USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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For the second time in recent program history, how Fresno State handles a devastatingly painful regular-season defeat will determine the arc of the Bulldogs' future trajectory.

We all remember USC, of course, and how Fresno lots its way – and lost its national foothold – after Reggie Bush and the Trojans deflected the Bulldogs' earth-shattering upset hopes. It lingered: Fresno lost its last four games of 2005, didn't show up in 2006 and essentially disappeared, remembered only for loss after loss to Mountain West Conference leaders.

Things change; rosters change, coaches change, themes and schemes change – perhaps for the better, if perhaps for the worse. Pat Hill lost his way shortly after USC's win in 2005; Tim DeRuyter needs to prove this program can avoid a similar fate.

Undefeated until San Jose State, then out of last season's Bowl Championship Series picture. Mountain West champs, then again victims to USC, an awakened juggernaut heading into the postseason. It's not quite four losses in a row to end 2005 – but it's in the ballpark.

Perhaps hope comes from DeRuyter's credo: Fast, Physical, Fanatical. The Bulldogs have always been fast, even during the lull, thanks to the quick-twitch recruiting base in the program's backyard. But the Bulldogs haven't always been physical, often to a fault.

Fanaticism seems new. Say one thing about the years prior to DeRuyter's arrival: Fresno's fan base was diehard, but the program had lost that anyone-anytime-anywhere mentality that defined its run on a national scale. If fast isn't new, perhaps the combination of physical play and fanatical behavior keeps Fresno on the map.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

I think Fresno is one of the 25 best teams in the FBS. I also think the record will reflect that fact; the Bulldogs should go 10-2 during the regular season, with one loss to Boise, and earn another crack at the Broncos as the top team in the West Division.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: Fresno stood two wins away from an at-large BCS bid before David Fales and San Jose State gave the Bulldogs a taste of their own medicine: SJSU went to town on this secondary, decimating Fresno's defense through air – something several were able to do against this group – and crippling the program's BCS hopes. It was nevertheless a successful season, one that hit on most of DeRuyter's preseason markers – West Division title, Mountain West title, double-digit wins – despite the disappointing conclusion; in essence, last season put Fresno back on the national radar for the first time in more than a half-decade. It was also a banner individual season, led by quarterback Derek Carr and this passing game, which lifted the senior starter into the mix for national hardware while painting Fresno as one of the most attractive landing spots for California's skill-position talent.

High point: Beating Boise State in September, snapping a seven-game losing streak against the Broncos and setting the tone for the remainder of the regular season.

Low point: Losing to San Jose State. Fresno rebounded a week later to win the Mountain West title – a fact that speaks to this team's coaching, experience and fortitude – but the damage had been done.

Tidbit: DeRuyter is one of just two coaches in the history of the Mountain West – established in 1999 – to win 20 or more games in his first two seasons. The other was Boise State's Chris Petersen, who went 23-3 from 2006-7.

Tidbit (brother edition): One Carr followed another, separated by about a decade, with each leaving a distinct and memorable mark on the school, conference and national record books. They're even more impressive when taken together: David and Derek Carr lead all other Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback-brother tandems in career passing yards (20,692) and career touchdowns (183), and rank second behind the Manning brothers in career completions (1674).

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

Quarterbacking brothers in college

1. Peyton and Eli Manning
2. David and Derek Carr
3. Ty and Koy Detmer
4. Carson and Jordan Palmer
5. Josh and Luke McCown

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: The Bulldogs move forward with three crucial positions changing hands: quarterback, left tackle and top receiver. The latter category is down two key cogs, in fact, in Fresno down both Davante Davis and Isaiah Burse, who joined senior Josh Harper (79 receptions for 1,011 yards) in helping Fresno become just the fifth team in FBS history to have three 1,000-yard receivers. Having Harper back in the fold helps immensely, obviously; at the same time, the Bulldogs are dealing with a troubling loss of experience and production. And even the senior comes with one massive question mark: Harper has had issues staying healthy in the past, missing 12 games during his first three years, and it's absolutely vital that he's ready and able for the entire season – or at least for the first two months, which would give Fresno time to develop its unknown second tier.

Say one thing: Harper will produce when between the white lines. And another: Fresno isn't entirely devoid of proven commodities. One would be junior Aaron Peck (14 for 157), who started two games in place of Harper a season ago. A second is senior Greg Watson (21 for 285), who seems poised to ratchet up his production within a larger role. The Bulldogs also bring back junior Justin Johnson, sophomore Da'Mari Scott and junior Dillon Root, with pressure on the latter pair to improve; will lean on tight ends Riley Barnes and Jerin McClendon in the intermediate game; and converted quarterback Myles Carr to the position during the offseason. In the end, look for Harper and Johnson to roll in the slot – though Johnson can flex inside and out – and Peck and Watson to handle the outside. The receiver corps has taken a step back.

As has the offensive line. Fresno won't replace Austin Wentworth, sadly, and should feel some sense of unease in junior Alex Fifita's ability to handle left tackle – and not to question Fifita's overall ability, because he's been a useful tool at guard and right tackle, but the blind side's a different animal. The entire left side is new: Fifita will be at tackle and senior Sean Rubalcava, a former JUCO transfer, takes over at guard. Rubalcava replaces Bo Bonnheim, who moves one step to his right to replace Lars Bramer. The good news: Fresno does bring back both right guard Cody Wichmann and right tackle Justin Northern, so the strong side should be a strength. While largely overshadowed by Wentworth a season ago, Wichmann should assert himself as one of the league's best as a senior.

Wichmann and Northern will help keep this running game afloat – and seeing that Fresno could opt for a dual-threat quarterback, it's possible to envision a scenario where the ground attack picks up the slack for a projected pass-game decline. The top two remains set in stone: Josh Quezada (807 yards) and Marteze Waller (646 yards) will split touches, as they did a season ago, while senior Malique Micenheimer steps in as the Bulldogs' short-yardage hammer. There may even be carries available for incoming freshmen Chris Moliga and Kurt Scoby, with Moliga enough of an athlete to slot into several roles as a rookie.

Defense: The job DeRuyter and his defensive staff have done in player development will pay dividends along this new-look front. The biggest change: Tyeler Davison (41 tackles, 7.5 for loss), one of the nation's most underrated linemen, will shift from nose guard to end in this three-man set, bolstering the Bulldogs' potential for disruptiveness while giving Davison room to operate away from the interior. Fresno was able to make this move as a result of increased confidence in junior Maurice Poyadue and senior Ioane Sagapolu, the two-headed tandem on the nose. If they can occupy blockers – and that's all they'll be asked to do – this line won't struggle in the transition. Opposite Davison, look for Fresno to hand the starting job to junior Todd Hunt, last year's understudy on the outside.

Boise State's back seven is the best in the Mountain West; Fresno State's close behind. The entire second level remains intact, with size and steadiness along the middle joined by speed and aggressiveness on the outside – meaning that the Bulldogs' linebackers will be superb should the front three hold strong at the point of attack. The inside is fine: Karl Mickelsen (97 tackles) and Kyrie Wilson (87 tackles, 5.0 for loss) do a nice job cleaning up from tackle to tackle. The outside is better: Ejiro Ederaine (63 tackles, 16.5 for loss) might be the most unpredictably dangerous defender in the conference – and is a heavy favorite for postseason accolades – while Donovan Lewis (45 tackles, 5.0 sacks) enters his final season as one of the most reliable and consistently productive cogs in the Bulldogs' machine. This is a really good group.

And Fresno's safeties are as good as you'll find off the major-conference level. You've probably heard of one: Derron Smith (87 tackles, 7 interceptions) is a ball-hawking, everywhere-at-once, quarterback-baiting, stick-and-move potential All-American who balances ranginess and toughness in a 195-pound frame – so he's a keeper, I'd say. Wisely, the Bulldogs will team Smith with junior Charles Washington (71 tackles, 8.0 for loss), who dabbled at cornerback a season but will this fall along the back end. Keeping Washington permanently at safety does have its drawback, however: Fresno needs answers on the outside. While sophomore Jamal Ellis and senior Chris Riley will enter fall camp as the penciled-in starters, it's way too early to write off JUCO transfer Stratton Brown and former Arizona transfer Bryan Harper. The competition for starting roles will remain heated during August.

Special teams: That punter Garrett Swanson returns – he's an all-league pick – should help Fresno continue its very impressive work in flipping field position. But if the Bulldogs' punt coverage is commendable, the team's work on kickoffs needs drastic and immediate improvement. That's a concern, as is the leg of sophomore kicker Colin McGuire – I think he'll be better, but growth is needed – and the return game. Burse was a major weapon on returns, so Fresno needs Root and Scott to pick up the slack.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Quarterback: It'd be easy to hand Duke transfer Brandon Connette the starting job, seeing that he carries the most game experience – not to mention the most big-game experience – of any quarterback on the roster. But that ignores two facts: one, Connette remains unproven as a passer, seeing that his turn with the Blue Devils came in a largely run-first, complementary role; and two, he's playing from behind the curve in grasping coordinator Dave Schramm's system. That he's not a stand-in-the-pocket quarterback could be a negative, true, but it could also be a positive – one that allows Schramm and Fresno to subtly alter the pass-heavy direction of the offense and use a more balanced approach from the position. That's an option, at least, and Connette is certainly a valuable contributor regardless of where he slots on the two-deep – as at Duke, I view Connette as a difference-making talent whether he's the starter or used as a weapon in certain packages.

That Connette isn't totally schooled in Fresno's system has helped keep junior Brian Burrell in the conversation. He was the starter coming out of spring, fending off Myles Carr – since moved, as noted – and Zack Greenlee to assume the top spot entering summer workouts. It's a tough deal: Burrell had to be excited about the opportunity to take charge of his quarterback-friendly system; a few months later, he's again looking at the backup job. But it works both ways: Connette could start or be Burrell's change-of-pace backup; Burrell could start or, yes, be Connette's change-of-pace backup. It's an interesting competition due to the direction it could take Fresno's offense, since Connette would add a running dimension, but the entire conversation seems to ignore one crucial point – Fresno is going to move from Carr to a new face, and the decline in pass-game production is going to be severe.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

San Diego State: The division is coming down to one of these two teams, though San Jose State and Nevada might believe otherwise. That the Aztecs come to Fresno gives the Bulldogs a distinct advantage. But the schedule's not easy: Fresno opens with USC, Utah and Nebraska, gets a brief lull, hosts SDSU, takes on Boise on the road and meets SJSU and Nevada in a two-week span in November.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: Let's get this out of the way: Fresno State's winning another West Division title. There's too much firepower in place despite the losses, despite the changing cast and despite the question marks – the Bulldogs aren't perfect, but this is the best team in the division and one of the top teams in the entire Mountain West, along with Boise State, Utah State and San Diego State. It's a tough division in total, given that Nevada should regain some sense of competitiveness, but the Bulldogs have what it takes to defend last year's conference title.

But this team seems set for a step back – this seems clear. And not just in the win column, where it'd be nearly impossible to match last year's 11-win finish; Fresno seems weaker in general, if still strong enough to remain a contender for eight victories during the regular season. When it comes to the win column, the Bulldogs are negatively impacted by four names: USC, Utah, Nebraska and Boise State. It's difficult to imagine a scenario where Fresno takes more than one game from this quartet; for starters, remember that the Trojans, Utes and Cornhuskers come right off the bat, and that only Nebraska comes at home. Yes, this will be a weaker team in the standings.

The program as a whole must prepare for a slight – and temporary – decline. The offense lacks answers at quarterback, if only due to Carr's lost production; Connette is a gamer, for lack of a better word, but the passing game will dip precipitously. The receiver corps seems slapdash as of today, though the group could come together with a strong fall camp. The offensive line is clearly weaker; remember that Wentworth anchored a group that performed historically well in protection a year ago. The Bulldogs' attack has a great leader in Schramm, but he'll need to work wonders to make this work. The defense will carry some of the water, but not quite enough. I see Fresno reaching the MWC title game, but this strikes me as a team that wins seven or eight games during the regular season.

Dream season: Fresno State loses to USC, Nebraska and Boise State, but wins against SDSU and Nevada secure the West Division.

Nightmare season: The Bulldogs slide back to six wins and only barely eke into the postseason.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 50? This team's coach plays against his brother, an assistant for another team, every year during conference play.

RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014

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