FRESNO, Calif. -- Derek Carr first donned a Fresno State jersey on television at the age of 10. Seated next to his older brother, David, for a local news interview -- with a baseball cap on backward and a football in his hand -- Derek eloquently made his case for David, the Bulldogs' quarterback, to win the 2001 Heisman Trophy.
Twelve years later, Derek is now the star quarterback for Fresno State. The Bakersfield, Calif., native rooted for the Bulldogs before, during and after his brother's career at the school from 1997 to 2001. While unlikely to replicate David's fifth-place Heisman finish, Derek has led this year's team to the brink of two goals his brother's '01 team couldn't achieve: an undefeated season and a BCS bowl berth.
"I'm arguably the biggest Fresno State football fan there is, and I just happen to play quarterback here," said Derek. "It's hard because I'm playing right now, but if I was on the outside looking in as a fan, [this season] would be the coolest thing ever."
The Bulldogs' 9-0 start and No. 15 ranking is particularly cool in California's Central Valley, an agricultural hub where Fresno State football is the only game in town. On a recent weeknight at Dog House Grill -- a popular haunt across from campus that serves a mouth-watering tri-tip sandwich -- the patrons at one table discussed who in their group had tickets for Saturday's game against New Mexico. For much of the following day, a steady stream of customers stopped by a ticket hut outside Bulldog Stadium. Many here have already begun dreaming about spending New Year's in Arizona in the event Fresno State plays in the Fiesta Bowl.
"They've seen Boise have success and do it, they've seen Utah have success and do it, and I think people here in the Valley say, Why not us?" said Tim DeRuyter, the Bulldogs' second-year head coach. "We're on the cusp of it right now. The fervor in the Valley would be over the top if we were to accomplish something like that."
If only the rest of the country were so eager to see Fresno State on a BCS stage.
Back in 2001, the Bulldogs were briefly the toast of college football. David graced the cover of Sports Illustrated after leading Fresno State to early-season upsets of Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin. Coach Pat Hill's program, which operated according to the motto, "Anyone, anytime, anywhere," was poised to become the first-ever BCS buster, rising as high as seventh in that year's standings before then-unheralded Boise State ended its run. Hill stayed on for another decade, but he never again led the Bulldogs to the same level of national prominence. Schools like Boise, Utah, Hawaii and TCU crashed the system instead.
This week, the BCS ranks DeRuyter's team one spot ahead of fellow mid-major powerhouse Northern Illinois. The Bulldogs will likely land the elusive bid if they win three more games. They must finish ahead of the Huskies and either crack the top 12 or remain ahead of the lowest-ranked AQ-conference champion (currently No. 18 UCF). Reaction to this possibility outside the Valley is at best indifference, at worst disgust.
Perhaps that's because Fresno lacks a signature nonconference win. This year's season-opening foe, Rutgers, has slunk to a 5-4 record. The Bulldogs' other scheduled game against an AQ-conference opponent, at Colorado on Sept. 14, was canceled due to a flood. (A victory in that game probably wouldn't have helped; the Buffaloes are currently 4-6.) Even Fresno's first win in eight years over Mountain West rival Boise State (now 7-3) came against a Broncos team regarded as the weakest of coach Chris Petersen's tenure.
Perhaps the Bulldogs have been largely written off because they needed last-second heroics to defeat several of their mediocre opponents. Their victories over the Scarlet Knights (52-51 in double overtime) and Boise State (41-40) were both nail-biters. Against San Diego State (now 6-4) on Oct. 26, Fresno State blocked a field-goal attempt on the final play of regulation to stay alive in a game that the Bulldogs went on to win 35-28 in overtime. Even Hawaii (now 0-10), which trailed Fresno 42-3 late in the third quarter, came back to narrowly lose 42-37 on Sept. 29.
Or perhaps the Bulldogs are dismissed because of the backlash against non-AQ teams that came out of one-loss Northern Illinois' controversial inclusion in the BCS last season. The Huskies lost to Florida State 31-10 in the Orange Bowl.
Advanced metrics suggest that Fresno is in fact far from the 15th-best team in the country. Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings (which include margin of victory) have the Bulldogs 53rd, one spot ahead of 5-5 Pittsburgh. Football Outsiders' F/+ efficiency ratings, which account for strength of schedule, have them 45th, one spot above 4-6 Northwestern.
Of course, Fresno State's players offer a different opinion.
"I actually think we're better than [15th]," said sophomore wide receiver and Biletnikoff Award semifinalist Davante Adams. "There's teams that have lost two games that are above us. I don't really understand the way they construct the ranking system."
"We like being the underdog," said Carr. "We like when people think less of us. There's a lot of guys on this team that felt they should have been recruited by Pac-12 and SEC schools but they [weren't], so we like proving people wrong."
One thing that's indisputable is that these Bulldogs are fun to watch. Carr, running DeRuyter's fast-paced offense, is averaging more than 50 pass attempts per game. With the help of a talented receiving corps -- led by Adams (107.4 yards per game), junior Josh Harper (91.4) and senior Isaiah Burse (72.4) -- Carr has completed 69.5 percent of his throws for an impressive 3,421 yards and 32 touchdowns, with just four interceptions. He's widely projected as a first-round NFL draft pick.
"I think he's as good as there is in the country," said DeRuyter, formerly the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. "A lot of people ask me to compare him to [former Aggies, and current Miami Dolphins, starter] Ryan Tannehill. "Arm strength is very comparable. Accuracy, Derek's got a much quicker release. He's got a moxie about him that's a little bit different than Ryan's. Derek's got a little bit more of a gunslinger mentality that resonates a little bit more in the huddle."
As for the defense, well, that's not Fresno State's forte. But it's getting better. A unit that entered the season looking to replace two standout linebackers and All-America safety Phillip Thomas now ranks 50th nationally, allowing 5.37 yards per play. The Bulldogs' defense gave up an inordinate number of big plays early in the season, but in Fresno's last game, a 48-10 victory at Wyoming on Nov. 9, the unit held Cowboys quarterback Brett Smith to 141 passing yards, about half his season average (271). As coordinator Nick Toth emphasizes, the defense has also made critical late-game stops.
"There were points in the game against Rutgers and Boise where we played really, really good," said Toth. "And then you have two series of really bad defense -- like, you're watching those plays afterward and thinking, oh man, I'm embarrassed to be coaching that. And then they come back the next series and play their butt off to finish the game."
It's all part of the fun.
"The ride's been nuts," said Toth. "As many games as we've had where we're on the field at the end to win, our kids come bouncing out like puppy dogs -- 'What've you got, coach?' [I tell them] 'There's like 17 seconds left, you've got a play to win, do you guys realize that?' They're like, 'Whatever.'"
After bottoming out at 4-9 in Hill's 15th and final campaign in 2011 -- the program's first losing season since '98 -- Fresno improved to 9-4 last year under DeRuyter. Then SMU crushed the Bulldogs 43-10 in the Hawaii Bowl. Still, with 15 returning starters, led by Carr and the receivers, DeRuyter and his staff did not shy away from the possibility of a 12-0 mark this fall.
"Last January as we looked at this year and the guys we had coming back, we thought we had a chance to be pretty good," DeRuyter said. "We kind of anticipated this could happen early in the year."
Fresno State follows this week's game against 3-7 New Mexico with a Nov. 29 trip to 5-5 San Jose State. If the Bulldogs win at least one of those, they will host the first Mountain West title game on Dec. 7, which will more than likely be a rematch with Boise State. Because of the Colorado cancellation, Fresno State will play only 11 regular-season games. Unless BCS voters downgrade the Bulldogs after another close call, they should remain ahead of NIU in the standings.
With three more wins, Fresno will finally achieve the dream that eluded Hill for a more than a decade. Whether or not the rest of the country embraces the Bulldogs, they'll have at least one diehard fan in Atlanta.
"I'm proud of them. I'd love to see them get what they deserve," said Hill, now the Falcons offensive line coach, who regularly texts with DeRuyter and stays in touch with the Carrs. "I hope they finish the job, and I believe they will."
This time, Derek Carr won't have to lobby for the prize.