Hill's last team in 2011 dipped to just 4-9 overall and 3-4 in conference play, so DeRuyter knew what he was up against when his Bulldogs began the 2012 campaign with a 37-10 romp over FCS foe Weber State at home. Against the run- and-gun offense of the Oregon Ducks on the road in the second week, FSU came up short in a 42-25 decision, the first of two defeats during a three-game run. After a 2-2 start, the Bulldogs settled in and found their explosive offense, scoring at least 28 points in all but two of the last nine games. Following victories over San Diego State and Colorado State, the Bulldogs lost their battle against nationally-ranked Boise State on the road, 20-10. Despite the setback, coach DeRuyter was able to refocus his crew and push them to close out the regular season strong, resulting in five straight wins, all by no less than 16 points. In fact, during that five-game run Fresno State was hitting on all cylinders, particularly on offense, scoring no less than 42 points during the stretch.
Finishing at 9-3 overall and 7-1 in conference, good for a tie for first place in the league standings, Fresno State accepted an invitation to participate in the Hawaii Bowl against up-and-coming SMU. The Mustangs were led by former Hawaii head coach June Jones and were more than ready for what the Bulldogs had to offer, crushing FSU by a final of 43-10.
"I was surprised, I thought it was going to be a very competitive game," said DeRuyter after the huge loss. "People were talking about the explosive offenses, but we thought both defenses were pretty good and it was going to come down to takeaways. They are a well-coached team, got good players and out-played us."
OFFENSE: The Bulldogs are built to follow quarterback Derek Carr, brother of former FSU signal-caller and first overall NFL draft pick, David. The younger Carr was named the MWC Offensive Player of the Year in the team's first season in the league, as he set a new conference passing record with 4,104 yards. Living up to expectations established by his brother, Carr has 26 career starts under his belt and has thrown 63 touchdowns, against a mere 16 interceptions on nearly 1,000 attempts.
Carr now needs 3,049 passing yards in order to break the school's all-time record in that department, set by Kevin Sweeney back in 1986. Considering Carr, who was named the preseason MWC Offensive Player of the Year, has thrown for at least 3,500 yards in each of the last two seasons, the goal doesn't seem that far off, assuming his offensive line can continue to keep the pressure off and he has time to find receivers Isaiah Burse and Davante Adams streaking down the field.
Burse leads the way among returning receivers with 110 catches for 1,477 yards and nine touchdowns over the course of 26 games and 12 starts in his career, while Adams shredded defenses a year ago with a team-best 102 catches for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Unfortunately, there is a huge hole in the backfield where Robbie Rouse once stood. One of the top running backs in the history of college football has departed, leaving Marteze Waller and Josh Quezada to share most of the carries presumably.
DEFENSE: A huge loss for the Bulldogs on the defensive side of the ball is the departure of Phillip Thomas. The safety set the tone in many games as he became the first player in program history to be named a unanimous All- America. Thomas was not only a turnover machine, tying for the national lead with nine total takeaways, he also returned three interceptions for touchdowns.
"He put in the work and he absolutely produced," said DeRuyter of Thomas. "He was a guy that sparked our defense with eight interceptions and three scores, so all these accolades he is getting are very well deserved and for him to be the first unanimous All-American in Fresno State history, I think they picked a great one to do that."
A talent like that will be difficult to replace, putting even more pressure on Sean Alston, L.J. Jones and Derron Smith who are returning starters to the secondary. Smith was second to Thomas in total tackles in 2012 with 79 stops, making all but 18 of those solo, and was also second with six picks, one ahead of Alston.
Smith was selected as the Preseason MWC Defensive Player of the Year for 2013.
Patrolling the middle of the field once more will be linebackers Donovan Lewis and Patrick Su'a. Lewis was credited with 10 tackles for loss and four sacks a year ago, which makes him second only to defensive end Andy Jennings (11 TFL, 5.5 sacks) among returning starters in those categories.
SPECIAL TEAMS: With Carr driving the offense once again, the need for a field goal kicker might not be all that vital for the Bulldogs, but it is not as though they can simply settle on just anyone to replace Quentin Breshears who hit on 12 of his 15 attempts in 2012.
Not only do the Bulldogs have to find someone to fill the shoes of Breshears, they also have to complete a search for a new punter following the departure of Andrew Shapiro, a 2012 honorable mention All-MWC performer. There's a good chance that Garrett Swanson could fill both voids since he is the lone returning letterman who has the qualifications.
From a kick return standpoint, expect to see Burse again pulling double-duty after the wide receiver brought back 29 kickoffs for an average of 22.4 yards last year. Burse needs just 15 more kickoff returns to tie the NCAA career record of 141 set by Tyron Carrier at Houston (2008-11).
OUTLOOK: The Bulldogs have been chosen to finish atop the West Division of the transformed MWC and for good reason. The squad starts off the campaign with three home dates in four games, the last of those coming against Boise State on Sept. 20, which means Fresno stands a good chance at scoring an upset, considering how well the Bulldogs played in Idaho last season.
Traveling to Hawaii to face the Warrior eight days later, depending on how well the Bulldogs handle the BSU outcome, good or bad, could also pose a bit of a challenge, considering FSU was throttled in Aloha Stadium the last time it played a meaningful contest.
There are very few rough spots during the second half of the schedule, again working heavily in favor of a Fresno State group that has pretty big expectations this season.