The Pat Hill era enters its 12th season in 2008. In the previous 11 seasons, the Bulldogs played in nine bowl games and had just two losing seasons. The program’s groundbreaking moment came in 2001 when the Bulldogs beat three Bowl Championship Series opponents (at Colorado, No. 10 Oregon State, at No. 23 Wisconsin) to start the season. Then Bulldog QB David Carr graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and led FS to a 6-0 start and No. 8 ranking in the AP Poll.
Since, the Bulldogs had two teams considered preseason top 25 teams by college football pundits.
The 2003 team, ranked No. 21 by The Sporting News, suffered a brash of injuries in the preseason. The most notable were the season-ending knee injury to LT Logan Mankins and the career altering pectoral injury to QB Paul Pinegar. The Bulldogs struggled early against a non-conference scheduled that featured road games at No. 11 Tennessee and No. 1 Oklahoma. While the Bulldogs did upset Oregon State, they lost three games to opponents many expected them to beat in the preseason, Hawaii, Colorado State, and Boise State. FS finished 9-5 including a 17-9 Silicon Valley Bowl win over UCLA.
The 2005 team was the first in school history ranked in the preseason AP Poll (No. 24). The Bulldogs were ranked as high as No. 14 (Gold Sheet) in the various preseason polls. FS fulfilled their lofty expectation by starting the season 8-1 and ranked No. 16, their only loss was a 37-34 setback at Oregon. The ‘Dogs took No. 1 USC to the wire in game 10 but lost 50-42. Then everything went spiraling down. FS lost its last three games it was favored to win, at Nevada, Louisiana Tech, and vs. Tulsa in the Liberty Bowl. The downturn carried over to 2006, which saw the Bulldogs finish 4-8.
Much like the 9-3 2004 season built hype for the 2005 team, the 2008 Bulldogs are riding on the tails of its 9-4 2007 season. Reminiscent of the springs of 2003 and 2005, many college football pundits are writing and saying great things about the ‘Dogs.
If FS can stay healthy physically – unlike 2003 – and mentally – unlike 2005 – then the 2008 season should be very special. One big reason why expectations are huge is Sr. QB Tom Brandstater. From zero to hero, Brandstater was the starting quarterback in 10 of the 12 games in 2006. He drew a blunt of the criticism from fans for the Bulldogs abysmal season, but it was not his fault. Brandstater has consistently improved each spring since 2006. Now, he is arguably one of the top 20 passers in the nation, and a likely draft pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. However, he will not have to do it alone. The ‘Dogs are loaded offensively.
Tom Brandstater in the pocket vs. Kansas State.
photo by Ken Weisenberger for BarkBoard.com
New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is the fourth different offensive coordinator in as many years. Nussmeier takes over after the Bulldogs showed dramatic improvement in just one season under former OC Jim McElwain. McElwain left the Bulldogs for the same position at Alabama in February. In spite of that, the transition from Mac to Nuss was as seamless as possible during spring. Moreover, unlike McElwain, who inherited a young unproven offense, Nussmeier’s cupboard is full of talented, experienced players.
Offensively, Fresno State loses one starter, C Ryan Wendell. RB Clifton Smith was not a starter per se, but his role as slash was a key part of the offense. Nonetheless, the Bulldogs are loaded at RB, led by Ryan Mathews, who rushed for 14 touchdowns as a true freshman last season and had stellar spring. Center might be a different story. Jr. Joe Bernardi started five games at C last season before injuring his knee. He missed spring ball and is questionable for fall camp. RG Adam McDowell moved over to the center spot in spring after starting two games at RG last season before a season-ending injury.
Defensively, Fresno State must replace four starters, WLB Marcus Riley, DE Tyler Clutts, DT Charles Tolbert, and CB Damon Jenkins. However, outside of the seven returning starters, the Bulldogs have four other players who started at least one game last season. Replacing Riley will be the toughest. Quaadir Brown started eight games last season at SLB. He moved to WLB in spring, where he was slated to start in 2006 before a season-ending injury. CB A.J. Jefferson started four games last season, but made a named for himself leading the nation in kickoff returns. DT Cornell Banks, DE Wilson Ramos, and DE Ikenna Ike combined to start 10 games last season.
Special teams are taken for granted at Fresno State. Associate Head Coach John Baxter is one of the best special team coaches in the nation. While first team All-American Jefferson will return kickoffs, the Bulldogs must replace everyone else. The ‘Dogs lose their K, P, LS, and PR from a year ago. This unit could be the difference between an eight or 11 win season.
Stay with BarkBoard.com for complete position breakdowns starting with the quarterbacks on Thursday.
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