In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
No. 35 Fresno State
Fresno State tied the biggest single-season turnaround in FBS history with a nine-win improvement. It was exhilarating, improbable and unexplainable.
They were gutted at defensive line and lost two studs on the offensive line but return their quarterback, top three rushers, three of their top four pass-catchers and their entire back seven on defense. This team is capable of winning the Mountain West and challenging for a New Year's Six bowl.
2017 Record: 10-4 (7-1, Mountain West)
Fresno State was not ranked in my preseason Top 100 last year. They peaked at No. 20 after beating Boise State in the regular-season finale and were No. 25 in the final pre-bowl rankings.
Clearly, I — along with everyone else outside of the Fresno State locker room — was way off. However, in hindsight, I had no reason to rank the Bulldogs in the Top 100. No one saw one of the most remarkable seasons in college football history coming.
Head Coach: Jeff Tedford (2nd Year, 10-4)
"I have faith that Jeff is just the ticket to bring back the winning tradition of Fresno State football."
That was Fresno State athletics director Jim Bartko in announcing the hire of Jeff Tedford as head coach. Bartko believed that Tedford would bring back the winning tradition of Fresno State football, but there's no chance that Bartko believed Tedford, a Fresno State alum, would bring back the winning tradition with a 10-win season in 2017.
He won Mountain West Coach of the Year and was a finalist for National Coach of the Year.
OT David Patterson, C Aaron Mitchell, DE Tobenna Okeke, DT Robert Stanley, DT Malik Forrester, K Jimmy Camacho
With all due respect to all-conference offensive linemen David Patterson and Aaron Mitchell, Fresno State's biggest losses came on defense, particularly at defensive line, where three huge pieces exhausted their eligibility.
Robert Stanley was sensational after moving from linebacker, recording a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss, and Tobenna Okeke led the team with six sacks. Malik Forrester was good in run defense and added five sacks.
All-Mountain West Second-Team kicker Jimmy Camacho is gone after hitting 41 of 42 PATs and 25 of 32 field goals as a senior, his lone year as the primary kicker.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Marcus McMaryion, RB Ronnie Rivers, RB Jordan Mims, RB Josh Hokit, WR KeeSean Johnson, WR Jamire Jordan, TE Kyle Riddering, TE Jared Rice, OT Netane Muti, OT Christian Cook, C Micah St. Andrew
The offensive improvements were staggering:
Points Per Play: 0.229 (2016), 0.356 (2017)
Red Zone: 72 percent (2016), 90 percent (2017)
Yards Per Play: 4.4 (2016), 5.6 (2017)
Yards Per Rush: 3.0 (2016), 4.2 (2017)
Sack Rate: 7.4 percent (2016), 2.2 percent (2017)
But as improved as the offense was under Tedford and first-year coordinator Kane DeBoer, there is a lot of room for improvement, especially on third downs, which they converted only 33 percent of the time. It starts with senior quarterback Marcus McMaryion (below).
The Oregon State grad transfer was good and pretty efficient in his first season but couldn't throw it downfield on third downs and too often hurled unbalanced ducks into double coverage. DeBoer is imploring McMaryion to take more calculated shots downfield this year.
"It's just a matter of knowing the time and place to take advantage of the looks, the matchups and game flow and having him be confident that if he is aggressive and it doesn't work out, that I'm OK with it," DeBoer said this spring. "I want him to know that I trust his decisions that he makes during the course of the game. He does a great job and I know he wants it bad, so it's fun working with him that way."
Top target KeeSean Johnson is back, as is fellow senior receiver Jamire Jordan and their top two tight ends Kyle Riddering and Jared Rice. Rice had six receptions for 98 yards in the two Boise State games.
The backfield is loaded with the return of two sophomores in Ronnie Rivers and Jordan Mims and junior Josh Hokit. Rivers averaged nearly five yards per tote but could miss at least the first month of the season with a foot injury.
Up front, they have some high-end talent and adequate depth with three returning starters and some others with experience. Keep an eye on sophomore Netane Muti, last year's starting left guard who is slated to be their blind-side tackle.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Emeka Ndoh, LB Jeffrey Allison, LB George Helmuth, LB James Bailey, CB Tank Kelly, CB Jaron Bryant, S Mike Bell, S Juju Hughes
The defensive improvements were equally staggering:
Points Per Play: 0.447 (2016), 0.280 (2017)
Yards Per Play: 5.8 (2016), 4.9 (2017)
Third Downs: 44 percent (2016), 36 percent (2017)
Yards Per Rush: 5.1 (2016), 3.7 (2017)
Sack Rate: 4.3 percent (2016), 6.7 percent (2017)
Yards Per Completion: 12.8 (2016), 10.6 (2017)
The bad news: Coordinator Orlondo Steinauer went back to the CFL and their entire defensive line graduated.
The great news: New coordinator Bert Watts (formerly linebackers coach) will run the same 4-3 base in which almost everything begins in the middle of the unit. And they have the best group of linebackers and defensive backs in the Mountain West.
"He sees things that you normally don’t see until you get into the film room,” linebacker James Bailey said. “He’ll point it out to you and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow.’ He’s just really smart . . . He just has that vision. A lot of coaches may not see it, unless they’re in the box. But being on the field, he really does see it like he’s in the game himself.”
Flanking Bailey are two all-conference-caliber players in George Helmuth and Jeffrey Allison. Allison (below) is a meaty (6-foot, 250 pounds) inside linebacker who led the team in tackles by plugging holes like a cement truck.
Both safeties, Juju Hughes (strong) and Mike Bell (free) are capable of playing anywhere on the field, and corners Anthoula (Tank) Kelly and Jaron Bryant will try to improve Fresno State's turnover numbers (0.6 interceptions per game, 97th nationally).
RB Romello Harris, WR Michiah Quick, OL Marc-David Bien-Aime, DT Leevel Tatum III
With 15 starters and more than a dozen other key players returning, there isn't much room for new faces. However, there are a few notable additions.
Romello Harris, a native of nearby Tulare, Calif., passed on a Fresno State offer last year to sign with Washington State. After a redshirt and transfer, the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder is eligible immediately and will see snaps behind Mims and Hokit. Fresno native Leevel Tatum III also passed on the Bulldogs' offer, signing with UNLV in 2016. He sat out last year and adds depth to a depleted line.
A third transfer, Michiah Quick from Oklahoma, should be McMaryion's No. 3 receiver.
The most intriguing addition might be Marc-David Bien-Aime, a 6-foot-5, 350-pound true freshman from Montreal. He arrived early and will compete for one of the vacant spots on the offensive line (likely left guard).
Fresno State has opportunities for Power Five road wins in back-to-back weeks: Minnesota in Week 2 and UCLA in Week 3.
The highly anticipated game vs. Boise State is on a Friday night, Nov. 9.
|Saturday, Sept. 1||vs. Idaho|
|Saturday, Sept. 8||at Minnesota|
|Saturday, Sept. 15||at UCLA|
|Saturday, Sept. 29||vs. Toledo|
|Saturday, Oct. 6||at Nevada|
|Saturday, Oct. 13||vs. Wyoming|
|Saturday, Oct. 20||at New Mexico|
|Saturday, Oct. 27||vs. Hawai'i|
|Saturday, Nov. 3||at UNLV|
|Friday, Nov. 9||at Boise State|
|Saturday, Nov. 17||vs. San Diego State|
|Saturday, Nov. 24||vs. San Jose State|