In some ways, examining the 2016 slate for the Fresno State Bulldogs is like déjà vu: Maybe there's no buzzsaw like Ole Miss on the inevitable horizon, but the FBS opponents on the non-conference schedule aren't slouches, by any means. The Mountain West schedule, again, puts the onus on winning early, with two critical October road games for the second year in a row.
And, oh, by the way, each in the trio of inter-division foes went to bowls in 2015, a group which includes the conference runners-up. If it sounds like a recipe for another disaster, I wouldn't blame you for thinking so:
Nebraska stumbled a bit in the first year of the Mike Riley era, but the Cornhuskers ran the 'Dogs out of Bulldog Stadium just two years ago and a trip to Lincoln isn't cozy for any visitor. Toledo will replace some key pieces, most notably departed quarterback Phillip Ely, but the Rockets were perhaps the MAC's best team before fading in November. Tulsa supplemented one of the nation's most suspect defenses with one of its most powerful offenses. A likely home win against Sacramento State may not generate much enthusiasm, but I'd argue the likelihood that's the only W to hang onto before Mountain West action.
If you'll forgive an obvious pun, the season's fortunes may hinge on the trip to Sam Boyd Stadium on October 1. In the last couple years, the series between Fresno State and UNLV has become wild and unpredictable, though there's little argument that head coach Tony Sanchez has the Rebels headed in the right direction after surprising success in 2015. They were only a handful of plays away from toppling the 'Dogs in last year's rain-soaked tilt, and it may be mid-November before Fresno is favored again if they lose in the desert.
A loss in Vegas probably won't bode well for the Bulldogs' chances in conference, what with two more road games sandwiched around a home date with the Mountain West champions in the three weeks that follow. And if Fresno State is 0-5 in the MWC by Halloween -- which is well within the realm of possibility -- the community's interest won't recover.
If this sounds overly grim, recall that the Bulldogs routinely collapsed, in one more or more facets of the game, week in and week out last year. It isn't all doom and gloom, though, if you've noted the renewed energy and enthusiasm coming out of the first few days of spring camp thus far.
The new coordinators on both sides of the ball, Eric Kiesau and Lorenzo Ward, haven't been shy about expressing their expectations for the offense and defense, respectively. Kiesau's desire is to "be really fast", while senior receiver Aaron Peck described the new offense as "Oregon quick" (The Ducks, for the record, ran 993 offensive plays to Fresno State's 826 last year, and while that figure was under what the 'Dogs averaged from 2012-14, Dave Schramm's offense never averaged seven yards per play. Make of that what you will.).
Ward, meanwhile, has expressed the need for continual urgency in his first week on the field as defensive coordinator, noting in an interview on the program's official site that "we've simplified things on defense to allow the guys to play fast" and suggesting that his need for speed is fueled, in part, by a wide-open competition for jobs. Considering that 21 different players started for the first time in 2015, this is a smart tack to take.
There's also the promise of a slightly less muddled quarterback competition this time around, as well. Though it wouldn't be a shock, at this point, if Tim DeRuyter declined to name a starter until September 3, I suspect they'll give sophomore Chason Virgil every chance to take command of the race in the next two weeks. He showed flashes of dynamic playmaking ability, not to mention relatively sound judgment for a true freshman, before getting hurt.
It's hard to say that any other team in the Mountain West has such a broad spectrum of possibility ahead of them. The ceiling depends almost entirely on how quickly the offenses coalesces: San Diego State's defense should be the best the 'Dogs face in the season's first half, but only one other (Toledo) finished in the top half of total defense and yards allowed per play; both should regress to the mean in turnover margin, too (SDSU led the FBS at +22, Toledo was +8).
Hardest stretch: vs. San Diego State, at Utah State, vs. Air Force, at Colorado State
Easiest stretch: vs. Hawaii, vs. San Jose State (though the latter is no gimme)
Guaranteed wins: Sacramento State, Hawai'i
Guaranteed losses: at Nebraska, at Toledo, San Diego State, Air Force
Worse-than-50/50 games: vs. Tulsa, at Nevada, at Utah State, at Colorado State
50/50 games: San Jose State
Better-than-50/50 games: at UNLV
Preliminary projected record: 4-8