By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 6, 2017
The headline of this preview says it all: Are the Bulldogs any better than they were a year ago? Because if they aren’t, Alabama will be playing a game of “Name That Walk-on” by halftime.
Fresno State finished the 2016 season with a 1-11 record, beating only lower-division Sacramento State in Week 2 and then losing 10 straight games to finish the year. Fresno was often competitive – they lost to Tulsa, Nevada, San Diego State, Air Force, Hawaii and San Jose State by a combined 39 points – but it wasn’t enough to save Tim DeRuyter’s job. Jeff Tedford, a couple of times a candidate for openings at Alabama, is the new man. And given that Fresno State is coming off a 66-0 win over Incarnate Word in its opener, there is at least some optimism in the valley.
The Incarnate Word win offers no real information for Alabama; this is all about what Tedford liked to do at California and anticipating whether he has enough talent to do it again at Fresno State.
Tedford likes one-back, spread-flavored, pro-style attacks, and this one figures to be more wide open than usual thanks to having Kalen DeBoer as his offensive coordinator. Fresno did what it wanted against Incarnate Word, rolling up 613 yards in total offense, including 414 through the air. Given the situation at running back – more on that later – expect Fresno to be throwing the ball incessantly. Alabama comes into this one hoping to get its passing game going, as the Crimson Tide ran the ball well enough against Florida State but was mostly shut down through the skies.
Chason Virgil had a rough freshman season in 2016 for Fresno State, accumulating 10 interceptions and just 13 touchdowns and completing only 51.6% of his passes. It was technically his second year on the field, as he was granted a medical redshirt after getting hurt early in the 2015 year. Virgil isn’t considered a dual-threat quarterback, but he isn’t a stick in the mud, either. He can scramble out of pressure and does a good job of moving around in the pocket. A pair of transfers, Marcus McMaryion and Jorge Reyna, are still battling for the backup job. McMaryion, an Oregon transfer, has far more experience, and was the only other QB used in the opener.
Alabama will use Jalen Hurts, whose performance against Florida State was rocky to say the least. The question is, what caused it – protection breakdowns, a new offensive coordinator, or a lack of improvement from Hurts himself. One thing Hurts did very well was not making a critical mistake to cost Alabama points against the Seminoles, and he should have more time to throw this week against a lesser defense. Tua Tagovailoa should see his first action as Hurts’ backup, if the game goes to script. Virgil certainly had the more impressive opener, but there’s no discounting what Hurts did in 2016. Advantage: Alabama
Fresno State ranked 119th in rushing offense in 2016, and then the returning starter at tailback, Dontel James, got knocked out for 2017 before the year even began. Fresno didn’t appear to be all that concerned with establishing a running game in its opener, despite tallying 199 yards on the ground. This will be a team that runs off the pass, sink or swim. A true freshman, Ronnie Rivers, will get the start in this game. He’s 5’8” and 175 pounds, and his offensive line will have to perform a miracle just to keep him from getting pounded into the turf by Alabama’s front seven. Another scatback, DeJonte O’Neal, is the backup. When Fresno needs beef, Josh Hokit will be asked to tote the load, but he’s only about the size of Alabama’s Damien Harris anyway. Jordan Mims and Saevion Johnson add depth.
Alabama counters with Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Najee Harris and potentially Joshua Jacobs this week. Damien Harris’ debut against Florida State netted him 73 yards on an 8.1-yard average, but the way he ran was even more impressive. Between his combination of size and speed, Scarbrough’s punishing inside game and the raw talent of Najee Harris, Alabama holds a massive edge here. Add Jacobs to the mix and it’s almost unfair. Advantage: Alabama
This is probably the strong suit of Fresno’s team, especially junior KeeSean Johnson. He’s a thick-bodied, 6’2” receiver with good speed and the ability to battle for balls. Jamire Jordan and De’Mari Scott, along with Derrion Grim, give the Bulldogs a receiver unit as good as any SEC contender. Tight ends Kyle Riddering and Jared Rice are both capable. Alabama got a fine 2017 debut from Calvin Ridley in the opener, and he’s the best downfield threat present in this game. But neither Cameron Sims nor Robert Foster managed to snag a pass against Florida State, and Alabama needs to develop an off-threat to help take the pressure off Ridley.
True freshmen Devonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III all saw playing time, but Ruggs dropped a pass he probably should have caught for a touchdown. Derek Kief adds depth. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. was a blocking fiend in the opener, but Alabama needs him, Hale Hengtes and Miller Forristall to all add something in the receiving game. It’s a bit unfair to judge Alabama so harshly given the OL breakdowns in the opener, but this was going to be a tight comparison anyway given Fresno State’s abilities. Advantage: Fresno State
Four starters return to Fresno State from a year ago, but they weren’t difference-makers then and they probably aren’t difference-makers now. The left side, tackle Christian Cronk and freshman left guard Netane Muti, is vulnerable. The right side – tackle David Patterson and guard Micah St. Andrew – lack the athleticism Alabama usually sees. Muti and St. Andrew have good size, but the tackles are smallish. Center Aaron Mitchell is probably the best of the lot, and has tons of experience making line calls. Alabama’s line did fine in the running game against Florida State, allowing no tackles for loss. The middle three – center Bradley Bozeman and guards Ross Pierschbacher and Lester Cotton – were more consistent than tackles Jonah Williams and Matt Womack, who were good at leading running backs but who both struggled mightily in pass protection.
It will be interesting to see whether any of the backups get an audition this week. Freshmen Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood should see time at tackle, with Brandon Kennedy at center and Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer at guard. Fresno State has an experience edge, but little else. Alabama leads all other aspects. Advantage: Alabama
Bama vs Fresno State DEFENSE Preview
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