A chief factor in the ability to remain competitive against quality teams away from home has been the improvement in recruiting by Fresno State. No one exemplifies that fact better than receiver/kick returner Bernard Berrian.
The senior All-America candidate, who returns to action against Tennessee Saturday after missing all of last season due to a knee injury, has thrived fearlessly at big-time venues that often frighten lesser players.
An example: During his junior season, Berrian totaled 300 all-purpose yards in a 32-20 upset at Wisconsin. His 96-yard kick return for a touchdown to open the second half was a game-changing play.
Berrian also posted other strong numbers against tough opponents in a season that brought his name into prominence.
''We have played in a lot of hostile environments,'' Berrian said. ''It (Neyland Stadium) is just another piece of grass to play on. We think it can be a big year. In 2001, we knocked off some big teams. People know what we are capable of. They can't take us lightly.''
With four straight bowl appearances to their credit, the Bulldogs feel they have come into their own as a formidable program. They finished 11-3 two years ago and were 9-5 last year.
''We are definitely a program on the rise,'' Berrian said. ''We are becoming noticeable. We have all worked hard in the summer and winter to get better. We have a lot of talent. People don't believe we have talent, but it's here.''
There is little doubt that Tennessee's coaching staff has immense respect for the Bulldogs, particularly on offense, where Fresno State excels both with the run and the pass. Davis rushed for 1,586 yards last season. Pinegar passed for 2,929 yards and 20 touchdowns as a freshman.
Berrian, however, remains the top weapon.
''I don't put expectations on Bernard in terms of numbers,'' Fresno State offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said. ''Are we going to rely on Bernard this year? Absolutely. He is the top playmaker. We'd be crazy not to look for him.''
Berrian is just happy to return to the field after an agonizing experience watching from the bench last season.
''I'm ready to go,'' he said. ''I have been waiting to get back. I can‚t wait. I am juiced and pumped.''
Fully recovered from the knee injury, Berrian says he is prepared to have another productive year.
''I think I can be even more effective,'' he said. ''I am back to the same old Bernard. I don't really have any goals as far as yardage, but I want to average 100 yards a game.''
Though he has worked only sparingly with Pinegar, Berrian said the duo is clicking in the passing game.
''There are no worries,'' he said. ''I haven't played in a real game with him yet, but we work well together.''
''We have a great group,'' Berrian said. ''It could be the best in the nation if things work out. There is a lot of depth and potential. They can all step up.''
Cignetti also likes the receiving corps.
''Bernard will attract the most attention,'' he said. ''But because we have other guys that can make things happen, defenses can't concentrate just on Bernard. We've got others that can catch the ball.''
Overall, the offense could be even better than last year's.
''I think we have the potential to do some great things,'' Cignetti said. ''But all the pieces have to mesh together for that to happen. Everyone has to maximize their abilities. The line needs to play well, Paul needs to keep improving on his reads and our receivers need to make plays. If that happens we can be a good offense.
''I think we have very good balance. We like to use the run to set up the pass, and when you have a guy in the backfield like Davis, that certainly helps. Adding Bernard gives our offense good balance.''
A victory over the Vols would be the perfect way to open the season. It would also add credibility to the Fresno State program and the WAC.
''It would be a big boost,'' Berrian said. ''When we beat those teams we look better. It helps the conference too. If we win, they can't consider us a weak conference.''