Sports

'Dogs thinking BCS going into offseason

Fresno State ended its turnaround season with a win at the Humanitarian Bowl and now everyone seems giddy, especially following Thursday's announcement that offensive coordinator Jim McElwain turned down the head coaching job at Eastern Washington to remain at Fresno State.

As coach Pat Hill has said numerous times throughout his 11 seasons -- when Fresno State wins, so does all of the Central Valley.

"It's just a great feeling right now, to be a part of something special and to know bigger things are in store," Fresno State safety Moses Harris said.

A year after finishing 4-8 and missing the postseason for the first time since 1998, Fresno State proved that 2006 was an aberration and not the start of the program's decline.

Fresno State finished 9-4, ending with a 40-28 win against Georgia Tech in the Humanitarian Bowl on Monday, amid numerous injuries to key players and suspensions and the health uncertainty of its defensive coordinator.

Now, with the majority of the team expected to return, including 17 starters, Fresno State could be next in line as the Western Athletic Conference team that makes a run at a coveted Bowl Championship Series game.

"Boise [State] did it; Hawaii did," Harris said. "Next year's our turn at a BCS [bowl]."

Why not think such grand hopes?

Among those expected to return will be:

Soon-to-be senior and three-year starter Tom Brandstater, who was named Fresno State's MVP at the Humanitarian Bowl. Brandstater threw 15 touchdowns and only five interceptions for the season.

Bear Pascoe, who might be considered one of the nation's top tight ends and an NFL prospect at a mobile 6 feet, 5 inches and 260 pounds as he heads into his senior season.

Speedy receiver Marlon Moore, who had a breakout season as a sophomore with a team-best 48 catches for 694 yards and five touchdowns.

Running back Ryan Mathews, who was enjoying a phenomenal freshman season before injuries derailed him late in the year. Still, Mathews led Fresno State with 866 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.

Plus, the offseason would appear to replenish Fresno State's depth with several players coming back from injury, including Chastin West, who was the Bulldogs' top receiver going into the 2007 season, and kick returner/cornerback A.J. Jefferson, who led the nation in kick returns but missed the final three games either because of injury or suspension.

"We did so much this year with having key guys getting hurt," Brandstater said. "It's exciting to think about the young guys we have and the talent that they have [and] think about them contributing more next year.

"The boundaries are endless for us. We just have to keep working hard and not forget what it takes to get where we are."

The nonconference schedule also sets the stage for the Bulldogs to climb through the rankings quickly, even if they don't begin the preseason in the Top 25.

Fresno State is set to open its season at UCLA, then plays at Kansas State the following week. The Bulldogs host Wisconsin in their first home game then travel to Toledo.

In addition, Fresno State avoids a trip to Hawaii and instead hosts a Warriors team that will no longer have Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Colt Brennan.

The Bulldogs will return to Bronco Stadium, site of their Humanitarian Bowl win, to play Boise State in what could be the game that decides the Western Athletic Conference title.

"We're built different than most places -- we play a front-loaded schedule instead of a back-loaded schedule," Hill said. "That's the way we do things, and it's not going to change as long as I'm head coach at Fresno State.

"We're going to play that type of schedule, give it our best shot and see what happens. ... Bring it on."

So what's ahead for the Bulldogs in the offseason?

Fresno State is expected to sign a class of about 20 players by national signing day Feb. 6. One national recruiting service already praises Fresno State for receiving an oral commitment from a four-star recruit in Malik Jackson, a 6-5, 212-pound defensive end from Birmingham High-Lake Balboa.

The recovery of injured players such as West and defensive end Jason Roberts will be a key. West led the team in receptions in 2006 but tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason. Roberts also blew out his knee and missed most of the year after starting the first three games.

Other players like Moore and nickelback Will Harding are expected to have surgery in the offseason to correct nagging injuries.

Moore was playing with padding on his hand at the end of the season and will have surgery after spraining ligaments near his left thumb, Hill said.

Harding, who was listed as a senior this season but was granted another year of eligibility through a medical redshirt waiver, will have shoulder surgery.

Players again will begin holding voluntary workout sessions soon enough in preparation for spring ball and summer camp.

But most important to Hill is remembering the lessons from the 2006 season.

"When we get back Jan. 14, we have to go back to Day 1, make sure we discuss what we are and who we are," Hill said. "I'll have meetings with all the players and make sure everybody understands the song. We're never going to take for granted that everybody knows what's going on. We let it get away that one year. It just can't happen."

And if the Bulldogs show the concentration and focus they displayed this season, it should mean an exciting season to come.

"To have that super season it means you have to go 1-0 for 12 weeks," Hill said. "Players have to understand that, how difficult that journey is, what kind of sacrifices they have to make if they want to contend for that.

"We've got a tall ceiling. We've got a long ways to go, but I think we're heading in the right direction."

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