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Nevada football offseason opponent preview: Fresno State

Fresno State v San Diego State Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images

Barring any unforeseen setbacks due to COVID-19, there are five Saturday’s until the Nevada Football team will kickoff its 2020 season.

Assuming the Nevada football season begins on-time and non-conference play occurs, here is a look at its 2020 schedule:

Nevada Football 2020 Schedule

Date Opponent Time TV 2019 Final FPI Rankings 2020 Preseason FPI Rankings
Date Opponent Time TV 2019 Final FPI Rankings 2020 Preseason FPI Rankings
August 29 vs. UC Davis TBD TBD --------- ---------
September 5 at Arkansas TBD TBD 93 66
September 12 vs. UTEP TBD TBD 128 129
September 19 at South Florida TBD TBD 95 86
September 26 vs. San Diego State TBD TBD 71 88
October 3 at Hawai'i TBD TBD 79 119
October 10 BYE --------- --------- --------- ---------
October 17 at New Mexico TBD TBD 121 124
October 24 vs. Fresno State TBD TBD 81 93
October 31 vs. Utah State TBD TBD 73 85
November 7 at San Jose State TBD TBD 103 108
November 14 vs. Wyoming TBD TBD 68 77
November 21 BYE --------- --------- --------- ---------
November 28 at UNLV TBD TBD 116 117

Each Friday leading up to the season, I will be previewing each Pack opponent on their 2020 schedule. This week, we will be previewing their week eight matchup: Fresno State Bulldogs. Enjoy!

Previous weeks:

6/12: Week 1 vs. UC Davis

6/19: Week 2 at Arkansas (SEC moved to a conference-only schedule Thursday)

6/26: Week 3 vs. UTEP

7/3: Week 4 at South Florida

7/10: Week 5 vs. San Diego State

7/17: Week 6 vs. Hawai’i

7/24: Week 7 vs. New Mexico

Week 6: Fresno State

2019 record: 4-8 (2-6 MWC)

When: Saturday, Oct. 24

Where: Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.

Matchup History: Fresno State leads 28-16

2019 season-in-review:

It was an unlucky 2019 season for Fresno State, who lost seven out of its eight games by 10 or fewer points — five coming within one possession (eight points or less). The campaign started with an eight-point loss at USC followed by a three-point overtime loss at home versus Minnesota. The Bulldogs closed their final two non-conference games with victories to Sacramento State and New Mexico State before beginning conference play. Their 56-27 victory over UNLV in their second conference affair was their biggest margin-of-victory on the season. Fresno State earned its only other Mountain West win against Hawai’i, 41-38, after a game-winning 37-yard field goal by Cesar Silva at the end of regulation. Head coach Jeff Tedford stepped down at the end of the season. Former Bulldog offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer was hired just weeks later, who went 67-3 and won three NAIA titles in five seasons at Sioux Falls (his alumni) in his only experience as a collegiate head coach.

2020 Preview:

Offense:

With DeBoer back in Fresno, this time as the head coach, the Bulldog offense should see a substantial boost from last year’s dropoff.

DeBoer, who was the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator in 2017 and 2018, has a history of producing highly-efficient offenses. For perspective, according to ESPN, Fresno State sported the second-least efficient offense in 2016. When DeBoer joined the Bulldogs in 2017, it dramatically improved. Nationally, they soared to No. 61 (in 2017) and No. 35 (in 2018) in offensive efficiency.

He departed to Indiana for the same position prior to last season and the success translated. The Hoosiers’ offense was the 17th-most efficient offense in 2019 — their highest-ranked offense since 2011 (the furthest year that ESPN’s database goes). Without DeBoer last year, Fresno State sported the 66th-best offense efficiency.

Ronnie Rivers, who led the Mountain West with 16 total touchdowns (13 rushing, 3 receiving), returns as one of the conference’s most versatile running backs. Rivers accumulated 899 rushing yards on 177 carries (5.1 ypc), adding 352 yards on 43 receptions through the air. His 43 receptions were the most among any running back in the conference.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at San Diego State
San Diego State Aztecs linebacker Kyahva Tezino (44) is attempting to tackle Fresno State running back Ronnie Rivers (20).
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Jorge Reyna departs at quarterback, leaving Washington transfer Jake Haener and former JUCO transfer Ben Wooldridge competing for the starting job.

Haener sat out last season due to NCAA’s transfer policy after narrowly losing the starting job to Jacob Eason in fall camp. In four games with the Huskies in 2018, he completed 9-of-13 (69.2 percent) of his passes for 107 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Wooldridge completed 4-of-6 passes for 30 yards with his lone touchdown pass coming on a 17-yard strike to Keric Wheatfall.

The Bulldogs lose one of their top targets, tight end Jared Rice — who set the program record for most career receptions by a tight end (113) — but retain a promising trio of wideouts in Zane Pope, Jalen Cropper and Wheatfall.

Pope posted team-highs in receptions (47) and receiving yards (525), hauling-in one receiving score. Wheatfall totaled 17 receptions on a staggering 18.1 yards per reception with one touchdown. Cropper is a premier breakout candidate after tallying 15 receptions for 196 yards as a freshman.

The offensive line sustained multiple injuries, including a season-ending injury for the second consecutive season for guard Netane Muti. Muti, a sixth-round selection (No. 181 overall) to the Denver Broncos, is the only departing lineman. The unit is led by right tackle Syrus Tuitele, who has made 20 combined starts in the last two seasons.

Defense:

The Bulldog defense was considerably worse last year than it was in its 12-win 2018 campaign, when they finished third in the nation in scoring defense (13.1 ppg).

Last year, they ranked 78th nationally in defensive efficiency after placing 14th in that department a season prior. In 2019, the Bulldogs ranked No. 88 in total defense (419.8 ypg), No. 82 in scoring defense (30.1 ppg) and No. 107 in passing defense (259.2 ypg).

Justin Rice, an All-Mountain West first team selection last year — returns as the team’s top defensive talent. Rice was voted onto the 2020 preseason All-Mountain West first team by Mountain West Connection writers earlier this week. Rice led the team and was T-25 nationally in total tackles with 112. He also had 8.0 tackles-for-loss, 3.0 sacks and four forced fumbles. His four forced fumbles were the fourth-most in the FBS.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Fresno State at USC
Fresno State Bulldogs linebacker Justin Rice (29) intercepts the ball.
Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arron Mosby is another stud playmaker at the linebacker position. He finished fourth on the team in tackles with 78 last season. He was T-6 in tackles-for-loss (5.5) with three forced fumbles and an interception. Illinois transfer Jacob Hollins — who redshirted last year — Lavelle Bailey will compete for the final linebacker spot. Bailey had a stellar freshman season at linebacker. In five starts, he totaled 30 tackles and was fourth on the team with 6.0 tackles-for-loss.

Kevin Atkins, who made the site’s second-team, leads the defensive line unit. Atkins, who was an All-Conference Honorable Mention honoree in 2019, totaled 31 tackles, 7.0 tackles-for-loss and a team-high 5.0 sacks. Kwami Jones (11 tackles, 2.5 TFL, one sack) returns for his senior season after missing the first eight games of last year due to an injury.

The secondary is arguably Fresno State’s worst and most inexperienced groups on its team. Wylan Free and Evan WIlliams are the only two defensive backs with starting experience. Free, the team’s No. 1 cornerback, was fifth on the team in tackles (64) with two interceptions and one fumble recovery. Williams, who started five games as a true freshman in 2019, registered 40 tackles, one forced fumble and one interception last year.

Overall:

I think Fresno State will surprise people next year. It was projected to finish fourth in the West Division behind Hawai’i, Nevada and San Diego State. Due to DeBoer’s crazy track record of producing high-octane offenses, which have translated into team success, the Bulldogs could sneakily compete with Nevada and San Diego State for a division title. The offensive scheme will be similar to those used in past years, but the lack of spring practice affects both Haener and Wooldridge because of the lack of practice reps. Even with fall camp is not slated to start on time (per the Fresno Bee), if the start of the season is delayed, I still believe Fresno could make in-conference noise if they’re able to make-up that lost ground.