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July 31, 2008

Fresno State could crash BCS party

MORE: Rivals.com preseason countdown - No. 23 Fresno State | Possible BCS busters

Forget about four-letter words. It's a three-letter word that nobody at Fresno State apparently wants to say in the presence of teammates, no matter how much it's on everyone's mind.

At least that's the story quarterback Tom Brandstater tells as he discusses the Bulldogs' big plans for the upcoming season.

"I don't think Coach (Pat) Hill has ever said the word 'BCS' to us,'' Brandstater said.

Then again, maybe it's not such a forbidden word after all. For someone who supposedly never discusses his team's BCS possibilities in meeting rooms, Hill sure isn't hesitant to discuss the matter with the media.

"Everyone in basketball wants to go to the NCAA Tournament," Hill said. "Why shouldn't we try to go to the top of our profession – a BCS bowl game? I'm not shy about talking about it. Neither are our kids. We know how tough it is."

It may be tough for a program of Fresno State's stature to earn a BCS bid, but it's not impossible. Fresno State's Western Athletic Conference rivals have proved that much.

Boise State went undefeated out of the WAC two years ago and stunned Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Hawaii gave the WAC a second consecutive BCS appearance last year when it parlayed an undefeated regular-season record into a Sugar Bowl bid. The Bulldogs believe they have the ingredients necessary to join the fraternity.

They certainly have the offense. Nine starters return from a unit that racked up 40 points on Georgia Tech's highly regarded defense in the Humanitarian Bowl.

They also have the experience at quarterback. Brandstater will attempt to follow Boise State's Jared Zabransky and Hawaii's Colt Brennan by leading his team to a BCS bid in his senior year.

But they might have too difficult a schedule to make a BCS bid a realistic possibility. Fresno State travels to Rutgers, plays host to Wisconsin and heads to UCLA for three of its first four games.

That's not the type of non-conference slate that generally leads to an undefeated season. Boise State and Hawaii didn't face a regular-season schedule nearly as demanding during their respective runs to BCS glory. Fresno State could have followed the lead of Hawaii by scheduling a pair of Division I-AA teams, but that's not the way Hill does business.

Fresno State has played 29 regular-season games against teams from the so-called "Big Six" conferences – all but six of them on the road – and only a half-dozen games against Division I-AA foes since Hill's arrival in 1997.

When Kansas State decided this summer to back out of a scheduled home matchup with the Bulldogs, Hill could have arranged a cakewalk against a I-AA team. He instead scheduled a season-opening Labor Day evening game at Rutgers.

Hill said he doesn't have much choice in the way he sets up his schedule. He notes that many of the non-conference schools that he considers peers won't schedule home-and-home series with him, while most I-AA teams want to face the big-time programs that can offer bigger paydays.

Fresno State lost its first nine games against teams from the so-called "Big Six'' conferences during Pat Hill's tenure, but the Bulldogs own a 12-13 record against such foes since. Here's a game-by-game look at how the Bulldogs have fared since that 0-9 start:
Year Opponent Result
2000 California W 17-3
2001 at Colorado W 24-22
2001 Oregon State W 44-24
2001 at Wisconsin W 32-20
2001 Michigan State* L 44-35
2002 at Wisconsin L 23-21
2002 at Oregon L 28-24
2002 at Oregon State L 49-19
2002 Georgia Tech* W 30-21
2003 at Tennessee L 24-6
2003 Oregon State W 16-14
2003 at Oklahoma L 52-28
2003 UCLA* W 17-9
2004 at Washington W 35-16
2004 at Kansas State W 45-21
2004 Virginia** W 37-34 (OT)
2005 at Oregon L 37-34
2005 at USC L 50-42
2006 Oregon L 31-24
2006 at Washington L 21-10
2006 at LSU L 38-6
2007 at Texas A&M L 47-45 (3OT)
2007 at Oregon L 52-21
2007 Kansas State W 45-29
2007 Georgia Tech*** W 40-28
*-Silicon Valley Football Classic at San Jose, Calif.
**-MPC Computers Bowl at Boise, Idaho
***-Humanitarian Bowl at Boise, Idaho
"Not everybody wants to play LSU, Tennessee and Oklahoma in non-conference games, but that's our niche," Hill said. "In return, we get a lot of TV exposure. … If we scheduled another way, maybe we could have 100 wins and 30 losses (he's 85-55 instead), but I don't think our exposure, identity and recognition would be any better. Our identity and exposure have become a lot more significant because of the schedule we do play."

Hill also is quick to point out that Fresno State isn't exactly serving as cannon fodder for the better-known programs that dot his schedule. Fresno State lost its first nine games against "Big Six" teams during Hill's tenure. Since then, the Bulldogs have gone 12-13 (including bowl results) in such games, including a 50-42 loss to the star-studded 2005 USC team that brought the Bulldogs more attention than perhaps any win in school history ever earned them.

Fresno State's ambitious non-conference schedules have helped the Bulldogs gain plenty of national respect, but it hasn't translated into a whole lot of success within the conference. As much as the Bulldogs would love to earn a BCS bid, they first must worry about winning their first WAC title since capturing a share of the crown in 1999.

The Bulldogs have dropped six of their last seven meetings with Boise State, with the six losses decided by an average margin of 19.8 points. Hawaii has beaten Fresno State each of the last two years.

"It's like losing to your brother all the time," Brandstater said. "You're tired of losing that rivalry. … We want to beat those two teams more than anything else."

Fresno State appears good enough to beat both those teams this year. While Boise State breaks in its third starting quarterback in as many years and Hawaii adjusts to a coaching change, Fresno State heads into the 2008 season without many obvious holes.

Brandstater enters his senior year as the WAC's top quarterback and has the luxury of throwing to Bear Pascoe, one of the nation's best tight ends. Fresno State's backfield returns Ryan Mathews and Lonyae Miller, who combined to rush for 1,475 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. Mathews ran for as many touchdowns (14) as any freshman in the nation last year and gained more yards per carry (6.0) than more heralded freshmen LeSean McCoy of Pittsburgh and Knowshon Moreno of Georgia.

Mathews and Miller will be running behind an offensive line that returns four players who made at least seven starts last year.

Fresno State scored at least 30 points in each of its final five games last year on its way to posting a 9-4 record. The offense could put just as many points on the board this fall if it gets more help from a defense that forced only 13 turnovers a year ago. The Bulldogs suffered a blow when offensive coordinator Jim McElwain left to become offensive coordinator at Alabama, but losing assistants is nothing new at Fresno State.

"We're on our fourth offensive coordinator in four years, but that's a sign of success," Hill said. "If you're doing well as a football program, coaches move on to new jobs. … I think that's a great thing about our program. It's a place where people come and, if they work hard and do well, they're able to build their careers."

The head coach hasn't followed suit. After moving around so frequently in the early stages of his coaching career, Hill wanted to establish roots somewhere and decided to make Fresno his permanent home. His youngest son, Zak Hill, is a redshirt freshman defensive back and the third Hill sibling to attend Fresno State.

Hill has made Fresno State one of the nation's most respected non-BCS programs while also helping the school rank second in the WAC with an Academic Progress Rate 12 points higher than the national average.

The only holes in his résumé are a relative lack of conference titles and a total absence of BCS invitations.

"Our goals are always the same," Hill said. "We want to make that run. The challenges we put on ourselves are very high, but we've been on those runs before. We've gotten as high as eighth in the nation (in 2001). We've played SC down to the final minute (in 2005), but we've never finished it. We'd like to have that special run. I don't know if this is the year."

This year might represent his best chance, if Fresno State can just get past that season-opening gauntlet. Fresno State's national champion baseball team already proved that you don't need to come from a big conference to make a name for yourself. The football team would love to deliver the same message.

The Bulldogs don't need any reminders. They saw what happened at Hawaii last year and at Boise State two years ago. They certainly understand the prize that could await them at the end of the season, whether they want to talk about it or not.

"It's not rocket science," Brandstater said. "If you play a good schedule and win all your games, you'll get rewarded in the end. Nothing more needs to be said."

Boise State, 10-3 last season, Western Athletic
That perfect 2006 season should make Boise State a fixture on this list for years to come, but a first-year starting quarterback and a Sept. 20 trip to Oregon could make it difficult for the Broncos to go unbeaten.
BYU, 11-2 last season, Mountain West
The Cougars have earned double-digit wins each of the last two years and should have one of the most explosive offenses in the nation, though the lack of experience on defense is a cause for concern. BYU must go to Washington and play host to UCLA in the first three weeks of the season.
Fresno State, 9-4 last season, Western Athletic
The Bulldogs should be able to score on just about anyone, but three tough non-conference games (at Rutgers, Wisconsin and at UCLA) and a season-ending trip to Boise State make an undefeated season unlikely.
TCU, 7-5 last season, Mountain West
Texas Christian should be much better this year, but it's tough to imagine the Horned Frogs getting past BYU and Utah in the Mountain West - let alone surviving a Sept. 27 trip to Oklahoma unscathed.
Tulsa, 10-4 last season, Conference USA
Tulsa must replace star quarterback Paul Smith, but the Golden Hurricane return just about everyone else on offense and have a soft non-conference schedule (their only BCS game is a Nov. 1 trip to Arkansas) that could make a perfect season possible.
Utah, 9-4 last season, Mountain West
Brian Johnson stays healthy and Utah wins at Michigan in the opening week of the season, the Utes have a chance to make some serious noise. Utah has suffered heartbreaking losses to BYU each of the last two years. Could a BCS bid be on the line when they meet Nov. 22 at Salt Lake City?

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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