Fresno State is the sleeper team to watch in the Mountain West in the 2021 college football season. Nevada and San Jose State are getting all of the preseason buzz atop the West Division, but the Bulldogs aren’t too far behind. Quarterback Jake Haener and running back Ronnie Rivers lead a dynamic offense that’s poised to take off under second-year coach Kalen DeBoer. The defense needs to improve for Fresno State to challenge for the top spot in the division, but an experienced two-deep provides optimism this fall.
Previewing Fresno State's Offense for 2021
Jake Haener needed half the shortened season to become Fresno State's clear-cut starter, and then he emerged as the Mountain West's most productive passer (336.8 yards per game). With all his weapons returning, Haener could be in store for a prolific senior year.
In Jalen Cropper, Keric Wheatfall and Josh Kelly, the Bulldogs have three potential No. 1 wideouts. Cropper, who finished with three straight 100-yard receiving games, is also a threat on tosses and fly sweeps. Wheatfall and Kelly are both 6'2" and averaged 15 yards per catch in 2020.
The surprise return of tailback Ronnie Rivers, one of 14 Bulldogs who utilized the NCAA blanket waiver to retain a year of eligibility, balances the passing attack. Already tied for the school record in career TDs (44), the shifty 5'9", 195-pounder will likely put the mark out of reach. Rivers and backup Jordan Mims, who had an 84-yard scamper against New Mexico, are a formidable 1-2 punch.
The line needs to do a better job protecting Haener after ranking 124th in the country in sacks allowed per game. A healthy season from 6'7", 330-pound left tackle Dontae Bull is the easiest potential fix.
Previewing Fresno State's Defense for 2021
The Bulldogs will be better defensively, if only because nine starters return for Year Two with the 4-2-5 scheme that coordinator William Inge brought with him after seven years at Indiana.
Fresno State ranked third in the nation in sacks per game last year (4.17) with 12 players getting in on the action. Expect more of the same this fall. End David Perales was a second-team all-MW pick after forcing fumbles in four consecutive games, the first time a Bulldog managed that in at least two decades. Tackle Kevin Atkins, the team's most veteran player with 32 career starts, and end Kwami Jones are both coming off five-sack campaigns.
Justin Houston's late-season emergence at "Husky" (a hybrid safety/linebacker) allowed Levelle Bailey to shift back to inside linebacker. In Wylan Free and Bralyn Lux, the Bulldogs have a pair of steady corners. Lux started six games as a walk-on freshman and led the team in total tackles.
Previewing Fresno State's Specialists for 2021
Fresno State has a steady, experienced kicker in Cesar Silva but will be breaking in a new punter. With Rivers handling punts and Cropper and Kelly on kickoffs, the return game should be a strength. Then again, 2008 was the last time the Bulldogs brought back a kickoff for a score.
No MW program was more heavily impacted by COVID-19 than Fresno State. From a March 12 meeting until training opened Sept. 25, the Bulldogs didn't hold any in-person team activities. Despite that handicap, they were 3–1 until consecutive games against San Jose State and San Diego State were cancelled due to contact tracing within the program.
Things unraveled after that, but Fresno State showed enough spark under first-year head coach Kalen DeBoer to hint at brighter things. Between Haener, Rivers, the three top receivers and the potential improvement on defense, there are reasons for optimism.
The Bulldogs will be in the division mix provided they avoid too many offensive line injuries. After a likely 2–2 start, most of the toughest conference games are at home. That projects to 7–5 or 8–4 in a year of normal luck.
National Ranking: 70
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(Ronnie Rivers photo courtesy of Fresno State Athletics)