No team in the Mountain West will enter the 2014 season with higher aspirations than the Fresno State Bulldogs. The defending conference champions ended last fall on a sour note, with a blowout loss to the USC Trojans in the Las Vegas Bowl, and now the team must prove that the offensive attack can be sustained with a new quarterback and new playmakers.
As the saying goes, they will be getting every team's best shot. With the release of the conference schedule, though, the 'Dogs will have to absorb those shots and avoid the early-round knockout in hostile territories.
|9/20/14||vs. Southern Utah (FCS)|
|9/27/14||@ New Mexico|
|10/4/14||vs. San Diego State|
|10/18/14||@ Boise State|
|11/8/14||vs. San Jose State|
Fresno's road swing to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City represents the first such two-game sojourn to open a season since 2004. The men of Troy figure to be revitalized under new head coach Steve Sarkisian, while the Bulldogs will surely be eager to even the series score in their second trip to the Coliseum. The Utes are another familiar foe, though their days together in the WAC have long since passed, who will host Fresno for the first time since 1998. The home opener against the Cornhuskers is Nebraska's only road game in non-conference play, while the Thunderbirds are the typical FCS tune-up game that will take the 'Dogs into their Mountain West slate.
The Bulldogs' performance in Albuquerque could be the canary in the mineshaft for the 2014 season. Two years ago, the Lobos jumped out to a 21-0 lead at home and held a ten-point advantage at halftime before Fresno turned the game into a rout. It's anybody's guess as to how UNM will progress this year, but fresh faces could be the answer to their ongoing defensive woes.
The subsequent home date with the Aztecs won't be treated lightly. Last year, SDSU nearly ended Fresno's BCS hopes before they began and looked like an entirely different team by season's end. It wouldn't be surprising if San Diego State was a trendy pick to seize the West division crown, so this October showcase will give the winning side a critical edge.
When the Bulldogs hit the road for another two-game stretch, the obvious story line will hinge on reversals of fortune. Fresno hasn't made the trip to Vegas to face the Rebels since 1996, and Bobby Hauck's squad appears to be on the rise and eager to avenge last season's rout. Boise State will also be out for a measure of revenge, having relinquished the Milk Can Trophy in one of 2013's most memorable games. It will be tempting to look past UNLV in anticipation of the big rivalry, which I believe makes it the most obvious trap game on the schedule.
With luck, Fresno will still be in the hunt for the division title when the calendar flips to November and the schedule eases up. The Wyoming Cowboys have never won at Bulldog Stadium and are another of the Mountain West's new-look teams under new coach Craig Bohl. Whatever issues that will surround life after quarterback Brett Smith will likely have subsided late in the season, though it remains to be seen whether new schemes will solve the program's inconsistency.
The same principle applies to San Jose State, who will strive to remain competitive without David Fales. The major difference is that their recent successes against Fresno, which includes the epic dream-crushing shootout from last year, have breathed new life into what was becoming a one-sided rivalry. Tyler Winston, the Mountain West's Freshman of the Year in 2013, will lead a potent wide receiver corps that figures to test the reloading Bulldogs' defense, but you can bet the home team will have this game circled on the schedule from the start.
The season closes with two more division matchups against teams looking to improve their lots. The Nevada Wolf Pack were sunk by injury issues and offensive ineffiency in 2013, but they should factor into the West race if Cody Fajardo can be counted upon to stay on the field. The senior quarterback is an unparalleled dual-threat athlete when healthy and will want to reclaim his place among the best players in the conference.
Hawaii, on the other hand, may be searching for improvement everywhere on the field next fall, but that didn't stop them from scaring the daylights out of the 'Dogs and several other teams last year. They may still be the worst team in the conference, so the optimistic take is that this favorable game at season's end will tilt the odds in Fresno's favor if the division comes down to the wire.
Overall, the 'Dogs will have their hands full with five games on the road in the season's first two months, and it's an open question whether the home crowd will embrace the team if it stumbles in non-conference play. They haven't lost at Bulldog Stadium in the Tim DeRuyter era, though, so breaking even in that critical October stretch -- ideally, at least two wins -- should put the team in place to claim another division crown at home in the Central Valley.