresno State vs Houston
Marcus McMaryion
Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

McMaryion did a nice job of balancing conservatism with big-play potential. He didn’t take sacks and threw only five interceptions in 351 passes. He only ran three to four times per game (not including sacks) but averaged 7.4 yards per carry.

He picked his spots and used his possession weapons beautifully. Tight end Jared Rice’s marginal efficiency was plus-24 percent, running backs Dejonte O’Neal and Jordan Mims were at plus-14 percent, and receiver Derrion Grim was at plus-12 percent. He threw six to seven passes per game to that tandem — Rice’s production picked up late in the year, too, with 12 of his 22 catches coming in the final three games.

Plus, he had a bell cow. KeeSean Johnson was targeted 135 times in 2017, the eighth-most in the country. Fresno State was 6-1 when he caught at least six passes and 4-0, averaging 43 points per game, when he crossed 100 yards. If the Bulldogs could get him some downfield opportunities, then with their efficiency options, they were unstoppable.

If Johnson couldn’t get rolling, they had another option in Jamire Jordan — the talisman from Lancaster, Cal., averaged 54 receiving yards per game in 10 wins and six yards per game in four losses.

Johnson, Jordan, and the safety options are all back, and there’s upside in a batch of newcomers. Oklahoma transfer Michiah Quick is a former blue-chipper with plus-speed, and there are seven former three-star recruits among the redshirt and true freshmen. If one breaks through — maybe a big target like 6’6 Austin Alexander or a speedster like Patrick Elima-Jeune — then this passing game will have everything it needs, especially since McMaryion has actually now had a chance to learn the offense.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Fresno State
Jamire Jordan
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

To stop coordinator Kalen DeBoer’s offense, you had to make sure you didn’t get gashed by big plays. That allowed the Bulldogs to kill you with paper cuts, not only from Rice and the possession receivers, but also from a trio of interchangeable, but diversely shaped, running backs.

When Dontel James, FS’ leading rusher in 2016, was forced into medical retirement before the season, DeBoer leaned on true freshmen Jordan Mims (5’11, 190) and Ronnie Rivers (5’8, 178) and wrestler Josh Hokit (6’1, 220). Each rusher got between 101 and 151 carries for the season. O’Neal (5’7, 175), a decent third-down option, pitched in with 25 carries to go with his 11 receptions.

The backs made almost no big plays, but that wasn’t their job. Mims, Hokit, and Rivers all had positive marginal efficiency rates, which allowed the Bulldogs to stay on schedule and get their defense some rest — they averaged only 68 snaps per game, but opponents averaged only 66.

All three return, and they’ll be joined by Washington State transfer Romello Harris. They’ll be running behind a big, meaty line. Three of last year’s starters — guards Micah St. Andrew (who will probably end up at center in Mitchell’s absence) and Christian Cronk and left tackle Netane Muti, who average 6’4, 319 between them — are back and could be joined by beefy options like 6’6, 305-pound sophomore Syrus Tuitele and monstrous 350-pound freshman Marc-David Bien-Aime. Four-star freshman Tyrone Sampson could be an immediate option, too.

Even if the big plays don’t pick up, the Bulldogs should be able to lean on opponents for four yards at a time. With this receiving corps, that’ll do.

Defense

I found myself more disappointed than I would have expected when Orlondo Steinauer went back to Canada. Tedford made a unique choice for coordinator, and the former Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts DC produced immediate results.

Fresno State basically pulled off the best bend-don’t-break defense in the country. The Bulldogs were decent at efficiency, but they thrived at preventing big plays (second in IsoPPP) and making red zone stops (12th in points per scoring opportunity). Opponents averaged just 10.5 yards per completion, meaning they were forced to either remain extremely patient or lean on a run game that moved backwards a decent amount (Fresno was 32nd in stuff rate, run stops at or behind the line).

Steinauer had the personnel for such a defense. His front was able to disrupt without a blitz, meaning the linebackers could drop into coverage or read and react to the run.

New coordinator Bert Watts won’t have it so easy, not without the trio of Robert Stanley, Tobenna Okeke, and Malik Forrester up front. The three combined for 32 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, five pass breakups, five forced fumbles, and more than 26 percent of Fresno’s havoc plays last year. Backups Nathan Madsen and Stephen Van Hook added eight TFLs, and they’re gone, too.

Steinauer played a lot of guys up front, so maybe things aren’t as dire as they seem. End Emeka Ndoh made only eight tackles last year, but four were sacks; he could thrive in a bigger role, and tackles Jasad Haynes and Kevin Atkins made some disruptive plays as a sophomore and freshman, respectively. Toss in UNLV transfer Leevel Tatum III, sophomore end Damien DeGruy, three-star redshirt freshman Talalemotu Mauga, and incoming star recruit Isaiah Johnson, and maybe there’s enough.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Fresno State
Jeffrey Allison (9)
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

If the front holds up, the rest should thrive. Watts came on as Tedford’s linebackers coach last year after four years as UC Davis coordinator, and he’ll have one hell of a linebacking corps.

Last year’s top five tacklers return at LB, and the top three (Jeffrey Allison, George Helmuth, and James Bailey) combined for 18 TFLs. They’ll be joined by Azusa Pacific transfer Mykal Walker, who recorded 11.5 TFLs for the burgeoning D2 power in 2016.

The news is even better at the back. Last year’s four DB starters return, as do most of the second stringers. Fresno State got away with a tight rotation thanks to a lack of injury — only five defensive backs recorded more than 8 tackles — and that doesn’t usually happen two years in a row. But the known quantities are excellent: safeties Mike Bell and Juju Hughes combined for 10 TFLs and 12 passes defensed while working wonders in big-play prevention, and corners Jaron Bryant and Tank Kelly combined for 5.5 TFLs and 20 passes defensed of their own.

We’ll see what happens if or when the injury bug bites.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Fresno State
Juju Hughes (23)
Kiel Maddox-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

The strength of last year’s unit is gone. Jimmy Camacho was asked to attempt 32 field goals last year, third-most in the country, and he made 25, including 19 of 21 inside of 40 yards. He was a security blanket and a plus on kickoffs, and Fresno wouldn’t have sniffed the Special Teams S&P+ top 50 without him.

The return game was hit-or-miss, and sophomore Blake Cusick occasionally outkicked his coverage — he averaged 42 yards per punt, but Fresno State allowed 14.5 yards per return, sixth-worst in FBS.

The iffy pieces are back, and Camacho is not.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Idaho NR 27.0 94%
8-Sep at Minnesota 67 1.6 54%
15-Sep at UCLA 39 -3.6 42%
29-Sep Toledo 49 3.4 58%
6-Oct at Nevada 101 10.1 72%
13-Oct Wyoming 72 8.1 68%
20-Oct at New Mexico 111 12.5 77%
27-Oct Hawaii 122 21.6 89%
3-Nov at UNLV 105 10.8 73%
10-Nov at Boise State 26 -7.6 33%
17-Nov San Diego State 55 4.8 61%
24-Nov San Jose State 129 26.5 94%
Projected S&P+ Rk 44
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 85 / 27
Projected wins 8.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -3.9 (90)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 95 / 88
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / 0.7
2017 TO Luck/Game +2.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 79% (83%, 74%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 10.0 (0.0)

You don’t go from double-digit losses to double-digit wins without good fortune, and Fresno State was indeed a bit lucky. Injuries were minimal, and the Bulldogs benefited from about 2.6 points per game in positive turnovers luck. That helped them to go 3-1 in one-possession finishes.

You don’t usually get lucky twice, and we’ll see how much regression costs Fresno. But bounces aside, this appears to be a sturdy, exciting team, one that only has clear questions in one unit: defensive line.

S&P+ likes Fresno’s chances to solidify its gains. The Bulldogs are the projected favorite in 10 games and given at least a 68 percent win probability in six of eight conference games. And they get SDSU, the West’s other chief contender, at home.

Whether or not they can reach 10 wins again, Fresno State’s back. After the Bulldogs got lost in the wilderness for a couple of years, that’s a pretty fun thing to say.

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