Fresno State State Travels To SEC Country To Face Alabama
The Bulldogs will be tested to the extreme as they take on the Crimson Tide
Lower your expectations. This game is going to get ugly.
Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide won’t just be huge favorites in this game, they will be huge favorites, at some point this season, to win the College Football Playoff National Championship game. So where does that leave Fresno?
The Bulldogs finally decided it was time to call it on Tim DeRuyter’s time as head coach of the program and installed Jeff Tedford, which I reported a year before his hire. The installation of the Tedford system may take some time and Alabama isn’t the easiest game for teams to test out their new systems against. Given that, and Alabama’s tendency to smother their non-conference schedule, it’s hard to see this game going the way of the ‘Dog.
With that said, not all things are losses. When Fresno State scheduled this game, DeRuyter was in the middle of back-to-back losing seasons. The reasons given were pretty clear: It’s about money. More than that, it truly is an opportunity for Fresno to see what they have against a vastly superior opponent. That’s bound to make Tedford’s job a little easier moving forward. This game does present some quality looming questions.
Can Fresno State show positive momentum heading into their game against Washington? Will the Bulldogs show signs of the “anybody, anytime, anywhere” mantra that served them so well under Pat Hill? If they do, will it result in more respectable showings than Tim DeRuyter had against Power Five opponents in his final years?
What can you really say about ‘Bama that hasn’t been said? They were two minutes, a defensive pass interference, and an amazing play call away from being back-to-back national champions. They’ve won three consecutive SEC West championships and four of the last five SEC title games. They had the top recruiting class in the nation (again) and they probably will again next year, as they have the last seven in consensus rankings (USA Today uses Scout rankings for their articles).
For the first time since A.J. McCarron, Alabama returns a starter at quarterback in Jalen Hurts. As with everything at Alabama, the best player will play; Tua Tagavailoa is an incredible recruit, but whether he will be able to match Hurts’ command of the Tide offense by the season’s kickoff remains to be seen.
Alabama returns a filthy amount of talent at running back, too, with names like Bo Scarborough and true freshman Najee Harris topping the list.
Don’t discount players like Joshua Jacobs, Damien Harris or B.J. Emmons from contributing in a meaningful way.
Calvin Ridley is the premier name for the Tide at wide receiver and will be backed up by Robert Foster. After that, there are a couple candidates who could potentially emerge. Jerry Jeudy is the primary candidate after what AL.com described as “put[ting] on a show” in the A-Day game.
Alabama also returns the bulk of a line that was ranked No. 35 in the nation for sacks allowed. The most crucial position for Alabama’s offensive line leadership has always seemed to generate from the center position more so than the left tackle. That’s no different this year with Brad Bozeman, but left tackle Jonah Williams and left guard Ross Pierschbacher are equally as important to this offensive line.
Alabama had the nation’s top scoring defense last year and the No. 2 overall defense, a unit that surrendered only 13 points per game. They added too much talent on defense to even start filling these pages, and one could assume at least one or two of these five-star players will crack Saban’s defensive starting lineup, filling the gap created by a less-talented counterpart with higher upside.
It’s the ‘Bama factory way, it’s produced four championships, and it was one second away from winning a fifth in January. Jeremy Pruitt returns for a sophomore season as the Tide’s defensive coordinator and he will be expecting similar results from the defense he put up last year.
Alabama will return key defensive starters like defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand, nose tackle Da’Ron Payne, and inside linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, who make up the core of a defense that is heavy on upperclassmen and redshirt sophomores. In other words, guys who have been with the program for over three years and know how to handle business. Look for them to lead the way on defense. As goes the ‘Bama front seven, so seem to go the Tide.
If Alabama has a “weakness,” special teams is it. They’re basically replacing the entire squad from the long snapper all the way up to the primary kick returner. Punter J.K. Scott is the only major part to return, but Alabama practically has a Presidential Line of Succession for special teams. If Fresno State can capitalize on decent field position, this is one area of the game where they could cause some problems for the Tide.
About Fresno State
The Bulldogs are coming off a 1-11 season in which Tim DeRuyter was fired after a 1-7 start. Offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau finished out the season, but he didn’t do any better at 0-4. But out with the old and in with the new, right?
Jeff Tedford may not have overwhelmed the media, but there were plenty of fans excited about the hire when I first reported on that and I don’t see much changing until his Bulldogs at least play a game. For Fresno State fans, this was as much about stopping the bleeding as it was restoring a respected name to the program and allowing him to do his thing.
A program that worked quite well during the Hill era, the Tedford era has begun at a Cal State after ending at Cal, DeRuyter joins Cal after being fired from Fresno State. Cosmic balance is restored.
As our Matt Kenerly originally opined in this piece, Chason Virgil remains a really interesting proposition for the Bulldogs. On the one hand, he has a history of injury, had an up-and-down season, and there was a three-star addition in Jorge Reyna in the off-season. Echoing Matt again, you usually don’t see this unless he’s going to compete for the starting job.
Virgil may win the starting job due to experience, but a JuCo quarterback is going to be just as versed in game day prep, film work, and technique as a guy who’s played a grand total of one season of football after injuries.
At the very least, it says the current staff have zero faith that Virgil can make it through a full season and they’ll need a backup sooner than later. History says that they are right, but will the present?
If Virgil can stay healthy, this was once a quarterback who committed to an SEC school until they decided they wanted him to greyshirt at the last minute, then pulled his offer when he said no. He had enrolled early to play. He has talent. He can do some majestic things with the football, but now it’s a question of whether or not his film study and prep work can match the raw talent he has as an athlete.
Much of the preview was spent talking about this since it is the biggest question facing the Bulldogs, outside of how Jeff Tedford will fare in his inaugural season. We’ll instead focus on wide receiver where there are even more question marks.
Delvon Hardaway and Da’Mari Scott have just not lived up to their potential as receivers. That’s left some of the impetus on later recruiting classes and the talent in those classes, frankly, wasn’t awe-inspiring. Fortunately, wide receivers Keesean Johnson and Jamire Jordan have been damn good for
Keep an eye on Justin Allen and Derrion Grim, as Allen had some late looks last year that showed serious potential and Grim is a JC transfer via Nebraska, and could be primed to succeed.
At running back, Bryson Oglesby has serious potential in this offense; he has more potential as a pass-catcher than some of the other candidates. Dontel James is the team’s leading returning rusher and will likely get the lion’s share, but offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer could throw everything out the window and just go with the newcomer, three-star freshman Ronnie Rivers, when the season starts.
Tedford is actually known for being a quarterback’s guy, but he doesn’t field horrible defenses, either. While the team lost a lot of production on defense, much of that came from the contributions of Tyquwan Glass and tackles made by cornerbacks who couldn’t defend passes.
Then there was Jeff Camilli, who was a one-time liability, but by the time that he’d graduated, he was a captain on the team and the second-leading tackler for the season. He will be missed.
Defensive coordinator Orlando Steinauer, brought over from the CFL’s Hamilton Ti-Cats, is going to be in charge of improving a defensive unit that literally could not get much worse. There isn’t a point in rehashing stats ‘Dog fans have read about last year’s horrid defense, so I’ll spend the time talking about what he can improve.
Steinauer’s first charge has to be the defensive backs. After that, Fresno’s front seven wasn’t actually that bad last year. If they can replace Brown and Camilli’s production in the aggregate, they’ll be just fine for the games they’ll expect to win.
Andrew Buchholz, longtime follower, author, and pundit of the Canadian Football League, had this to say about Steinauer:
“He was an impressive CFL defensive back (12 seasons, five-time league all-star, second all time in INT return yards) turned solid CFL defensive coordinator. 4.5 years as CFL DC, all pretty good. Discussed as CFL head coaching candidate before heading to Fresno State. Imagine he’s a decent recruiter. No NCAA experience as coach, but think he’ll do well.”
Current B.C. Lions LB Tony Burnett had this to say about Steinauer:
“Orlando brings a lot of pressure and is well-respected up here, for sure. He should be good vs spread cuz all we do is throw up here [jokingly].”
Kicker Kody Kroening is the senior leader and unlikely to be replaced. Punter Blake Cusick and returner Da’Mari Scott are the returning pieces for new special teams coach coach Jamie Christian who, if you hadn’t heard, is related to Dennis Erickson.
Nick Saban versus Jeff Tedford isn’t quite the matchup it once would have been, but you can be sure that Saban will be more deferential of Tedford than he likely would any Fresno State coach not named Pat Hill or Jim Sweeney. Tedford has the mental chops for a game like this, but he knows he will be at a physical disadvantage. It would figure that Tedford will use this and the Washington games as a way to figure out what he has before conference play begins.
An individual need only be a follower of college football for a few days and they’d likely pick the correct the winner every time. Alabama is going to be a strong favorite to win this game for many good reasons. With that in mind, Tide fans can close* the article here as the rest of this is directed at Fresno State fans (* — do not close the article).
What are often described as throwaway games in the media are often learning tools for smaller programs. Sometimes you have to schedule out of your league to find out what you have and it’s no coincidence that Fresno State have both of their “throwaway” games at the year’s commencement, before conference play begins. Athletic Director Jim Bartko is a mad scientist in the best possible usage of the term and the safe bet would be that it was planned this way for exactly that reason.
The Bulldogs will likely get answers about their quarterbacks in this game. Whether Reyna or Virgil is at the helm against Nevada will largely be the result of play against the Tide and the Huskies. The ‘Dogs will also get a good look at the new system of tackling, as it relies more on lowering the shoulder and less on lowering the boom.
The front seven will also get a stern test and early quarter rushing stats will likely mean a lot more than those taking place after the Tide have worn them down over several quarters. This game also offers a chance for a receiver to step up and have a big game. Someone has to come up with the yards and it seems highly likely it will come from that position more than running back, which the Tide typically chew up and spit out.
All told, there are a number of things Fresno fans can cherry pick from this game. Whether it’s the progression of the quarterbacks or the front seven’s quality or how tight ends — not really talkked about here — could feature more in DeBoer’s offense. A lot is going to change, these will be the games in which we are most likely to see tinkering and toying with the starting lineup.