Fresno State was arguably the biggest surprise of the 2017 season, as the Bulldogs improved by nine wins under first-year head coach Jeff Tedford. The defense led the way and even though there's a new coordinator calling the shots, the entire starting back seven returns. The offense also returns most of its key pieces and could take a step forward if quarterback Marcus McMaryion continues to develop and make the most of his weapons. No one is expecting another 10-win campaign but Fresno State should remain a factor in the Mountain West race.
Previewing Fresno State Football's Offense for 2018
Get full team previews, schedules, scouting reports, conference predictions, and national rankings. Click here to buy a copy today or visit your local newsstand!
The quarterback position at Fresno State has been a revolving door since Derek Carr graduated in 2013. Marcus McMaryion finally stopped the spinning. After joining the Bulldogs well into fall camp as a graduate transfer from Oregon State, McMaryion seized the job from Chason Virgil for the Week 4 conference opener and proceeded to go 9-2 as the starter. McMaryion completed 62.1 percent of his passes and posted a 137.7 efficiency rating despite having little knowledge of the offense or time to build rapport with his receivers.
As well as McMaryion played, that inexperience showed up at critical points. His third-down completion percentage was just 41.4. Look for improvement there now that he has an entire offseason under his chinstrap.
Fresno State returns three of its top four wideouts in KeeSean Johnson, Jamire Jordan and Derrion Grim while welcoming home Fresno native and Oklahoma transfer Michiah Quick, a spring standout. Also back are last season's three-headed rushing trio -- Ronnie Rivers, Jordan Mims and Josh Hokit -- and the entire set of tight ends. Rivers, however, could miss the first month or two due to an injury.
Three starting offensive linemen return, but all three likely will line up at different positions. The coaching staff thinks so highly of Netane Muti that it moved him to left tackle, which means shifting Christian Cronk to right tackle. Inside, Micah St. Andrew converts from guard to center -- which means the Bulldogs have a 6'3", 343-pounder snapping the football.
Previewing Fresno State Football's Defense for 2018
It's impossible to overstate Fresno State's remarkable turnaround on defense last season. Following several years of struggles, the Bulldogs surrendered just 17.9 points and 320.6 yards per game, their lowest in either category since 1991. Much of the credit went to coordinator Orlondo Steinauer, who returned to the Canadian Football League after one season in Central California and leaves the next man up, Bert Watts, to keep the mojo going.
Steinauer's 4-3 system is designed to attack and confuse quarterbacks by running multiple fronts and disguising coverages. Fresno State is keeping the basic blueprint intact. Only it'll be Watts, promoted from linebackers coach, making the calls on game day.
All three starting linebackers and four starting defensive backs return. In All-MW pick Jeffrey Allison, flanked by George Helmuth and James Bailey, the Bulldogs boast the best set of linebackers in the league. They may have the best secondary as well. Safeties Mike Bell and Juju Hughes ranked just below Allison and Helmuth in total tackles, while corner Jaron Bryant returned two of his four interceptions for touchdowns.
Previewing Fresno State Football's Specialists for 2018
After losing kicker Jimmy Camacho, who racked up 40 touchbacks and a conference-best 25 field goals, all eyes will be on the right leg of presumed replacement Asa Fuller. Otherwise, this unit should be good to go.
Jeff Tedford was a well-deserved National Coach of the Year finalist after Fresno State became just the second FBS team to go from double-digit losses (1-11) to double-digit wins (10-4). What can he do for an encore? A good start would be wresting the MW title away from Boise State after the two teams split the regular-season finale and MW Championship Game in consecutive weeks. With so many key starters back and a softer non-conference schedule (i.e. no Alabama or Washington), it's perfectly fine to dream bigger.
National Ranking: 48
MW West Prediction: 2
(Top photo courtesy of Keith Kountz/Fresno State Athletics)