FRESNO, Calif. -- Last Saturday, Derek Carr did something he is almost never permitted the luxury of doing: He sat on his couch with his wife and his month-old son, and he watched a college football game. At the last minute, due to prodigious flooding in Boulder, Fresno State's game against Colorado was postponed. It was an odd thing, Carr admits, to be packed and prepared, to cram all that information into your head and then to literally go nowhere with it. So he went home and he watched Alabama play Texas A&M from the CBS all-22 camera view, and he read the Tide's coverages and pointed them out to his (mostly disinterested) wife, and he thought to himself, How great would it be to compete against a team like that?
It wasn't that Derek Carr didn't have a choice. Somewhere, he still has a handwritten letter he received from Les Miles. You name a major college program, and Carr probably drew interest from it at some point, and maybe if he signs somewhere else, he's competing against teams like that every week this season. But Derek Carr chose Fresno because Fresno felt like home, because his brother David went to Fresno (and then on into the NFL as a No. 1 draft pick), because it seemed like the right place for him. And this is the primary reason you may not know that David Carr has a brother, let alone that he's one of the most promising quarterback prospects in the country: Because Derek Carr chose Fresno. And he hopes someday that maybe one of his nephews, and maybe even his son, could someday play quarterback here, too. "I like the idea of keeping it in the family," he says.
On Friday night on ESPN, the Bulldogs will host Boise State, and it is a game that will most likely decide the champion of the Mountain West Conference -- although there could be a rematch in the conference title game -- and this may not mean much to you, either, because the champion of the Mountain West does not automatically qualify for a BCS bowl game. It is possible if, as rumored, the rules of college football are changed and the automatic-qualifying conferences break off into their own division, that the Mountain West schools will be left behind to compete in a separate division. Which means that this game, and this season, may be the last best chance for Fresno State to compete on a direct level against a team like the ones Derek Carr watched on Saturday. It is possible that this could be the greatest season in the history of Fresno State football, and it is possible that it will never be repeated again.
* * *
It is roughly three hours from San Francisco to Fresno, and roughly three hours from Los Angeles to Fresno. It is a small city located in an inland section of California known as the Central Valley, where it is typically hot and dry and the sun beats overhead during afternoon practice. The campus is surrounded by strip malls and four-lane highways; the stadium holds 41,000 people, less than half of the crowd who watched A&M-Alabama at Kyle Field last weekend. It is, frankly, not the most exciting place to play college football (though Friday's game is already nearing a sellout), but Carr is kind of beyond the excitement these days. He goes to school, he goes to practice, he watches film, and he goes home to his family.
I don't know if Johnny Manziel really requires a personal antithesis, but if you are the type of intensive moralist who desires such a thing, Derek Carr may be your guy. He is unfailingly polite and preternaturally mature: At age 22, he's spent the last month worrying and praying over his son, who has had several surgeries to correct an intestinal condition (the most recent came about a week ago). He's been studying game film since he was a pre-teen, living near his brother after David (who was recently cut by the New York Giants after 11 seasons in the NFL) became the first overall pick in the 2002 draft by the expansion Houston Texans. Once, when David was getting ready to play the Jacksonville Jaguars, he let his little brother play the hypothetical quarterback, and, Derek says, "I think I wound up with eight concussions, 13 sacks and eight picks."
Despite his failure to live up to his draft status (largely due to the circumstantial disaster of being a quarterback on a fledgling NFL team), David Carr was respected enough for his work ethic that prickly Giants coach Tom Coughlin, upon cutting him, admitted, "We'll miss David Carr around here, to be honest with you." The brothers are tight (David lives in nearby Bakersfield), and they are devout Christians, and the most controversial thing they may have ever done was hang a Boise State flag in Derek's apartment with the idea that it couldn't be taken down until a quarterback named Carr led Fresno to a win over Boise, which is something the Bulldogs have done only once in 12 games since 2001. But this may be their best chance to eclipse Boise since 2001, when Fresno climbed as high as number eight in the national polls and David was on the cover of Sports Illustrated -- under the headline "Fresno?" -- and there was speculation that the Bulldogs might become the first "mid-major" school to qualify for a BCS bid. That time, the whole thing ended with 35-30 loss to Boise; and this time, Derek Carr and his teammates and his coach, Tim DeRuyter, are very cautious not to make anything about this upcoming game into a personal battle (though Derek did admit to me that Boise coach Chris Petersen recruited his current quarterback, Joe Southwick, instead of him).
"We're not trying to make it into too much," free safety Derron Smith told me. "Coach told us to block out the outside noise. They're another non-AQ school, like us. And other schools are always gonna feel like they have that higher power over an non-AQ school."
* * *
Still, the implications of this game are obvious. In the season-opener, a manic 52-51 win over Rutgers, Carr threw 73 passes in Fresno's hurry-up offense and he completed 52, for 456 yards and five touchdowns. On the first play of overtime, Carr read a blitz, audibled and lofted a pass to a streaking receiver for a touchdown. "He doesn't do that," offensive coordinator Dave Schramm told me, "and he gets hit in the back of the head. But that's Derek. He loves watching film. He pores over it."
If he performs like that this Friday, and he does it on national television against Boise, then Carr is a potential Heisman contender, and the road to a 12-0 season is laid out before the Bulldogs, and a BCS bid becomes a very real possibility. That question -- "Fresno?" -- goes national again. And if the question is answered satisfactorily this time, if Derek Carr finishes this season in a way his brother could not, maybe Fresno becomes the standard-bearer for the mid-majors like Boise was in years past. Maybe the momentum even allows Fresno (and/or Boise) to wrangle an invite into an automatic-qualifying FBS conference before the window potentially closes, which is getting very far ahead of things, I know, but stranger things have happened in the midst of all the conference roulette of these past few years.
And this Fresno team appears to be blessed by luck, at least at this early juncture: A week after that win over Rutgers, the Bulldogs ran a hook-and-lateral that ended with a 306-pound offensive lineman named Austin Wentworth rumbling down the sideline for perhaps the most purely enjoyable touchdown of the season. It was a play they'd had saved up since last year's Hawaii Bowl loss to SMU, and granted, it was against Cal Poly, but the moment seemed right, and Schramm saw an opening. "We want to try to make it fun for these guys," he said.
There is, of course, no room for error here. This is the plight of mid-major, the non-AQ: Either you are perfect, or you are irrelevant. Even now, if the Bulldogs beat Boise and run the table, people will excoriate them for playing a tight game against Rutgers. There may never be answer to that question -- "Fresno? -- that will satisfy everyone, but at some level, Derek Carr doesn't care. He is home, with his wife and his son and a wall where that Boise State flag used to hang, until it got ripped down by his dog.