Pat Hill, the man with the Fu Manchu mustache and sweat-stained hat, has built Fresno State into one of the nation's most robust mid-level college football programs, winning 10 of his last 16 games against Bowl Championship Series schools. But losses to less recognizable conference opponents have denied Fresno State the chance to join Utah as the only so-called mid-major school to play in the BCS.
"You know what they did?" Hill said of last season's undefeated Utes. "They did it every week, something we have not done here."
This season's Fresno State team, Hill's ninth, figures to be his best, laden with talent and maturity, two requisites as the Bulldogs navigate an intriguing and typically treacherous schedule. Hill's mantra this fall: "Twelve Game 7s."
To that end, it is no surprise the first game Hill referenced in a telephone interview was not the program's long awaited Nov. 19 matchup at Southern California, the two-time defending national champion. Hill instead pointed to Oct. 8 in Las Cruces, N.M., against New Mexico State, one of the country's worst teams.
"I think we can paint a very vivid picture of what happened to us when we went to Ruston, La., and they [players] will understand it," Hill said. "We've never had that before, those life experiences you can really count on."
Last season, resounding back-to-back road victories over Washington and Kansas State fueled talk of a Fiesta Bowl berth waiting at season's end. All players heard from outsiders entering the Oct. 2 conference opener at Louisiana Tech was how they needed to beat Tech by the same margin Miami and Tennessee had in September, by at least 25 points, to stay on BCS course.
"Sometimes," defensive tackle Garrett McIntyre conceded, "you overlook games or wonder about the BCS. We can't do that."
After dominating the first half yardage-wise, Hill eyed players in the locker room and did not see facial expressions usually associated with a team holding a six-point lead. He saw panic -- "big panic."
"The pressure of trying to win by [a big] score was more important than just winning," he said of players' mind-sets. "It is the constant pressure that as soon as you get in contention for one of those [BCS] games, you have to do something that gets style points."
Tech won, 28-21, leaving Hill nearly at a loss for words and Tech fans acting as if they had won the Rose Bowl. Students carried a dismantled goal post to parties. Linebacker Jeremy Hamilton hollered, "No BCS for y'all!"
He was right, and it was not the first time a rank-and-file Western Athletic Conference school quashed Fresno State's bold postseason aspirations. Former quarterback David Carr, who was chosen first overall in the 2002 NFL draft, led the Bulldogs to consecutive victories over BCS schools Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin to open 2001.
Carr graced the cover of Sports Illustrated; school officials said at the time their money could not buy the amount of positive publicity the program received. But losses to Boise State and Hawaii midway through the season caused national media types to scatter from California's San Joaquin Valley as fast as they had arrived.
Since then, Fresno State has not beaten Boise State, the three-time defending conference champion, which Hill deemed the favorite this season. McIntyre, the preseason conference defensive player of the year, called the Nov. 10 game the Bulldogs' biggest of the season. McIntyre, who has never beaten Boise State, feels the streak will end, adding, "I'm really confident, actually," about making the BCS.
Daryn Colledge, Boise State's fifth-year senior left tackle who has never lost to Fresno State, said: "You can say records prove we are a better team, [but] they play the best teams in the country and do it well. . . . They are definitely one of the games we have circled every year. It is one of the games [at Fresno] we can go in and say we are the underdogs."
Unlike some successful coaches, when Hill likes his team, he will say as much. And he likes this squad, particularly the offense, which did not score less than 37 points in any of the final six games last season, all victories.
"I think we can play with everyone on our schedule," Hill said. "I know that."
"Oh, yeah," Hill answered. "They are obviously the best team we'll play, but from an emphasis standpoint, a psychological standpoint, that game will not be a problem to get ready for."