Fresno State has been one of the most solid programs of all the non-AQs. The Bulldogs have gone to a bowl game 11 times in the past 12 years, have been featured in the national rankings and have produced the top overall pick in the NFL draft.
But the big question has been this: Why has Fresno State been unable to go from good program to great program? Fans have watched in frustration as Boise State surpassed the Bulldogs as kings of the WAC, carrying the torch Fresno State essentially lit.
There are two easy answers to that question. Fresno State plays an incredibly difficult nonconference schedule, not only as part of its “anytime, anywhere mantra,” but to also help pay the bills with the money it gets from those guarantee games. And it also has been unable to beat Boise State, having lost every meeting but one as WAC rivals.
But going from good to great has always been the goal, and is an even bigger goal this season with Derek Carr at the helm of the offense.
“The program’s been good for a long time, but we’ve got to become great,” coach Pat Hill said in a recent phone interview. “Derek’s the kind of kid that can take us to this next level.”
It is something Derek’s brother, David, did in 2001. Fresno State made it as high as No. 8 in the national rankings that season, spurring talk of a possible BCS berth, before non-AQs were guaranteed a spot with a top-12 finish in the standings. But who happened to kill that dream? None other than the Broncos in their first season in the WAC -- a win that was called the biggest in school history to that point.
It was a stunning loss, no doubt, but Fresno State ended the season with 11 wins. Carr ended up going No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans in 2002. Many thought that season would be the springboard for Fresno State to become a contender year in and year out.
The Bulldogs nearly had another season like that in 2005 after starting the season 8-1. They came close to pulling off an upset of USC but closed the season with four straight losses. They have not been featured in the polls since Sept. 28, 2008, and have not had a double-digit win season since 2001.
Still, Hill has only posted two losing seasons in 14 years, has averaged eight wins a season and won 100 games since taking over in 1997.
“We’ve had some good runs,” Hill said. “Now maybe we can make a magical run.”
This could be the season Fresno State wins its first WAC title since 1999. Not only is Carr taking the helm after redshirting behind Ryan Colburn last season, Fresno State returns Robbie Rouse at running back and has depth at receiver.
That young talent could mean big things this season and next with Carr running the offense. But as always, Fresno State begins with a tough schedule -- against California at Candlestick Park on Sept. 3 and at Nebraska on Sept. 10. The Bulldogs also have to retool their offensive line with four new starters.
“No question Derek’s very talented, with his arm strength, release -- he’s the fastest quarterback we’ve ever had on campus speed wise,” Hill said. “His biggest test will be starting the season out and not feeling like he has to do more than he needs to. If he does that, he will grow quickly. He’s able to do it all. He just needs to make sure that early, he doesn’t press the issue.”
Hill recalled David Carr’s first career start in 2000, at Ohio State, saying the quarterback tried to do too much. Fresno State lost the following week against UCLA, too, but after that, David Carr went 20-6 as a starter for the Bulldogs.
Derek has learned from his brother, and continues to get good advice from him. What remains to be seen is if he can turn Fresno State from good to great.
“Being around his brother has made Derek a lot more mature person,” Hill said. “He gets it. He knows he’s not going to please everybody. Derek wants to win. He’s going to have some tough games. He doesn’t have the fortune of getting warm-up games, that’s for sure. I feel really good about it.
“There’s nobody I’d rather be thrown into the fire with than Derek Carr right now.”