Throughout the next couple of weeks, we’ll be checking in with some of the nonconference opponents facing off with Big Ten teams in 2016 to provide a better idea of what to expect out of those squads. We continue now with Fresno State.
Opponent: Fresno State (at Nebraska, Sept. 3)
Offseason storyline: It's never a good sign for a football program when the head coach has to fire his offensive coordinator and reassign his defensive coordinator to a lesser role. But that's the situation Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter finds himself in as he enters his fifth season in charge. Whether he can conjure up the magic that led to bowl games in each of his first three seasons remains to be seen.
Last season, Fresno State ranked 119th nationally in scoring defense (38.1 points allowed per game) and 107th in scoring offense (22.3 points per game). That's a rare double-whammy outside the top 100, and it's easy to see why the Bulldogs finished 3-9. Former offensive coordinator Dave Schramm was fired in favor of Eric Kiesau, who most recently was an offensive analyst at Alabama. He's also worked before as offensive coordinator at Washington and Colorado.
Defensive coordinator Nick Toth was reassigned to coach the linebackers after a forgettable 2015 campaign and replaced by former South Carolina assistant Lorenzo Ward. A year ago, Ole Miss hung 73 points on Fresno State and scored four touchdowns in 12 minutes during the first quarter. Utah State scored 56 points, BYU dropped 52 and San Jose State 49 points. Those types of numbers certainly are unacceptable and don't give the offense a chance to compete.
What’s at stake for Nebraska? Year 1 of the Mike Riley era at Nebraska last season began with a gut punch of a loss to BYU on a last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass. The stunning and head-scratching ways in which the Cornhuskers continued to lose close games only intensified as a frustrated fan base suffered. But Nebraska played much better football down the stretch, competed well against undefeated Iowa and then beat UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. There seems to be a renewed optimism in Lincoln, but that will only last if Nebraska can continue its momentum and handle Fresno State in the 2016 opener. The most intriguing nonconference game at Memorial Stadium takes place two weeks later against Oregon. But there's no sense looking ahead. Nebraska needs a solid start to show it can be a player in the Big Ten West later in the year.
What’s at stake for Fresno State? The Bulldogs need to play more competitive football and figure out what will make them successful in 2016 under two new coordinators. Fresno State's run defense was atrocious last season (234.7 yards per game), but at least the pass defense was respectable, finishing 48th nationally. Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., the Big Ten's leading returning passer, figures to significantly test Fresno State on the back end. Fresno State certainly won't be favored to win, but a strong enough performance can build confidence as the Bulldogs try to reach a fourth bowl game in DeRuyter's five seasons there.