For the Kent State Golden Flashes and the Fresno State Bulldogs, the taste of prosperity is a distant memory. The value of a rare opportunity is as enormous as the extent to which each program has declined over the past few years.
As a new season begins in the MAC and the Mountain West, these two schools — Kent and Fresno — share the same state of being. They’re trying like heck to climb back up the mountain, filled with urgency and the accompanying knowledge that life could have been so different … if only they had pounced on their chances when they arrived.
College football is a cruel beast for nearly every school other than the ones coached by Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, and Jimbo Fisher. The sport still offers considerable riches to dozens of Power Five schools, but in the Group of Five universe, college football is a very nasty mistress.
Kent State and Fresno State are prime examples.
The lesson the Golden Flashes and Bulldogs know all too well is that in the lower reaches of college football’s power structure, big opportunities have to be seized when they’re most attainable. Missing out in one isolated instance often means that a program won’t get a second chance in which to hit the big time.
Boise State won the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. Had it lost, BSU might not have gained additional weight and centrality in the college football community. Had Utah not beaten Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, would the Utes have gone to the Pac-12? Maybe … but it’s harder to render a definitive answer. Would The American have come into existence if Houston had won the 2011 Conference USA Championship Game over Southern Miss, thereby giving C-USA its first BCS bowl appearance and the financial windfall that would have accompanied it?
Single-season teams, schools in a larger context, coaches, players — they all know that some chances to rewrite history don’t return if they’re not claimed at the first offering.
Such is the case for Kent State and Fresno State, these “United States” of sadness.
Kent State could taste it.
Darrell Hazell might have been out the door to Purdue regardless of what his Golden Flashes accomplished at the end of the 2013 season, but Hazell — not Dave Doeren — could have been remembered in history as the first coach to lead a MAC team to a BCS bowl. Kent State was thisclose to beating Northern Illinois in the 2012 MAC Championship Game in Detroit. Had the Flashes foiled the Huskies, they might have taken NIU’s place in the 2013 Orange Bowl against Florida State.
No, NIU has not become a Boise State-level power — the Huskies were demolished by the Broncos in the 2015 Poinsettia Bowl — but the school in DeKalb, Illinois, has maintained its place as a division-winning MAC machine, a program of substance and consequence in its own corner of the country. Rod Carey has continued what Doeren developed, and what Jerry Kill and Joe Novak started. The 2012 MAC Championship Game contains real-world resonance, even today.
Kent State — a school where a national championship-winning coach, Don James, got his career start — came so close to the big time in 2012.
Kent State — a school where the sport’s best active coach, Nick Saban, played as a defensive back — almost made history for the MAC.
The larger experience of the 2012 season was hopeful, exciting, and a generator of optimism for the future. Even though Hazell left for a Power Five job, the program wasn’t the same as it was when he arrived. If NIU could sustain itself, why couldn’t Kent?
Clearly, no two programs are created equal. More precisely, no two programs are reshaped in equal ways, either.
Kent State has floundered under new coach Paul Haynes over the past three seasons. The Golden Flashes haven’t won more than four games in any season. The barrenness of the program is impossible to ignore.
That’s what often happens for college football’s underclass when “that one opportunity” isn’t seized.
Fresno State can relate.
The Fresno State Bulldogs entered their next-to-last regular season game of the 2013 college football season with an unblemished record. Coach Tim DeRuyter’s team was unbeaten when it took the field on Thanksgiving Friday against San Jose State. Fresno State proceeded to score 52 points on that afternoon in Silicon Valley. Quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams powered the Bulldogs, just as they had for the previous three months.
The problem? Quarterback David Fales of San Jose State torched Fresno State’s defense more than Carr hammered the Spartans’ secondary. Fresno State fell, 62-52, losing its chance to make a BCS bowl.
In the subsequent two seasons — 2014 and 2015 — the Bulldogs have lost 17 total games, no fewer than eight in each.
DeRuyter means business. He hired two new coordinators and several other assistants in the offseason. We documented his attempt to hit the reset button in “The Valley,” as it is called.
That insistence on improvement doesn’t mean improvement will happen, however.
Fresno State, like Kent State, arrived at an intersection of risk and glory a few years ago. The Bulldogs and Golden Flashes were stopped and forced to follow a detour. They still haven’t made their way to the promised land now known as the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl slot.
College football is cruel to a lot of programs. Few have felt the searing emptiness of “almost” in this sport over the past few years as much as Kent State and Fresno State.
We’ll see if these States of agony can begin to engineer the transformations they so desperately want to achieve.