NCF Nation: Derek Carr

The USC Trojans defeated the Fresno State Bulldogs 45-20 in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

It was over when: Buck Allen crossed the goal line on a 1-yard run with 4:44 left to put USC up 45-20. The Trojans had taken a 35-6 lead at halftime before Fresno State made a brief run to close the gap, but Allen provided the finishing touch with his second touchdown of the day.

Game ball: Cody Kessler. The USC quarterback set a career high, and a Las Vegas Bowl record, with four touchdown passes, and he had those in the first half alone. Kessler ended the day by completing 22 of 31 passes for 344 yards, along with one interception that was returned for a touchdown. Kessler also earned hometown bragging rights with longtime friend and fellow Bakersfield native Derek Carr from Fresno State.

Key stat: Marqise Lee with seven catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Those are the type of numbers that were routine for Lee in his 2012 Biletnikoff Award-winning year, but a pair of injuries in 2013 curtailed his performance. If that was his final game in a USC uniform, as it is widely expected he will declare for the NFL draft, it was a fitting ending for one of the best playmakers in school history.

Key stat 2: Fresno State came in averaging a nation-leading 409 passing yards per game. USC held the Bulldogs to 217.

Unsung hero: Dion Bailey. The Trojans' slot defender in their nickel package was all over the field posing problems for Carr. He had a pair of key tackles for loss and got in passing lanes to help thwart the short passing game of the Bulldogs.

What it means for Fresno State: It means the Bulldogs won’t reach their goal of a program-record 12 wins but that doesn’t take away from what was accomplished this year. Not only did they tie the record for most wins, but also they captured the first-ever MWC title game and had one of the top passing offenses in the country, led by a likely first-round draft choice in Carr. And, to top it off, they won’t have to wait long to get a shot at revenge, as they face the Trojans in the 2014 season opener.

What it means for USC: The goal for these players and coaches was to reach 10 wins in what was a season of adversity and change. It also was a resounding performance from those who wondered about the sense of motivation for the team, especially after last year’s effort in the Sun Bowl. Clay Helton hands off the Trojans on a good note, and now the Steve Sarkisian era begins.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, click here.

Pac-12 players to watch during the bowls

December, 19, 2013
The Pac-12 plays nine bowl games and every game is important, but here are five players upon whom the spotlight will shine just a bit brighter this bowl season.

USC DT Leonard Williams

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl vs. Fresno State on Dec. 21

The skinny: Williams, an first-team All-American as a true sophomore, will lead the Trojans defense against QB Derek Carr and a high-flying Fresno State offense that wants to prove it can score on anyone. The Bulldogs ranked No. 1 in the nation in passing yards and No. 5 in scoring, but it's perhaps most impressive they've yielded just 11 sacks, which is ninth-fewest in the nation. Williams will head into the 2014 season as a preseason All-American no matter what. But he can show folks why and make a resounding statement for himself if he can get to or at least consistently harass Carr in the pocket.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesA healthy Marcus Mariota would boost Oregons chances against Texas.
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota

Valero Alamo Bowl vs. Texas on Dec. 30

The skinny: This is pretty simple: Will Mariota be 100 percent against the Longhorns? If so, will he return to his midseason form, when he was the nation's best player and the leading Heisman Trophy candidate? That means using his legs to stress the Longhorns, both with designed running plays in the read option and scrambling on passing plays. If Mariota is back to his old self, he will put himself firmly in the 2014 Heisman race. And the Ducks should roll.

Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey

AdvoCare V100 Bowl vs. Boston College on Dec. 31

The skinny: Another simple one: Carey, the nation's No. 2 rusher, versus Andre Williams, the nation's No. 1 rusher and winner of a Doak Walker Award that should have gone to Carey if the award were truly about the nation's best running back (hush, Washington fans). Both offenses rely heavily on their workhorse running backs. Both teams have middling run defenses. The guy who leads the winning effort is probably going to be the guy with the best rushing numbers.

UCLA offensive line

Hyundai Sun Bowl vs. Virginia Tech on Dec. 31

The skinny: The Hokies are almost always good on defense because coordinator Bud Foster is one of the nation's best defensive minds. This year's unit is A-list, giving up just 17.4 points per game, which ranks eighth in the nation. The Hokies are fourth in the nation in total defense, yielding a meager 4.34 yards per play, and eighth in run defense. The Hokies also have 37 sacks, which ranks fifth in the nation. The Bruins' young offensive line -- three freshmen starters! -- yielded 34 sacks, which ranked 107th in the nation. This will be a tough matchup for UCLA.

Stanford QB Kevin Hogan

Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO vs. Michigan State on Jan. 1.

The skinny: Hogan has been hot and cold this season but mostly solid. He played well in the Pac-12 championship game victory at Arizona State but threw two interceptions in November games against USC and Notre Dame. The Spartans might offer up the best defense he's seen all year, perhaps the nation's best overall unit, in fact. Most notable: Michigan State owns the nation's best run defense, yielding 80.8 yards per game and 2.7 yards per rush. While the Cardinal probably will challenge the Spartans with perhaps the nation's best offensive line and RB Tyler Gaffney, it's difficult to believe the going will be easy. Hogan will need to turn in an efficient, mistake-free performance in what might be a very low-scoring game. The Spartans also rank second in the nation in pass efficiency defense.

Heisman shaft for Pac-12

December, 10, 2013
The hits keep coming for the Pac-12. First, the nation's deepest and most ambitious conference in terms of scheduling gets just one BCS bowl team. Then it doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy finalist, even with two candidates who are superior to the players who were invited.

[+] EnlargeKa'Deem Carey
AP Photo/Eric DraperArizona RB Ka'Deem Carey has rushed for more than 100 yards in every game he has played in this season.
Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey is the nation's best running back. He is a better running back than Auburn's Tre Mason and Boston College's Andre Williams, who are two of the six Heisman finalists.

What that means is that if you had all the college -- or NFL -- coaches pick a running back, the vast majority would choose Carey first. Why? Again, he's better than Mason and Williams.

And, if this is about pure numbers, Carey's numbers are superior to Mason's, who apparently got invited to New York because he posted an undeniably great performance in the SEC title game against Missouri. If that was the selling measure, then the Auburn offensive line should have been sent to New York.

Then there's Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, whose Heisman case is hampered by the Ducks losing two of their final four games. Of course, that didn't change the fact that he's been better than three of the four QB finalists over the entire season.

None of the four invited QBs -- Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, AJ McCarron of Alabama and Jameis Winston of Florida State -- has a resume without holes.

Lynch played against weak competition. Manziel lost his final two games of the season and played poorly while doing so. McCarron's candidacy was about career achievement, but he lost to his team's arch-rival to end the season, thereby missing out on his much-celebrated drive for a three-peat.

Winston, the overwhelming favorite as the best player on the best team, obviously had his off-field issue. No charges were filed, but the incident was hardly a shining and blameless moment for Winston.

Who's to blame for nobody from the West Coast heading to NYC? Well, we hate to bring out a hackneyed harrumph but it's obvious: East Coast Bias.

Notice anything about the finalists? Yep, none play in the Mountain or Pacific Time Zones. To get off the Pac-12 train for a bit, consider that Fresno State QB Derek Carr, who is probably a better NFL prospect than Manziel, McCarron and Lynch, wasn't invited. He only led the nation in passing and threw 10 more TD passes than anyone else.

This bias isn't about some evil and corrupt dislike of all things West Coast. It's about a limited and flawed radar of evaluation. And, you know, going to bed early.

But East Coast voters aren't the only ones who suffer from bias. Here's a guess that when the regional voting patterns are revealed that Mariota's and Carey's support will only be lukewarm out West. That's because many West Coast voters suffer from a form of college football Stockholm Syndrome, where they are unduly influenced by the dominant and oft-repeated East Coast narrative, even if it runs counter to the conclusions of their own eyes and brains.

Before Oregon lost to Stanford, there was no East Coast Bias to fret. Folks loved Mariota and he led every Heisman poll. But when he lost, he plummeted unlike any other candidate who had an off-game. His consideration died completely when the Ducks also lost at Arizona.

It's a case of out of sight, out of mind, a condition that none of the other finalists back East had to deal with as they were re-evaluated despite shortcomings not unlike Mariota's.

When the odd ending to the season forced Heisman voters to revisit their pecking order, they apparently didn't include players outside their time zones. Bad finishes for Manziel, Lynch and McCarron? Neh.

A bad finish for Mariota? Wait… who's that?

For Carey, it was just a matter of everyone knowing he's the nation's best running back but not caring because he played for a 7-5 Arizona team. Are there really voters in the country who would be willing to step up to a microphone and say, "Mason/Williams are better than Carey"? I hope not.

And, despite a tireless effort from the Wildcats sports information department to point out that Carey's 15 consecutive games with over 100 yards hasn't been accomplished IN A DECADE, voters went all lazy because I'd bet at least 50 percent of them never watched him play all season.

Sour grapes? Absolutely. But sour grapes based entirely on facts and sound logic.

Pac-12 should roll through bowl games

December, 9, 2013
The Pac-12 is favored in eight of its nine bowl games, as Oregon State is the only underdog in its matchup with Boise State in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

That's good news and bad news.

The good news is the conference has an excellent chance to post an impressive bowl record. The bad news is it has a chance to embarrass itself, too. Anything less than 6-3 would be a major disappointment.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota and the Ducks struggled to the finish line, but they hope to have a strong showing against Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
Of course, the Pac-12 blog has always taken a dim view of judging a conference by its bowl record, despite its annual inevitability. The college football postseason is filled with teams with varied motivation, not to mention coaching turnover -- see Washington and USC, as well as Boise State. Still, a program is responsible for itself.

The biggest reason the Pac-12 should thrive this bowl season is also the biggest negative for the conference: just one BCS bowl team, unlike the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12, and unlike the previous three seasons. Yep, the deepest Pac-12 perhaps in history ended up being a negative when it came to handing out bowl invitations.

The most aggrieved party is No. 10 Oregon, the only eligible at-large team to be passed over. The Ducks were hoping to be pitted against Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but the bowl went with Oklahoma, honoring a relationship with the Big 12 and perhaps thinking the Sooners will travel better than the Ducks.

Not to incur the wide-eyed wrath of Oregon fans, but the Sooners' case probably was stronger on merit, too. The Ducks lost two of their final four games, and they barely slipped by 6-6 Oregon State in the Civil War to conclude the season. Oklahoma is riding a three-game winning streak that was capped by impressive victory over No. 6 Oklahoma State on Saturday. Paired with the Sooners other quality win -- at Notre Dame -- that's more impressive than the Ducks best wins (UCLA and Washington). And the Sooners losses, to Baylor and Texas, are at least comparable to the Ducks' (Stanford and Arizona). According to ESPN Stats & Information, Oregon's and Oklahoma's schedules were pretty equivalent, the Ducks ranking 50th and the Sooners 55th.

Sure, Oregon would be favored against Oklahoma, but the Sugar Bowl folks took the temperature of the respective fan bases and found more smiles in Norman than Eugene.

Finally, to be honest, the way Oregon looked over the final month of the season suggests they'd be better off allowing the Sooners to deal with Alabama and Nick Saban.

As for the conference champions, kudos to Stanford for negotiating the nation's fourth-most difficult schedule with an 11-2 record. In fact, the Cardinal is ranked No. 1 in ESPN Stats & Information "Championship Drive Rating," which measures a team's overall merit -- the "difficulty of achieving their W-L or better and how well they control games using in-game win probability; both adjusted for quality of opponent."

Of course, Stanford, which opened as a 3-point favorite against Michigan State in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, is where the Pac-12's overall offseason perception will start. It figures to get a tough fight from the defensive-minded Spartans. A Cardinal loss would diminish the Pac-12's national perception as a whole -- as in trickle down from the Big Ten champion being superior to the Pac-12 champ.

Oregon's matchup with Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl is interesting. If both teams show up with their best game, Oregon wins by two or three touchdowns. But the Ducks over the final four weeks of the season would lose to Texas. The Ducks need to be motivated. They need to know, for one, that the Longhorns figure to be fired up, as they are perhaps playing their last game with Mack Brown as their coach.

The biggest mismatch of the conference's bowl season might be Arizona State against Texas Tech in the National University Holiday Bowl. The Sun Devils have won seven of eight -- the loss coming Saturday in the Pac-12 title game -- and are among the nation's hottest teams. The Red Raiders? They've lost five in a row, the last four being blowouts.

UCLA is in a similar situation in the Hyundai Sun Bowl against Virginia Tech. The Bruins have won four of five, while the Hokies have lost three of five. Virginia Tech's defense will challenge Bruins QB Brett Hundley, but the Hokies are horrid on offense.

USC and Washington will be the conference's biggest question marks due to coaching changes. The Trojans face a very good Fresno State team led by QB Derek Carr in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, while the Huskies face a BYU team that ran all over Texas earlier this season in the Fight Hunger Bowl. Under normal circumstances, both matchups would favor the Pac-12. But these aren't normal circumstances.

Oregon State will face a Boise State squad with the same deal in the Hawaii Bowl. While this is a down year for the Broncos, it's hard to bet against Boise State with Chris Petersen in a bowl game. But he's now in Seattle. The Beavers, by the way, really need to win this game, otherwise it's going to be a sour offseason in Corvallis.

Meanwhile, Arizona makes the longest trip to meet Boston College in Shreveport, Louisiana for the AdvoCare V100 Bowl. This is interesting just because you have the top two running backs in the country in Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey and Boston College's Andre Williams.

Finally, Washington State will be playing in its first bowl game since 2003 in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl against Colorado State. The Cougars have wins over USC, Utah and Arizona. The Rams' best win is over 5-7 Wyoming. Mike Leach and the Cougs should roll.

Again, when you added it all up, 9-0 is not unreasonable and 7-2 is almost pessimistic. But bowl games are funny things, and this has been a funny season.

As we move into a four-team College Football Playoff with a selection committee weighing who's in and who's out, perception might become even more important than it was with the quintessentially subjective BCS.

The Pac-12 seemed like -- at the very least -- the nation's second best conference, no matter the BCS bowl situation. It needs to make good on that during the bowl games.

Buckle up for an intriguing bowl season

December, 8, 2013

Well, that went exactly as expected didn't it? It sort of feels like we shouldn't even bother with college football. It's so predictable! Really, who didn't have Auburn and first-year coach Gus Malzahn playing for the national title a year after the Tigers went winless in SEC play?

We kid in order to corral our surprise.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
AP Photo/Dave MartinThe emergence of Auburn from SEC cellar-dweller to national championship participant under first-year coach Gus Malzahn helped make this season great.
What a wild ride, eh? After all the hyperventilating about who truly was deserving to play for the national championship -- from Oregon fans chanting "We want 'Bama!" shortly before getting Stanford-ed again, to Baylor imploding at Oklahoma State, to Alabama yielding one of the most epically amazing plays in college football history, to Ohio State succumbing in the Big Ten championship game -- we end up with an obvious matchup in the final BCS national title game before we adopt the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014: Unbeaten and as-of-yet unchallenged Florida State against Auburn, the SEC champ and dethroner of the two-time defending champion Crimson Tide.

It will be must-see TV with plenty of intrigue and very few naysayers about the legitimacy of the matchup.

But what about the rest of the bowl season? There are plenty of other good matchups, with 79 bowl-eligible teams and just 70 spots available among 35 bowls, making it a sellers’ market for even the lower-rung bowls with lesser payouts.

Among the BCS games, the second-best matchup will be in the same venue as the title tilt. The Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio pits No. 5 Stanford against No. 4 Michigan State, which ended Ohio State's 24-game winning streak. That's a traditional Pac-12-Big Ten showdown between defense-first teams. The final might be 10-7, though the way the season has gone, it's as likely to be 40-37.

Some bowl games feature external intrigue. Consider Miami-Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl. For one, Louisville's star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a Miami native, originally committed to the Hurricanes but switched to the Cardinals after Randy Shannon was fired.

Oh, and Clint Hurtt is an assistant on the Louisville staff. Miami fans know that name because he was in the thick of the Hurricanes’ sordid NCAA scandal -- L'Affaire de Nevin Shapiro. Maybe this year they should rename the game the "Uncomforta-bowl."

Do you like showdowns of great players? The AdvoCare V100 Bowl features the nation's top two running backs who are neck-and-neck for the Doak Walker Award: Boston College's Andre Williams, who leads the nation in rushing, and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, who ranks second after leading the nation in 2012.

The AT&T Cotton Bowl pairs Oklahoma State of the Big 12 and Missouri, two years removed from the Big 12. Do you think Cowboys coach Mike Gundy will ask Tigers coach Gary Pinkel why teams that were struggling in the Big 12 are thriving in the SEC if the SEC is as good as SEC folks tell everyone 1,456 times a day?

Speaking of the Big 12-SEC rivalry, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops trash-talked the SEC this fall, calling its mystique "propaganda." Now Stoops gets to face Nick Saban and Alabama in the All-State Sugar Bowl. Uh oh.

Staying in the Big 12, it could be about to see cataclysmic change at Texas, as the Mack Brown era could be ending after 16 seasons. That surely will be a main bar in the Valero Alamo Bowl, in which the Longhorns will play Oregon, a team smarting about being left out of the BCS bowl games.

Continuing on the coaching intrigue line, you have bowls for teams in transition. USC, soon to be Steve Sarkisian's team, faces Fresno State and QB Derek Carr in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Washington, soon to be Chris Petersen's team, faces BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl. And Boise State, formerly Chris Petersen's team, faces Oregon State in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

Some matchups have a colorful history. Ohio State is playing Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Old-timers might recall that the last time these teams tangled was in the 1978 Gator Bowl, and the Tigers’ 17-15 win was the least memorable fact of the game. Instead, it was the haymaker legendary Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes threw at Clemson's Charlie Bauman after he ran out of bounds with a game-clinching interception. The punch cost Hayes his job.

More dramatic in terms of on-field play was the last game between Iowa and LSU. They meet for a second time in the Outback Bowl, but their 2005 game in the Capital One Bowl produced an ending for the ages. In Nick Saban's final game at LSU before he left to coach the Miami Dolphins, Iowa's Drew Tate connected with Warren Holloway for a 56-yard touchdown as time expired, giving the Hawkeyes a 30-25 win. Holloway, a fifth-year senior, had not previously scored a TD.

So Saban has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune even before this season. No one is immune to the vagaries of college football.

In college football, you never know until you know, which is why you'd best make plans now to watch all 35 games.

You never know what epically amazing plays you might miss.

And, yes, there will be a quiz.

Reynolds, Fresno State among week's best

November, 26, 2013

AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezKeenan Reynolds ran all over the field for Navy this weekend.
Week 13 had its share of big-time performances as Navy’s Keenan Reynolds rushed for an FBS quarterback-record seven touchdowns, Wyoming’s Brett Smith accounted for a FBS single-game high eight touchdowns and Fresno State’s Derek Carr threw for a school-record seven touchdowns.

With the help of ESPN’s new college football metrics (see explanations here), ESPN Stats & Information takes a look back at the best performances of Week 13 and ahead to the chances of Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State remaining undefeated.

Best Individual Performances
In the past, this article has used opponent-adjusted QBR to rank the best individual performances of the week. Total QBR is a rate stat that measures efficiency. In Week 13, Kevin Hogan (98.0), Clint Chelf (97.8) and Braxton Miller (97.1) had the top three opponent-adjusted QBRs of Week 13.

Points above average (PAA) is another stat that can be used measure the top individual performances. PAA totals the number of points that a player contributes to his team’s net scoring margin above what an average quarterback would have.

PAA is a counting stat (rather than a rate stat) that accounts for both efficiency and the number of plays. If a quarterback has a high PAA, he was likely efficient and involved in a lot of plays. Week 13 featured four of the top 10 single-game PAAs of the season:

Keenan Reynolds (19.0 PAA) rushed for seven touchdowns in Navy’s 58-52 triple-OT win over San Jose State on Friday night. Reynolds set an FBS record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a game, a mark previously held by Dee Dowis (Air Force, 1989) and Craig Candeto (Navy, 2002).

Brett Smith (18.6 PAA) threw for a single-game school-record seven touchdowns and 498 yards while leading Wyoming to a 59-56 overtime win against Hawaii on Saturday. Smith also ran for 142 yards and a touchdown. Smith’s 640 yards of total offense and eight touchdowns are the most by an FBS player in a game this season.

Marquise Williams (16.4 PAA) tied the school record for passing touchdowns (five) and was third in single-game total offense (469 yards) by halftime in North Carolina’s 80-20 rout of Old Dominion. He helped the Tar Heels rack up a school-record 721 total yards of offense in a game that did not even last 60 minutes.

Derek Carr (15.8 PAA) threw for 522 yards and a school-record seven touchdowns in Fresno State’s 69-28 win against New Mexico. He had the third-most passing yards and tied Brett Smith for the most passing touchdowns in a game this season.

Best Teams Performances
Offense – Fresno State added 48.7 expected points to its net scoring margin on offense in its 69-28 win against New Mexico, the highest offensive EPA in a game this season. The Bulldogs racked up a school and league record 822 yards of total offense and averaged 9.9 yards per play.

Defense– Oklahoma State contributed 17.5 expected points to its net scoring margin on defense in its 49-17 win against Baylor. The Bears were averaging 61.2 points and 684.8 yards per game entering the game, but were held to 17 points and 453 yards by the Cowboys. Oklahoma State is the first team to hold Baylor to a below-average offensive efficiency rating in a game in the last three seasons.

Special TeamsNebraska added 12.5 expected points on special teams in its 23-20 win against Penn State. The Cornhuskers blocked a punt and returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. They were also the beneficiaries of a missed extra point in the first quarter and missed field goal in overtime.

Looking ahead to rest of the season
After Baylor lost to Oklahoma State on Saturday, there are three remaining undefeated teams from BCS AQ conferences vying for a spot in the BCS National Championship. Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State are all deserving of a spot in the title game, but at least one will be left out.

What are the chances that all three teams will be undefeated entering bowl season? According to projections run by Analytics Specialist Alok Pattani, there is a 29 percent chance that all three teams will be undefeated after their conference championships.

Alabama has the toughest remaining schedule. The Tide have to play on the road at Auburn on Saturday, and if they win, against either Missouri or South Carolina in the SEC Championship. There is a 46 percent chance that the Tide win both of those games.

Florida State has the easiest remaining schedule, and there is an 87 percent chance that it wins its remaining two games.

So, while Ohio State appears to be on the outside looking in, there is a 60 percent chance that either Alabama or Florida State does not win out. Keep these projections in mind as Alabama heads to Auburn, Florida State travels to Florida (Noon ET, ESPN) and Ohio State goes to Michigan (Noon ET, ABC) on Saturday.

Video: Derek Carr's life-changing moment

November, 2, 2013

Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr saw his priorities change after his son had to undergo surgery following his birth.

Video: Fresno State a BCS buster?

September, 24, 2013

Kirk Herbstreit breaks down his biggest takeaway from Week 4 of college football.

Video: National player of the week

September, 23, 2013
PM ET's Mark Schlabach on Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr's amazing four-touchdown game against Boise State.

Fresno State season preview

August, 20, 2013
Today we're looking at Fresno State, which earned a share of Mountain West Conference crown in its first year in the league.

Fresno State Bulldogs

Coach: Tim DeRuyter (10-4 overall, 9-4 at Fresno State)

2012 record: 9-4 (7-1 MWC)

Key losses: RB Robbie Rouse, LG Matt Hunt, RG/C Richard Helepiko, LB Travis Brown, LB Tristan Okpalaugo, LB Shawn Plummer, S Phillip Thomas

[+] EnlargeDerek Carr
Marco Garcia/USA TODAY SportsDerek Carr returns to head up a potent Mountain West Conference offense.
Key returnees: QB Derek Carr, WR Davante Adams, WR Isaiah Burse, LT Austin Wentworth, NG Tyeler Davison, FS Derron Smith

Newcomer to watch: QB Zack Greenlee. OK, so you might not get to see much of him this season with Carr running the show. But Greenlee is an elite pick-up at the position, as he was an ESPN300 prospect and the nation's No. 10 overall signal-caller. He threw for 1,953 yards with 22 touchdowns and two picks as a senior at Lincoln (Calif.) High, and he earned MVP honors at the Las Vegas Elite 11 Regionals. Greenlee is also an Under Armour All-American.

Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 29 versus Rutgers, Sept. 14 at Colorado, Sept. 20 versus Boise State, Oct. 26 at San Diego State, Nov. 2 versus Nevada, Nov. 29 at San Jose State

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Fresno State needs to keep Carr upright and give him time to lock in with what is an outstanding group of receivers. The Bulldogs lose two starters from their offensive line and have some work to do in the ground game to make up for losing Robbie Rouse. Still, this is an offense that returns many of its key pieces from a 2012 team that led the MWC in scoring. The defense returns even more pieces after finishing second in the league in scoring, even if it must replace all-time great Phillip Thomas.

Forecast: Tim DeRuyter was a huge success in his first year at Fresno State, going 9-4 and building plenty of belief inside the program throughout its inaugural season in the Mountain West Conference. Now he's hoping to build off that success, as the Bulldogs take aim at league powerhouse Boise State and perhaps even at a BCS bowl game.

The Bulldogs bring back 15 starters from last season, led by quarterback Carr. The younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr, he enters his redshirt senior season needing 3,048 yards to break the school record for career passing yards. The MWC's offensive player of the year in 2012 completed better than 67 percent of his passes last season for 4,104 yards with 37 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Fresno State brings back the league's best receiving corps and three starters up front, so a repeat campaign in 2013 could be in the cards for Carr.

While the defense says goodbye to All-American Thomas on defense, the unit still returns eight starters and has plenty of depth among its front-seven.

The Bulldogs didn't like the way last season ended, as they were upset by SMU fairly handily in a 43-10 Hawaii Bowl loss. The defeat should add some fuel to a team that did most everything else right in its first year under DeRuyter. And the squad will get a great early test in a Week 1 Thursday night opener against visiting Rutgers.

With Carr back for one more season with plenty of weapons at his disposal, it is no stretch to think that Boise State should continue to make some room atop the conference, so long as Fresno State continues progressing in Year 2 under DeRuyter.

Instant analysis: SMU 43, Fresno State 10

December, 24, 2012

SMU pulled off the upset in Honolulu, and the Mustangs made it look fairly easy. Coach June Jones escaped his old stomping grounds with a 43-10 victory over Fresno State to win the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl. Here's how it went down:

It was over when: Margus Hunt sacked Derek Carr on third-and-24 for a safety early in the second quarter. A little more than five minutes later, Zach Line rushed for an 8-yard touchdown to give the Mustangs a 19-0 lead, which was more than enough Monday.

Game ball goes to: Hunt, SMU's 6-foot-8, 280-pound defensive end, went out with a bang in the first half alone, recording three sacks, two forced fumbles and notching the second-quarter safety.

Stat of the game: Hayden Greenbauer notched an 83-yard pick-six with 1:14 to go, putting an exclamation point on the night for SMU. The score gave the Mustangs eight interception returns for a touchdown this season, tying last year's Southern Miss team for the NCAA single-season record.

Unsung hero of the game: SMU's defense held Fresno State to more than 30 points below its season average, and it made the Bulldogs one-dimensional early, outrushing them by a 169-to-minus-24 margin.

What it means: SMU put on arguably its most complete performance of the season and won its final two games to finish above .500, at 7-6. Now, it preps -- for this moment, at least -- to take its football program to the Big East next season. Fresno State, meanwhile, saw its five-game winning streak snapped in a four-turnover performance.

Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl keys

December, 24, 2012
Three keys for tonight's Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl matchup between SMU and Fresno State:

1. SMU can't fall behind early: When the Mustangs are off, they are off. Of their six losses, four have been by at least 20 points, with two coming by 35 or more. Against Tulsa in the regular-season finale, SMU jumped out to a 21-0 lead and hung on for a 35-27 lead to become bowl-eligible. That same Golden Hurricane outfit topped Fresno State earlier in the season by one, despite the Bulldogs finishing three games better than the Mustangs.

2. Protecting the QB: SMU's Garrett Gilbert has been able to improvise with his feet all season long, but he will need his line to step up Monday night against a Fresno State pass rush that has notched 35 sacks on the season, good for 11th nationally. The Mustangs, meanwhile, have just 17 sacks on the season and will need to turn it up considerably against a quarterback as efficient as the Bulldogs' Derek Carr, who averages 311 passing yards per game.

3. Watch the running backs. For all the talk about the big-play capability of Fresno State's and SMU's offenses, both teams boast 1,000-yard rushers in Robbie Rouse (1,468 yards, 12 TDs) and Zach Line (1,207 yards, 12 TDs), respectively. The question is: Who will stop who first? SMU is 24th nationally against the run, while Fresno State is 73rd.

Pregame: Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl

December, 24, 2012
SMU (6-6, 5-3 Conference USA) vs. Fresno State (9-3, 5-1 Mountain West)

Who to watch: Fresno State's Phillip Thomas was the school's first-ever unanimous All-American following a nation-best eight-pick season, which set the Mountain West Conference single-season record. Thomas returned three of those picks for scores (a school record), and he led the Bulldogs with 82 total tackles and 12 tackles for loss, while tying for the team lead with four forced fumbles, adding four sacks and one fumble recovery. The fifth-year senior from Bakersfield, Calif., has recovered from a leg injury that forced him to redshirt last season and now has more interceptions than 29 teams. Simply put, Thomas is a ball hawk whom SMU must be aware of at all times.

What to watch: Both defenses. While both offenses are capable of big chunk plays -- Fresno State boasts the nation's No. 12 scoring offense -- the other side of the ball has put each team in great scoring position throughout the season. You already know about Thomas, but his nine takeaways account for barely a quarter of the Bulldogs' 33 forced turnovers this season. SMU? The same number, though the Mustangs have lost it 21 times this season, five more than Fresno State. The Bulldogs are No. 5 in turnover margin; the Mustangs are No. 12. Whichever defense makes more big plays is the one most likely to walk away with the victory, as SMU is minus-10 in the turnover category in its six losses this season.

Why to watch: Derek Carr, brother of former NFL No. 1 draft pick David Carr, has been phenomenal under center all season for Fresno State, completing better than 68 percent of his passes for 3,742 yards with 36 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Casual fans will also recognize the man under center for SMU as Garrett Gilbert, who is best known for his relief act of Colt McCoy in the 2010 BCS National Championship, and has 21 total touchdowns while netting nearly 3,000 yards of offense.

Prediction: Fresno State 35, SMU 24. The Bulldogs enter this game riding a five-game winning streak. The Mustangs had to win their regular-season finale over Tulsa just to extend their season. Fresno State does a better job of protecting the ball and has the more productive quarterback.

Fresno State begins anew

February, 29, 2012
For the first time in 15 springs, a new head man will be roaming the Fresno State sideline.

Tim DeRuyter has no Fu Manchu mustache, and he has saved the blustery talk about playing "anytime, anywhere." If you want even more proof that that these truly are new times at Fresno State, then pay attention to the revamped offense and defense DeRuyter brings with him now that spring practice is officially under way.

Goodbye pro-style and hello spread.

Goodbye 4-3 and hello 3-4.

[+] EnlargeTim DeRuyter
AP Photo/Mark CrosseTim DeRuyter is bringing is own vision this season to the Fresno State program.

None of this is to say that every single trace of former coach Pat Hill has been scrubbed from the Bulldogs. Hill recruited every player on the field this spring, instilling a toughness in each of them. He won more than 100 games in 14 seasons, bringing Fresno State to national prominence before the program slid back down. A 4-8 campaign in 2011 spelled the end for Hill, who gave everything he had to Fresno State.

But there is no doubting that folks in town got antsy for a change. The administration did, as well. So in comes DeRuyter, a proven defensive assistant getting his first opportunity as a head coach. He plans to put his own indelible stamp on the program, one he believes has the same potential Hill always spoke so passionately about during his time in the Valley.

"Coach Hill, he established a toughness, a physicality, a work ethic we're going to build on," DeRuyter said in a phone interview. "We're going to tweak some things offensively and defensively, but we're going to keep the identity of Fresno State. We're going to add a speed factor to it as far as how fast we're going to play on offense and defense."

Speed factor aside, the major question DeRuyter must answer right at the top is how he takes this program from good to great. Since the most successful non-automatic qualifying programs have gone to different conferences, there is a void that Fresno State can easily fill. The next rising non-AQ could very well be the school that was the very first rising non-AQ back in the early part of the past decade.

"You have to talk about consistency, and consistency happens in January, February, March -- all the way through the year," DeRuyter said. "That's one of the things we've talked about with our players. To win championships, you have to get after it now. If we play the exact pace, tempo and intensity, it's going to get us there. Coach Hill did tremendous things. His teams went toe-to-toe with everybody. If they did have a disappointment along the way, it was maybe losing to a team on paper they felt they should have beaten. No matter who we play, there's a standard for Fresno State football we have to live up to."

Losing seasons are unacceptable. So getting back to a bowl is a primary goal. Though the schemes will look decidedly different, the personnel on offense will not. Derek Carr returns for his second season as the starting quarterback. Though he is a pro-style quarterback, DeRuyter said Carr has fully embraced the switch to the high-tempo spread offense.

"He's an ideal guy to build around," DeRuyter said. "I go back to the game a year ago when they went to Lincoln and played Nebraska. He does not get fazed. He can spin the ball, and he also is a guy who can make plays and extend the play with his feet. His biggest attribute is his demeanor on the field. The game becomes slow for him because he gets it."

Seven other starters return, including running back Robbie Rouse and receivers Jalen Saunders and Rashad Evans and the entire starting offensive line. Offense, however, has rarely been a concern at Fresno State. The defense has been in major need of fixing for several years now, so it makes sense the Bulldogs hired somebody with DeRuyter's acumen as a defensive coach.

The transition to a 3-4 is meant to get more athletic players onto the field while also allowing the Bulldogs to better disguise their blitzes and schemes. Identifying the four best linebackers is a huge priority in the spring. The good news is that several injured players return, including safeties Phillip Thomas and Derron Smith.

Couple all these transitions with moving to a new conference home in the Mountain West, and getting used to a new head coach, and you have the makings of quite a different look at Fresno State.
There are no excuses. There never are from Fresno State coach Pat Hill.

So what he offers when asked about his inconsistent team is an impassioned defense of his players and his program, one that is on the ropes after a 3-5 start. The Bulldogs have been one of the most schizophrenic teams in the nation -- playing exceptionally well at times, but making critical, game-changing mistakes at others.

It has added up to a growing chorus of criticism as the Bulldogs are in danger of missing a bowl game for just the third time in 15 seasons since Hill transformed the program into a consistent winner.

[+] EnlargePat Hill
AP Photo/Gary KazanjianDespite a rough start to the season, coach Pat Hill remains committed to getting Fresno State back to where it was.
“It’s not lack of effort. These kids have played hard,” Hill said in a phone interview. “We have a chance to be very good still. When we’re playing good, we’re really good. When we make simple mistakes, they burn us at critical times.

“I love this team. This team plays hard, sometimes we just don’t execute at the level we need to execute at. It’s frustrating for me because these kids try so hard, practice so hard and prepare so hard. It’s just one of those years. We’re going through some growing pains with a young team. We’ve always been able to rebound, and we still have five games to go.”

The Bulldogs certainly have shown they are capable of running the table. Every remaining game on the schedule is winnable. After they return from their bye this week, they get Louisiana Tech at home, then go to New Mexico State and Hawaii, before closing out with San Jose State and at San Diego State.

What has been particularly maddening is the way this season set up for Fresno State. The one knock against Hill is that he not won enough conference championships. A big reason is because Fresno State resided in the same conference as Boise State for 10 years. Hill won his only WAC title in 1999 -- before the Broncos joined the league.

But Boise State left this season for the Mountain West, leaving the WAC up for grabs. Fresno State started league play 2-0 but dropped a critical game at Nevada this past weekend that gave the Wolf Pack control of the conference. Fresno State is one of four teams at 2-1.

The game featured plenty of scoring and big plays for the Bulldogs, but also some costly mistakes. The always solid punt coverage team allowed a punt return for a touchdown. Devon Wylie, one of the best punt returners in the nation, muffed a punt that Nevada converted into the go-ahead score. Fresno State forced a late fumble that it could not recover.

That loss was essentially a microcosm of the season. In three of its losses, Fresno State had second-half leads it failed to hold. The Bulldogs led Nebraska 20-14 in the third quarter and played toe-toe with a top-15 team. But they allowed a critical 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to turn the tide.

They led Ole Miss 28-27 midway through the third quarter, but did not score again and lost despite outgaining the Rebels 444-430. About the only game they failed to show up for was against nemesis Boise State, which handed the Bulldogs their worst home loss 57-7. In their last two games, Boise State has beaten Fresno State by a combined 108-7.

“As a team, we wish we could win more games right now, we wish we could have pulled out some of those close ones,” said quarterback Derek Carr, who has thrown for 1,980 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions this season. “It's a tough time to be a Bulldog right now. We're fighting to get to where we have to go, but I have all the confidence in the world with the guys on this team. I love them to death.”

As a result of the disappointing losses, some fans have become increasingly disenchanted with the direction of the program. Hill has given everything he has to Fresno State, and even accepted a 30 percent pay cut in order to help an athletic department and university struggling under the weight of a terrible economy.

He truly loves this program, and it pains him more than anybody to lose this way.

“I’m not fine with where we are,” Hill said. “I’ve been here 15 years. I’m pretty loyal to this group of kids and this program. It drives me nuts that we’re performing in a way that doesn’t make everybody happy. I want to make everybody happy. I want to see the kids I care about so much being happy. Right now, we’re not happy and I don’t like that.”

As for those who have questioned whether he has what it takes to keep building this program, Hill scoffs.

“There’s complaints in every town,” he said. “It’s the world we live in. I don’t get too involved in that stuff. My job is to do everything I can to put this football team in position to win. … I’m committed to this team. I enjoy what I do here. I love this community. I came with the sword in my hand and when you go out, you go out on your sword. Everybody’s day ends some time and I’ll look back and hold my head high. I’m proud of what’s gone on here. Do I want to win every game? Yeah, that’s what everybody expects, and that’s what I want.”