Fresno State tries to boost image by playing Tennessee

Updated: August 28, 2003, 8:21 PM ET

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Fresno State coach Pat Hill has an explanation for opening the 2003 season against No. 12 Tennessee, Oregon State and top-ranked Oklahoma.

He has big dreams for his Bulldogs.

"In this day of college football, you have the haves and the have-nots," Hill said. "We are one of those teams that is in a league that doesn't have a lot of money coming in -- be it from television contracts or bowl games."

Fresno State plays in the Western Athletic Conference, which is not part of the BCS, so Hill figures the Bulldogs' nonconference schedule must be as tough as possible to make it to an important bowl game.

So Fresno State will travel to Tennessee on Saturday for the teams' first-ever meeting.

"I think this is the best football team we have played against to this date," Hill said. "They don't get much better."

The only other Southeastern Conference team the Bulldogs have played is Auburn in 1996 -- a 62-0 drubbing.

While oddsmakers have picked the Bulldogs as 21-point underdogs, the Volunteers have only respect for their WAC opponent.

Tennessee knows all about Fresno State's 30-21 victory over Georgia Tech in the Silicon Valley Bowl and how the Bulldogs opened the 2001 season with wins over Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin. Fresno State lost to Colorado in its 1998 opener, to Ohio State in 2000 and Wisconsin last year.

"We know they play a lot of big-time programs. Most of the time they upset a lot of them," Tennessee receiver Mark Jones said. "We know we can't take them lightly no matter what league or conference they are in. We have to treat them like they're in the SEC."

And that's just what the Bulldogs want to hear.

"Everyone has their own opinion," Fresno State linebacker Marc Dailey said this week when asked about being an underdog. "Mine is obviously different than the so-called experts. I don't know what Tennessee has that we don't."

Fresno State learned this week its starting quarterback Paul Pinegar will not start against Tennessee and may not play at all because of a torn right pectoral muscle, making it difficult to throw long passes.

Senior Jeff Grady will replace Pinegar. Grady was the starter last year but was injured and lost his job to Pinegar.

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer doesn't believe the change in quarterbacks will make much difference.

"The two quarterbacks have very similar styles. (Grady) is probably a little more mobile, but the system is not going to change," Fulmer said. "They are fortunate to have a backup of his caliber."

Experience could also be a factor in the game.

Now that right tackle Logan Mankins is out for the year with a torn ligament in his left knee, only two of Fresno State's starters on the offensive line have played in a Division I game. Mankins had started in every game the past two seasons.

Tennessee's offensive line has four seniors and junior left tackle Michael Munoz, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz who has started every game he's played in since his freshman year.

Fulmer believes Fresno State has plenty of playmakers, however.

"The receiving corps as a whole is probably the best we'll play against this year in my opinion," he said.

Senior Bernard Berrian is the most-talked-about receiver Fresno State has, but he missed all last season with a knee injury. In 2001, he averaged 17.5 yards each time he had the ball as a receiver, rusher or kick returner.

Even though he has seen tape of Berrian from just a few games, Fulmer compares the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Berrian to Tennessee's Carl Pickens, "a big fine athlete who can run." Drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals, Pickens was the 1992 NFL rookie of the year.

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On the Net:

Fresno State football: http://www.gobulldogs.com

Tennessee football: http://utsports.ocsn.com

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index