An aura can last quite a while. Behind eventual No. 1 draft pick David Carr, Fresno State reached as high as eighth in the AP Poll in 2011. Its "take on all comers" approach to scheduling was both admirable and occasionally successful.
They narrowly fell to No. 13 Oregon and No. 25 Wisconsin in 2002.
They took on No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 12 Tennessee in 2003.
They whipped No. 13 Kansas State in 2004.
They lost by a touchdown to No. 20 Oregon in 2006, and they played No. 14 LSU as well.
They lost by two to No. 23 Texas A&M in 2007, then played No. 19 Oregon the next week.
They lost by three to No. 10 Wisconsin in 2008.
They lost by eight to No. 14 Cincinnati in 2009.
They lost by 13 to No. 10 Nebraska last fall.
Hill's Bulldogs struck as ambitious a tone as you could ask from a mid-major, and they ended up with some happy memories because of it. But they never turned the corner. They threatened to become the program that Boise State DID become, but they only ended up playing at a solid level instead of an elite one. And eventually, they stopped playing at a solid level as well. They fell from 36th in the F/+ rankings in 2005, to 49th in 2007, to 71st in 2009, to 88th in 2011.
A decade ago, you could have probably earned good money from a "Pat Hill will leave Fresno State one day, not because he was hired at a major school, but because he was fired" prop bet. But in 2011, it happened. Eleven bowls in 13 years is a remarkable achievement, but FSU had gone just 27-25 in the last four seasons, and following a 4-9 campaign in 2011, Hill was fired on Dec. 4. Hill won 112 games in Fresno, went to the aforementioned 11 bowls, brought players like Carr, Logan Mankins and Ryan Mathews to town, raised FSU's academic performance, and, generally speaking, raised Fresno State's standards. But after a while he failed to meet the expectations he had set, and now former Texas A&M (and Air Force) defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter takes over. He is attempting to install an insanely-paced offense and his trademarked 3-4 defense, and he, too, will find that Hill's legacy is a bar that has been raised quite high.
There was a moment in time when Fresno State was Boise State. With a rugged-looking "football coach" of a football coach who was willing to play anybody anywhere, and with a golden-boy quarterback, the Bulldogs took out an elite Colorado team, whipped Oregon State and Wisconsin and reached eighth in the country before suffering an upset loss to, who else, Boise State. That team still finished 11-3 overall and served notice that Pat Hill was a coach to watch, David Carr was a potentially elite quarterback, and Fresno State was going to be a thorn in the side of west coast football for a while.
That was 10 years ago. Since then, Hill's Bulldogs have been consistently … almost good. They have finished with a winning record in 11 of the last 12 seasons, won at least eight games in nine of 12, and won at least nine in five of 12. This is a solid mid-major program. But they have found ways to tease fans, consistently hinting at serious athletic potential before settling into their 8-5 groove and watching conference mate Boise State play in BCS bowls. They have mastered the art of playing hard to get. […]
Pat Hill has figured out how to always field one of the faster, more athletic mid-major teams in the country. It is the breakdowns that consistently make them a tease instead of a force. […] Another bowl trip is semi-likely (they are given a 41 percent chance of finishing 7-6 or better), but the Bulldogs will have to prove they are no longer just a tease before the numbers -- and the eyeballs -- believe them.
Fresno State played in six one-possession games in 2011. To reach the 7-6 goal, they needed to go 5-1 in such games; they went 2-4. The result was, along with 2006, one of Hill's two least successful campaigns in cardinal red and blue. The offense struggled over the first half of the season, but it improved just enough over the last half to lose four one-possession games down the stretch.
First six games: Opponents 30.9 Adj. PPG, FSU 25.6 (minus-5.3)
Last seven games: FSU 30.1 Adj. PPG, Opponents 30.0 (plus-0.1)
A few points here and there, and Fresno State defeats Nevada, New Mexico State, San Jose State and San Diego State, finishes the season winning six of seven, and saves Hill's job. Instead, they lost all four of those games by a combined margin of 20 points, and DeRuyter took over.
The first thing you notice when glancing at the offensive portion of Fresno State's statistical profile: wow, are there a lot of three- (and four-) star recruits on the roster. The top three quarterbacks were all three-star signees, backup Milton Knox was originally a four-star UCLA commit, and five of the eight wide receivers listed were three-star signees (three, actually, were given the highest three-star designation).
(How, then, do the Bulldogs rank 120th in two-year recruiting? Easy: their 2011 class wasn't that well-regarded -- four three-star recruits, 12 two-stars -- and their 2012 class was both small and strangely included only nine players with Rivals star ratings. This could backfire on them from a depth perspective in a couple of years, but this year's two-deep is still pretty solid.)
What that tells you, if nothing else, is that there is potential here, especially in the passing game. Despite Devon Wylie's graduation and Jalen Saunders' unexpected, troubling transfer, whoever now assumes the roles of No. 1 and No. 2 receivers will come with a reasonably high ceiling. Keep that in mind if quarterback Derek Carr and the Bulldogs' offense starts out slowly, as it did this spring. DeRuyter and new coordinator Dave Schramm are going for a no-huddle, breakneck-speed attack, but it will require interesting receivers like Rashad Evans, Isaiah Burse, Josh Harper and A.J. Johnson to hint at more of their ceiling than they revealed in 2011. Carr completed 63 percent of his passes and threw 26 touchdowns to just nine interceptions last year; but his completion rate to players not named Wylie or Saunders was only 59 percent, and the duo accounted for half of his touchdown passes.
The hire of Schramm was an interesting one. Known for strong California recruiting and a love of the spread, Schramm was promoted to Utah offensive coordinator in 2009, slightly demoted to co-coordinator in 2010, then demoted to simply running backs coach in 2011 with the addition of Norm Chow. In his two years in the coordinator chair, the Utes ranked 73rd and 62nd in Off. F/+, then regressed to 95th in Chow's only year there. He knows the spread well, and he seems to prefer a balanced attack on standard downs (before airing it out on passing downs), which could mean good things for the running back combination of Robbie Rouse and Milton Knox.
In 2011 Rouse was, to an extent, an "anybody could have gotten those yards with those carries" back -- his minus-7.3 Adj. POE suggests he was about a touchdown worse than the average back given his carries, opponents, and blocking -- but he certainly had his moments. For every couple of subpar games (he averaged 4.6 yards per carry versus San Jose State, 4.5 versus Idaho, 4.1 versus North Dakota, 4.0 versus Louisiana Tech, an awful 3.7 versus New Mexico State, and 2.8 versus San Diego State), he had an excellent one (36 for 169 versus Nebraska, 25 for 172 versus Nevada, 37 for 176 versus Hawaii). Despite his slight stature (5-foot-7, 185 pounds), he is clearly a workhorse back, and with Schramm in charge he should still get his carries. The question is, what about the blocking? A line that ranked 70th in Adj. Line Yards last year must replace its two most experienced starters, including all-conference tackle Bryce Harris. Five players with starting experience (51 career starts) return, but the front five still struggled a bit this spring, as did everyone else on the offensive side of the ball.
We have no idea what kind of head coach Tim DeRuyter will make -- there are infinite examples of people with perfect resumes struggling in the top spot and people with little experience (or at least, little impressive experience) thriving. We do know, however, that the man can coach defense. In his second season as Nevada's defensive co-coordinator, the Wolf Pack improved from 83rd to 31st in Def. S&P+. In his three years as Air Force's coordinator, the Falcons' defense improved from 112th in the category before he arrived, to 63rd, to 49th, to 16th. In two years at Texas A&M, he took on a defense that had ranked 104th and 64th in 2008-09; they ranked 14th and 18th in 2010-11. His 3-4 is fast, aggressive and successful.
DeRuyter has some work to do in Fresno. The Bulldogs ranked 101st in Def. S&P+ last year and have ranked worse than 80th in three of the past four seasons. They have been an occasionally efficient, aggressive unit, but they have not been able to stop big plays for quite a while now.
That said, at first glance, DeRuyter's scheme seems to mesh well with the returning personnel. Size can often be a concern when it comes to the 4-3 to 3-4 switch, but 305-pound sophomore Tyeler Davison is well-suited to the 3-4 nose, former end Donavon Lewis has taken well to outside linebacker, and a high level of aggression should set well a linebacking corps that returns players like senior Travis Brown (8.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up in 2011) and Jeremiah Toma (5.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up).
Of course, the front seven wasn't really the problem last year. The Bulldogs ranked 113th in overall PPP+ (an explosiveness measure) -- 115th versus the run and 107th versus the pass. The front seven had a role to play in that, but especially as it pertains to the pass, we tend to look toward safety play when it comes to this measure. Four of last year's top five safeties return, for better or worse, but perhaps most importantly, senior strong safety Phillip Thomas also returns after missing 2011 with leg and ankle injuries. He logged 3.5 tackles for loss and defended 12 passes in 2010, and he immediately becomes FSU's most accomplished safety. Thomas and corner L.J. Jones (2.5 tackles for loss, 16 passes defended) give DeRuyter and coordinator Nick Toth some interesting, aggressive pieces. The defense is likely to improve a decent amount this fall. Will an offense in transition forfeit these gains?
Despite early road trips to Oregon and Tulsa, FSU does face a rather favorable schedule this fall. The home slate features no team projected to rank better than 86th, which suggests that the success-or-not bar could reasonably be set at "bowl eligibility."
It is difficult to look at this roster and not see quite a bit of upside. Derek Carr returns, Robbie Rouse rushed for 1,500 yards last year, there are star recruits littered through the receiving corps, Tyeler Davison was quite possibly meant to be a 3-4 nose, Tim DeRuyter has a wealth of fast linebackers with which to attack, and Phillip Thomas returns to lead what was a shaky secondary. The problem is that, for the most part, these weapons were also on last year's Fresno State team. Experience and new coaching could make quite a difference, but until this personnel bounces back from last season's disappointment, they face some burden of proof.
Pat Hill, like many coaches, failed to live up to the expectations that his own success set for him. DeRuyter is not guaranteed to clear the bar in front of him, but he should field an exciting, fast, aggressive team this fall. Fresno State does not lack for athletes, and DeRuyter has tended to know what to do with them.
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