Fresno State trying to break from ``have-not'' status

Updated: August 29, 2003, 2:21 AM ET

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Fresno State coach Pat Hill isn't really crazy.

He wants to open the 2003 season against No. 12 Tennessee, Oregon State and top-ranked Oklahoma because he has big dreams for his Bulldogs.

"We are trying to find out where our program ranks with the big guys," Hill said.

Without playing programs in BCS conferences, Hill doesn't believe a school from the WAC or a similar mid-level league has a chance at competing for a national title.

"Every time (the Tennessee Volunteers) line up they play in the hopes of playing for a national championship. I know it is a long shot for us to do it; I know it is a very, very big long shot. But you might as well take a shot at it," he said.

Fresno State, which plays at Tennessee on Saturday, has been trying to crack into the big-time with tough openers: Colorado in 1998 and 2001, Ohio State in 2000 and Wisconsin last season.

The Bulldogs began the 2001 season with wins over Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin and beat Georgia Tech in last year's Silicon Valley Bowl.

The only other time the Bulldogs have played a Southeastern Conference team was in 1996 when Auburn handed them a 62-0 loss.

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

"We know we can't take them lightly no matter what league or conference they are in," Tennessee receiver Mark Jones said. "We have to treat them like they're in the SEC."

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 will be opening the season without quarterback Paul Pinegar as its starter. Hill said Pinegar will dress out but might not play at all because of a torn right pectoral muscle which makes it difficult for him 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.

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

The trick for Fresno State will be getting the ball to their playmakers behind an inexperienced offensive line. Only two starters have played in a Division I game.

Senior Bernard Berrian is the most well-known 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 former Tennessee star Carl Pickens and called him "a big fine athlete who can run."

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

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

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