Editor's Note: For the sixth consecutive year, the Mountain West will send five teams into postseason bowl games. The league has earned 56 bowl bids since 1999 and holds a 31-20 (.608) all-time record in those contests. Over the last eight seasons, the MW has captured the Bowl Challenge Cup four times and owns the best win percentage in bowl games among the 11 FBS conferences with a 24-12 mark (.667). The MW is the only conference to win the trophy four times since the award's inception in 2002-03. This is the fourth in a series of five previews analyzing the matchups between this year's MW bowl participants and their respective opponents.
Overview: Mountain West tri-champion Fresno State enters the game riding a five-game win streak while pocketing its first league championship since 1999. This will be Fresno State's 24th bowl game in program history. The Bulldogs, who are 12-11 all-time in the postseason, are making their 12th bowl appearance in the last 14 seasons. Fresno State's most recent postseason appearance came in a 40-17 loss to Northern Illinois in the 2010 Humanitarian Bowl. SMU, under the direction of former Hawai‘i head coach June Jones, has dropped five of its six meetings against Fresno State, the last coming in a 42-0 loss on Oct. 30, 2004. The Mustangs won four of their final six games of the season, capped off by an upset of Conference USA West Division champion Tulsa, to become bowl eligible for the 14th time in program history. SMU, which topped Pittsburgh in last year's BBVA Compass Bowl, is 6-7-1 all-time in the postseason.
When Fresno State Has the Ball: The Bulldogs positively exploded in their first season utilizing offensive coordinator Dave Schramm's spread offense. Fresno State, which ranks first in the MW and 12th nationally in scoring offense (40.2 ppg), scored 40 or more points seven times. During the course of their current five-game win streak, the Bulldogs have scored 40 or more in every game. Paced by junior quarterback David Carr, the MW Offensive Player of the Year, Fresno State ranks first in the league and 12th nationally in passing offense (322.58 ypg) while ranking 14th in the country in total offense (488.50). Carr, the only quarterback in the league to average more than 300 yards passing per game (311.8), has completed 68.1 percent of his passes (311-of-457) this season while throwing just five interceptions. His 36 touchdown passes are nine more than any quarterback in the MW. Senior running back Robbie Rouse, the nation's third-leading active rusher and Fresno State's all-time leader with 4,625 career yards, tied the MW record this season with nine 100-yard games. He ranked third in the league and 13th nationally with an average of 122.3 yards per game. Wide receiver Davante Adams, the MW Freshman of the Year and a unanimous all-league first-team selection, led the conference in every receiving category. His 89 catches are 26 more than any other MW receiver this fall. His 1,168 receiving yards are 314 more and his 13 touchdowns are seven more than any player in the league. None of which bodes terribly well for SMU, which has allowed an average of 271.71 yards passing per game and ranks 103rd nationally in pass defense. The Mustangs, who finished second in the West Division of Conference USA, also ranked last in the league in sacks while allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw 26 touchdown passes.
When SMU Has the Ball: Whereas running the ball was largely considered a gadget play during Jones' run-'n'-shoot tenure at Hawai‘i, such is not the case at SMU where senior Zach Line rushed for 1,207 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. The Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Line is the only running back in SMU history with three 1,200-yard seasons. His 4,114 career rushing yards and 46 rushing touchdowns rank sixth and third, respectively, among active players, while his 4,715 career all-purpose yards are second all-time at SMU and his 276 career points are third. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who transferred from Texas last season, has thrown for 2,720 yards and 14 TDs against 13 interceptions. As good as Fresno State's offense has been this season its defense has been no less sparkling. Led by senior strong safety Phillip Thomas, the MW Defensive Player of the Year and finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, the Bulldogs ranked first in the MW in pass efficiency defense (100.0), pass defense (163.42 ypg; tied 4th nationally), sacks (35) and tackles for loss (85). Fresno State tied for first in the MW in takeaways (33) and was second in the league in total defense (335.33 ypg) and scoring defense (22.25 ppg). Thomas (82) and junior free safety Derron Smith (72) ranked first and second, respectively, in total tackles while combining for 14 interceptions. Thomas led the nation with eight INTs and took three of those thefts to the end zone. He also accumulated 12.5 tackles for loss on the year.
Special Teams: Fresno State senior Quentin Breshears, who made 11-of-14 field-goal attempts (78.6 percent) during the regular season, led all MW kickers with 89 points. Senior Andrew Shapiro ranked fifth in the league in punting with an average of 42.4 yards. SMU junior placekicker Chase Hover has endured his share of struggles, connecting on just 61.5 percent (16-of-26) of his field-goal attempts. Sophomore Der'Rikk Thompson (25.69 ypr) ranked fifth among kickoff returners in Conference USA this season for the Mustangs, who blocked six kicks during the regular season.
Analysis: It's been a magical ride for first-year coach Tim DeRuyter and Fresno State, whose three losses came against opponents (Oregon, Tulsa and Boise State) with a combined record of 31-6. The Bulldogs head to the islands playing at an extremely high level on both sides of the ball, and there's little reason to believe that an SMU team that allowed an average of 433.2 yards (286.2 passing) in its six losses will be able to slow one of the most efficient offenses in the country.