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Abilene Christian vs. Fresno State game preview: 'Bulldogs look to ease into 2015

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The season opener is no trip to the Coliseum, but it's the ideal challenge for the young 'Dogs.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

WEEK 1: Abilene Christian Wildcats vs. Fresno State Bulldogs

WHEN: Thursday, September 3 -- 7:00 PM, PST

WHERE: Bulldog Stadium; Fresno, CA (41,031)

TV: The game will be televised online as part of the Mountain West Network and Campus Insiders. Click here for a link to the game and many more MWC broadcasts.

RADIO: Fresno's two ESPN affiliates, 940 and 1600 AM, will broadcast the game in English and Spanish, respectively.

SERIES RECORD: The Bulldogs and Wildcats have met four times and each has won twice. However, the last meeting between ACU and Fresno took place over a half-century ago, when the Wildcats defeated the 'Dogs 32-29 in the 1963 season.

WEB SITES: GoBulldogs.com, Fresno State's official athletics site | ACUSports.com, Abilene Christian's official athletics site

Fans across the Central Valley have had a lot of time to mull over last year's 6-8 disappointment, but dwelling on the past ends tomorrow.

The Fresno State Bulldogs will take the field Thursday night without many of the stars that carried them to back-to-back Mountain West titles. Derek Carr and Davante Adams are long gone. Josh Harper and Derron Smith may not be walking through the locker room doors and onto Jim Sweeney Field any more, either, but head coach Tim DeRuyter had recruited plenty of young talent whose first steps onto the collegiate stage will be important ones for the future of the program.

And though the youth movement is more likely to pay dividends in 2016 and beyond, the present waits for no one. A matchup against a capable FCS team may appear to be a step backwards to the uninformed eye, but for a team with as many lingering questions as Fresno State, finding answers against Abilene Christian is a golden opportunity the young 'Dogs may not have again this year. The season opener is as much about resolution as setting a tone to carry forward.

What to watch - Abilene Christian: Will the Wildcats be able to challenge Fresno's secondary? Time and again, the Bulldogs were plagued in 2014 by big plays. The Bulldogs allowed a conference-worst 31 pass plays of 30 yards or more, and there was a bit of shuffling in the two-deep between Media Days and game week. Quarterback Parker McKenzie, who was the Southland's most accurate quarterback last season, may push returning receiver Cedric Gilbert to test Charles Washington, who was limited in fall camp while recovering from injury, and Jamal Ellis, who is likely to be in a time share with Malcolm Washington.

One other thing to keep an eye is how much the Bulldogs will test the right side of ACU's offensive line, where underclassmen will man right guard and right tackle. Tobenna Okeke may see the lion's share of snaps opposite Ejiro Ederaine, and in particular whomever wins the day between he and redshirt freshman Colton King may prove pivotal at some point.

What to watch - Fresno State: How will the quarterbacks perform? Zack Greenlee has been named the starter, but Fresno State fans surely hope he can take a step forward from the decidedly mixed results he had against live opposition (Southern Utah, Wyoming, Rice) last year. And even if he does produce, it is all but guaranteed that true freshman Chason Virgil (and possibly Ford Childress) will see some action against the Wildcats, as well. The saving grace, at least, is that ACU was not a great pass defending team in 2014, allowing a Southland Conference-worst 273.2 yards per game.

Another thing to keep an eye is how the front seven plays against Abilene Christian's productive running attack, given that a couple key veterans are gone from last year's team. Jeff Camilli steps in at middle linebacker, for instance, following Xavier Ulutu's dismissal from the team, while Nathan Madesen and Claudell Louis will try to replicate the production Fresno once received from Tyeler Davison.

The Wildcats may want to test them on the ground with all-conference running back De'Andre Brown, who finished fifth in the FCS in rushing yards as a freshman and averaged seven yards a carry in doing so. Slowing him down is likely to be the key which enables Fresno to get some breathing room early.