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Before the Broncos Broke the BCS


Fresno State Bulldogs football

Fresno State Bulldogs football (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the college football season takes its course, a favorite topic of debate among fans is which team will go to what bowl game. Part of the that discussion is which teams, if any, from conferences that do not have tie-ins with BCS bowls will get a bid to a BCS game, along with the prestige and payout that come with it. It might seem that teams such as TCU, Boise State and Utah have been breaking into BCS games forever, but smaller schools from non-power conferences were never part of the discussion for BCS forerunners the Bowl Coalition or the Bowl Alliance.  And until 2001, schools from non-power conferences had been serious part of BCS consideration. That all changed when a pack of red-clad Bulldogs and their walrus-mustached coach, took their physical brand of football and challenged anyone, anytime, anywhere.

This team was led by quarterback David Carr, who finished the season passing for 4,830 yards and 46 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions.  He basically slung the ball around at will, and added five rushing TDs. Receivers Bernard Berrian and Rodney Wright put up 2,994 yards combined, along with 25 TDs, and at running back, Paris Gaines rushed for 1,044 yards and 8 TDs. Head coach Pat Hill, seemed to be a natural fit at Fresno State. He talked tough, and in his struggle to elevate the national profile of Fresno State and the Western Athletic Conference, offered to play, “anyone, anytime, anywhere.”

The 2001 college football season kicked off with the Jim Thorpe Classic, a game that would feature the eventual Big XII Champion Colorado Buffaloes hosting the Fresno State Bulldogs from the WAC. The Buffaloes were a solid favorite, and would go on to have a great season, defeating six nationally ranked teams, winning the Big XII, and appearing in the Fiesta Bowl. But on that day in August, at the home of the Buffaloes, the Bulldogs would pull the upset 26-24. Anytime.

The Bulldogs returned home to face the Oregon State Beavers, the team featured on the Sports Illustrated College Football Preview as their pick for the National Champion. The Beavers were defending Fiesta Bowl Champions and brought a No. 10 ranking and high hopes into Bulldog Stadium. They left with their tails flattened and dragging between their legs, as Fresno shocked the world with a dominating 44-24 victory, moving the Bulldogs into the AP Top-25.  Anyone.

From there, it was on to Wisconsin, as the No.19 Bulldogs were underdogs on the road to the No.23 Badgers.  And for half the game, things seemed to go according to plan, as Wisconsin held a 20-10 lead at the half.  But Fresno State would return the second-half kickoff for six, go for two, get a quick turnover and another score, and before you could say it all, Fresno was up 25-20.  The game ended a 32-20 Fresno win, in what remains one of two non-conference home losses for the Badgers this century. Anywhere.

After the victory against Wisconsin, coach Pat Hill said, ”We were the better team this afternoon,” while the players chanted “We’re for real!” The Bulldogs were for real, as they climbed to No. 11 in the polls, and a buzz developed nationally.

As the season went on, the Bulldogs continued to win, rolling to a 6-0 start and climbing to a No. 8 national ranking.  And then the team that would eventually become the most prolific BCS Buster, rolled into Bulldog stadium and broke the Bulldogs BCS dream. A 35-30 home loss to Boise State removed the Bulldogs from BCS consideration.  A loss at Hawaii the next week removed the Bulldogs from national rankings.

Following the beating at the hands of the Rainbow Warriors, Fresno State went on a five-game winning streak and returned to the national rankings.  They finished the season with an 11-2 record, and were ranked No.20 heading before falling to Michigan State in the Silicon Valley Football Classic.  Even though the Bulldogs lost 35-44 to the Spartans, Fresno State paved the way for all BCS non-qualifying schools to become BCS busters.  Since then, BCS busters have gone 4-2 against power conference teams in BCS bowl games, proving they belong, something that probably would have never happened if Fresno State didn’t arrive on the scene in such a big and bold way.  Anyone, anytime, anywhere.

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