The West division looks like it’ll be a fight every single week, but the Fresno State Bulldogs figure to be a contender.

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How do the Bulldogs stack up?

ESPN’s Bill Connelly released his preseason SP+ rankings for the 2021 football season last month and, at least on paper, the advanced analytics paint a fairly rosy picture for the Fresno State Bulldogs, who had an up-and-down 2020 campaign while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though sitting at 78th may not appear that impressive on its face, these same Bulldogs began 94th in these same preseason rankings a year ago and proved that their offensive potency couldn’t be overlooked despite the unusual circumstance of playing football during a pandemic.

Looking for more reason to be optimistic? Fresno State also returns more total production than any team in the conference but Wyoming. It all makes for a 2021 Bulldogs squad that, given last year’s context, looks every bit a contender for the Mountain West crown.

August 28 – vs. Connecticut (127): The Huskies never got the chance to begin their journey into independence last fall, choosing instead to forgo the 2020 season entirely. While this season’s transfer portal exodus wasn’t nearly as drastic as last year’s, it’s going to take some time for Randy Edsall to work his magic a second time at UConn. Record: 1-0

September 4 – at Oregon (5): Other programs borrow the “anyone, anytime, anywhere” ethos from time to time, but the Bulldogs definitely live it year in and year out. This year’s toughest task is another trip to Autzen Stadium, where the Ducks look like the Pac-12’s best hopes for a College Football Playoff bid this fall. The projection came out before quarterback Tyler Slough decided to transfer to Texas Tech, but even with him and anchors like offensive tackle Penei Sewell, the Bulldogs will be longshots to score their first road win in Eugene since 1982. Record: 1-1

September 11 – vs. Cal Poly (NR): The Mustangs never got to begin the Beau Baldwin era last fall, but Bulldogs fans can get plenty of looks at Cal Poly over the next couple months in Big Sky spring play. If history is any indication, you can expect to see an offense that wants to spread the ball around through the air, which could pose headaches for the Bulldogs if the defense has a sluggish start, but Fresno State’s own attack should be able to have its own way, anyway. Record: 2-1

September 18 – at UCLA (21): Is this the year that Chip Kelly finally puts everything together in Westwood? If SP+ is to be believed, the Bruins should be able to light up scoreboards week in and week out since, on offense, UCLA (7th) is projected to be even better than Oregon (8th). Kelly’s Bruins also bring back more production overall than any team in the country but Louisiana, so you’d think they’re primed for some kind of breakthrough. Record: 2-2

September 25 – vs. UNLV (123): The Bulldogs let the Rebels hang around for a little while in last year’s matchup, but the difference between the two teams, which is likely to be true again in 2021, is depth on both sides of the ball. That, and UNLV’s defense has a lot to prove before you can look at this as more than a wild mismatch. Record: 3-2

October 2 – at Hawaii (105): In retrospect, Hawaii stealing the season opener against the Bulldogs was one of the 2020 season’s more surprising results. Fresno State was never more error-prone on offense than they were at the start of the season, so while Hawaii could manage to make this forthcoming round a game of limited possessions, it’s okay to be comfortable with the idea that the Bulldogs will find ways to maximize their chances. Record: 4-2

October 16 – at Wyoming (80): Now we’re talking. Both teams here rightfully have conference title aspirations, meaning this pivot point could depend on who comes out on top in the “strength vs. strength” element that exists on paper. Fresno State’s preseason projection on offense puts them at 55th overall, while the Cowboys rank 42th on defense. It may not look like one of the conference’s most important matchups of the year, but it definitely is. Record: 5-2

October 23 – vs. Nevada (74): Get your popcorn ready. If you’re looking for one game to bet the mortgage on the over in Vegas, this is probably it. Last year’s COVID-related strangeness and late-season injury luck put the Bulldogs at a disadvantage, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see this one go down the wire in a more typical point-splosion. Record: 5-3

October 30 – at San Diego State (84): The battle for the Oil Can was one of last season’s more unfortunate casualties, but the rivalry figures to be as hotly contested as ever. The problem for the Aztecs, at least on paper right now, is that the preseason outlook for their offense is as tepid as ever and they have to replace numerous stars in their lethal secondary. Even if you give them the benefit of the doubt (and you probably should), Fresno State should be able to handle their business here. Record: 6-3

November 6 – vs. Boise State (39): Is it cliche to say you should throw out the record books when these two teams tangle? The last three games between the Bulldogs and Broncos were decided by one score, and while Boise State has the conference’s best outlook by SP+, they do have a lot to replace on the defensive side of the ball in particular. Last year’s trials by fire could pay dividends in 2021 for the men in blue, but don’t be shocked if the SP+ between these two are much closer by the week of kickoff. Record: 6-4

November 13 – vs. New Mexico (124): The Lobos stole a victory from a depleted Bulldogs squad at the end of 2020 but, in early March, it’d be a shock (no pun intended) if lightning struck twice for Danny Gonzales and company. A number of defensive contributors have departed through the transfer portal and while Gonzales has done good work on the recruiting trail himself, Fresno State should right themselves in the win column here. Record: 7-4

November 27 – at San Jose State (78): The Valley Trophy rivalry could definitely reach a fever pitch in 2021, with so many offensive stars on both sidelines in this game. Don’t be surprised if it devolves into a shootout, but that could mean the Spartans have trouble containing a Bulldogs passing game that, on paper, has no real weaknesses while preparing the season ahead. Record: 8-4

Like a number of other Mountain West teams, SP+ sees many contenders in a tight grouping from which any of them could emerge with the right breaks. 8-4 doesn’t look like the record of a conference champion, but sweeping through conference play isn’t out of the question for Fresno State. Ten wins is on the table, especially if the defense can best its preseason projections, and maybe more if the Bulldogs get lucky in addition to being good.