Fresno State’s two early-season games against Pac-12 opponents Oregon State and USC didn’t go as planned.
But now, the Bulldogs have an opportunity to prove their worth against another Pac-12 foe when they take on Washington State in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl on Saturday.
Both Oregon State (9-3) and USC (11-2) finished the season ranked in both the AP Top 25 and the College Football Playoff polls. The Beavers came in at 17th and 14th, respectively, while the Trojans ranked 8th and 10th, respectively.
Fresno State had its opportunities to beat the Beavers, but only scored 22 points in six trips to the red zone. Oregon State, on the other hand, put up 28 points in four trips, ultimately showing it was a game of missed opportunities for Fresno State.
The trip to USC was an uncompetitive one that saw star quarterback Jake Haener and safety Evan Williams knocked out with significant injuries that would keep them on the sidelines for the next four weeks.
That sent the ‘Dogs into a quick downward spiral as they suffered a 19-14 road loss to UConn, which looked to be one of the worst losses in program history at the time. Head Coach Jeff Tedford quipped that “everything” went wrong in that loss. UConn proved to be much better than anticipated finishing the season 6-6, and the Huskies are headed to the Myrtle Beach Bowl against Marshall.
Ahead of the season all the talk was about Tedford’s return, a coaching staff full of Bulldog ties and a roster – led by Haener – that would finally take the next step and make it to a New Year’s Six Bowl.
After losing to Boise State and dropping to 4-1, those preseason expectations could not have been further off the mark, and even competing in the Mountain West seemed unlikely.
Yet the Bulldogs were resilient – a theme in Tedford’s weekly press conferences – and some good fortune along the way led to an eight-game win streak and another shot at a Pac-12 opponent.
A surprising win over San Jose State, which looked like one of the best teams at the conference at the time, was followed up by a miraculous win over San Diego State that saw the Bulldogs – led by Haener’s return – score twice in 13 seconds at the end of the game to secure the victory.
For the rest of the season the Bulldogs played like the team they were expected to be, and their 28-16 win over Boise State to claim the Mountain West title was their largest defeat of the Broncos since 2005 and the largest win in Boise since 1984.
Fresno State was the beneficiary of a down year from the rest of the Mountain West. The conference does not currently have a ranked team, though that could change if the Bulldogs beat Washington State. If the Bulldogs don’t win and garner enough votes, it would be the first time since 2015 that the conference went without a ranked team to wrap up the season.
The 12 teams in the Mountain West had a combined 69-77 record, which as it stands now would be the worst record for the conference since it expanded to 12 teams in 2013. The Mountain West has averaged 77.6 wins per season from 2013-2021, again excluding 2020. But four wins in the conference’s seven bowl games this year would put the conference above the low mark of 72 wins in 2013 and 2015.
Haener also has one final attempt in his Fresno State career to show NFL scouts that he is a worthy candidate in the 2023 NFL Draft. The sixth-year senior made nine starts this year, throwing for over 300 yards in six of those games. He was also very efficient running the offense, totalling 18 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions to go along with a 72.6 percent completion rate, which is No. 1 in the nation.
But outside of Haener’s future, Fresno State ultimately has another opportunity it can hold its own with the Pac-12. At 7-5, Washington State finished as the Pac-12’s seventh-best team.
If Fresno State wants a shot at being invited to the Pac-12 somewhere down the road, a good showing against the Cougars would do nothing but help the future of the Bulldogs.