Fresno State preview

A warning to Tennessee football fans: This is not the Fresno State of old.

Under the guidance of head coach Pat Hill, the Bulldogs, once a mediocre team that made a convenient victim for Top-20 teams hoping to pad their records, have risen to respectability and beyond.

Against a challenging schedule that has consistently included a number of elite teams, Hill has led the Bulldogs to a school-record four consecutive bowl appearances. Over the last three years, Fresno State has averaged nine wins a season. College Football News tabbed Fresno State's program as the 26th-best in the country over the last three years.

''I have high expectations for this program,'' Hill said. ''If I didn't have high expectations, I wouldn't want the schedule we play. Our players and coaches know what is expected and they are committed to success. We want to build a new tradition on a national level. We have made great strides, but there's still a long way to go.''

The recent trend is expected to continue in 2003. Fresno State finished the 2002 season by winning eight of 10 games, including five in a row. The Bulldogs defeated Georgia Tech in the Silicon Valley Football Classic for their first bowl victory in a decade. With 10 offensive starters back from a high-octane attack, another successful season is anticipated.

Key preseason injuries not withstanding, the Bulldogs feel they are ready for the rigors of a demanding early-season schedule that begins with an unenviable assignment against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium. Other early opponents include Oregon State at home and Oklahoma and Colorado State on the road.

''We do face a tough schedule, but that's nothing new if you look at what's been going on around here for the past few years,'' Fresno State offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said. ''Maybe this year is a little tougher, but it's not much different than last year when we opened with Wisconsin, Oregon and Oregon State, all on the road. We practice very hard, probably harder than most teams. I think that, plus all the game preparation we have done, makes us prepared for this game.''

Fresno State's strength clearly lies in its offense. Quarterback Paul Pinegar, just a sophomore, stepped in for injured Jeff Grady last season and threw for 2,929 yards -- the highest total ever by a Fresno State freshman quarterback, topping the likes of David Carr and Trent Dilfer.

''It's tough for me to compare him to the other quarterbacks who have been here,'' Cignetti said. ''But I do know that he can be very good. He picks up on things so quickly. We really threw him into the fire last year. He learned he was making his first start of his career on 24 hours notice, and the game was on national television. Paul went through some growing pains, but his ability to make adjustments and learn from his mistakes really helped his learning curve. By the end of the year he was a solid quarterback.''

There is no shortage of talent on hand to aid Pinegar. Receiver Bernard Berrian, a 2001 first-team All-American, sat out the 2002 season with a knee injury but is back at top form for his senior season. He had 85 catches for 1,364 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior.

Marque Davis filled in admirably as the go-to guy last year in Berrian's absence, catching 64 passes for 956 yards. Deandre Gilbert is another quality receiver. The running game also thrived last year, and top ballcarrier Rodney Davis is back after a brilliant 2002 season that included 1,586 yards -- a Fresno State record.

''Rodney has looked very good,'' Cignetti said. ''He added some weight in the offseason and improved his quickness. I think his quickness to the hole has been one of the best sights of camp so far. He had some big numbers last year, and I know he is motivated to produce this year.''

If there is a question mark on offense, it's with the offensive line. The Bulldogs recently lost their top two linemen to injuries. Neither will play against Tennessee.

''That obviously has been the greatest area of concern,'' Cignetti said. ''That was tough losing them, but we have a saying around here that when somebody goes down, somebody else has to pick up the flag. We might be a little inexperienced on the line, but we've got a bunch of guys who play hard and are going to go through a bit of trial by fire.''

Hill likes what he's seen from the offensive line.

''Our line has always been solid,'' he said. ''We continue to develop bigger and stronger players, and I am confident the new guys will step right in and we won't skip a beat.''

On defense, the Bulldogs' strength lies in the linebacker corps. Senior Bryce McGill converted from safety to linebacker five games into last season and earned second-team WAC honors. He is a vicious hitter who is pound-for-pound the strongest player on the Fresno State squad. Another linebacker, Mark Dailey, is a fixture in the middle as a three-year starter.

''I am happy with our linebacker situation,'' Hill said. ''We have three starters who are excellent players. After that, we have a lot of young talent. We have great leaders.''

Sophomore safety James Sanders was a Freshman All-American last season. He ranked second on the team in tackles with 85. Kendall Edwards is a solid cornerback, as is Raymond Washington.

''The secondary has as much talent and depth as we have had,'' Hill said. ''When he is healthy, Edwards is as good as anyone. We now have four or five legitimate cornerbacks who are capable of starting.'' Junior college All-American defensive tackle Donyell Booker should help shore up a line that lost two starters to graduation.

Hill remains undaunted by the killer schedule facing his team.

''We have to keep playing a tough schedule," Hill said. ''We have to beat the best teams to gain respect. There are very few programs in the country that are willing to play anyone, anywhere. We want that, even though that means playing these teams on the road. Our schedule is designed to be this tough. It's designed to make our program better.''

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