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1. Staying awake
My first 2013 preview was for a team making its FBS debut: Georgia State. In it, I said the following:
The state of Georgia produced more FBS-level players than all but four states. It produced more than Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas combined. But while Texas, California, Florida and Ohio all have a multitude of FBS programs large and small, Georgia has just two. Well, Georgia had just two. Now there are three.
Really, if you were building a FBS program from scratch, wouldn't Atlanta be just about the best possible location? Atlanta is for all intents and purposes the capital of college football, and GSU won't have to go far to locate talent.
A couple of weeks after that piece, I published a Q&A with new Colorado (and former San Jose State) head coach Mike MacIntyre and asked him why he took the SJSU job in 2010:
I wasn’t even thinking about it, and they called me. I had been out there recruiting for other schools, but I really started looking at San Jose State then. I realized there were only seven Division I [FBS] schools in California. I felt like the supply and demand, the ability to get players there, was extremely good. I felt we could recruit and be successful.
When it came time to write the San Diego State preview, these two pieces came into my mind for what are probably obvious reasons: San Diego State has almost no excuse to ever stink at football. The resources are all lined up. The school doesn't have to go far to find interesting talent, and while the Aztecs aren't going to beat out USC, UCLA, et cetera, for the top-level guys, the second-level guys are awfully good. With a decent commitment and the right hire, SDSU should be somewhere between competitive and good in most seasons.
The key word there, of course, is "should." SDSU hasn't been very good for much of its FBS history. The Aztecs caught fire in the 1970s, first under Don Coryell, then under Claude Gilbert -- they were ranked in parts of four seasons and lost one or fewer games five times between 1969 and 1977, but they went better than 6-5 just twice in the 1980s and four times in the 1990s, and between 2000 and 2008, Ted Tollner, Tom Craft, and Chuck Long combined to average 3.8 wins per season.
SDSU had been to four bowl games in its history before it hired Brady Hoke in 2009; it has now been to three in a row. Hoke stayed for only two years before moving on to Michigan, but to hire Hoke away from his alma mater (Ball State) in the first place probably required proof of improved commitment, and in replacing him with defensive coordinator (and former New Mexico coach) Rocky Long, the program found a solid combination of commitment and quality hires. It is now reaping the rewards. The Aztecs have been good, average, and good again in the last three years and have almost won more games in three seasons (26) than they had in the previous seven (28), and recruiting has picked up to an impressive degree.
This sleeping (medium-sized) giant appears to be awake. Now it has to prove it can stay awake.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 44|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||at Washington||12-21||L||27.5 - 29.2||L|
|8-Sep||Army||42-7||W||29.7 - 17.5||W|
|15-Sep||North Dakota||49-41||W||45.8 - 39.3||W|
|22-Sep||San Jose State||34-38||L||36.6 - 30.2||W|
|29-Sep||at Fresno State||40-52||L||32.8 - 40.8||L|
|6-Oct||Hawaii||52-14||W||29.7 - 22.5||W|
|13-Oct||Colorado State||38-14||W||39.9 - 25.1||W|
|20-Oct||at Nevada||39-38||W||22.7 - 23.6||L|
|27-Oct||UNLV||24-13||W||30.2 - 30.9||L|
|3-Nov||at Boise State||21-19||W||25.9 - 19.3||W|
|10-Nov||Air Force||28-9||W||18.7 - 16.8||W|
|24-Nov||at Wyoming||42-28||W||39.7 - 27.5||W|
|20-Dec||vs. BYU||6-23||L||22.4 - 16.4||W|
|Points Per Game||32.8||36||24.4||43|
|Adj. Points Per Game||30.9||45||26.1||47|
2. The game changed
When SDSU won nine games in 2010, it was powered by a dynamic, balanced offense that ranked 18th in Off. F/+. The Aztecs regressed on both sides of the ball in 2011 but bounced back last fall, from 66th to 56th in Off. F/+ and from 64th to 36th in Def. F/+. Midway through the 2012 season, however, the balance of a given SDSU game shifted from shootout to grind-it-out.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): SDSU 34.5, Opponent 31.4 (plus-4.1)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 8 games): SDSU 28.7, Opponent 22.8 (plus-5.9)
Following three straight explosive games (a 49-41 win over North Dakota and losses of 38-34 and 52-40 to SJSU and Fresno State), the Aztec defense began to find its way in the sixth game of the season. Meanwhile, quarterback Ryan Katz was lost for the year early in the Nevada game, and the offense lost its consistency. The result: a few defensive-minded wins over the last half of the season. SDSU beat UNLV by just a 24-13 margin, shut down Air Force, 28-9, and lost the bowl game with former MWC rival BYU by a 23-6 score.
But despite offensive issues, SDSU also scored a program-defining win of sorts: a 21-19 win at Boise State. No, the Boise State of 2012 was not the Boise State we have come to know, but this was still just the second home loss for the Broncos on the blue field since early 2001 (third if you count a 2005 bowl loss to Boston College on that field). It's a big deal. And it showed that, even when beset by a pretty significant injury, the SDSU program was deep enough to not only compete, but potentially beat good teams away from home.
|Q1 Rk||66||1st Down Rk||37|
|Q2 Rk||31||2nd Down Rk||63|
|Q3 Rk||33||3rd Down Rk||44|
3. Doubling down on the run
Despite the loss of running back Ronnie Hillman to the Denver Broncos, SDSU went extremely run-heavy in 2012. They did so even more in the latter half of the season, with the backup quarterback in charge and an improved defense in their back pocket. The Aztecs' nearly 50-50 run-pass split on passing downs was one of the highest ratios in the country; among non-Flexbone teams, SDSU ran less frequently than only four teams (New Mexico, Oregon, Ohio State, Northwestern) on such downs. With explosive running back Adam Muema leading the charge, SDSU was able to protect its backup and stay out of third-and-long disasters, surviving to see another possession.
It's not immediately clear that things will be any different this time around. That improved defense could be even better in 2013, and Muema returns. Plus, SDSU's top two safety-valve receiving options -- tight end Gavin Escobar and receiver Brice Butler -- are gone.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Adam Dingwell||6'4, 210||Jr.||** (5.4)||83||144||939||57.6%||8||7||12||7.7%||5.6|
|Chad Jeffries||6'2, 200||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Darryl Richardson||6'5, 220||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
4. Do your line some favors
For SDSU's system, Ryan Katz was a pretty good quarterback. He wasn't great, but he was safe in the passing game, with a suitably low interception rate, and he chose good times to tuck and run with the ball, averaging 9.1 yards per carry over about six to seven carries per game (not including sacks). He was solid in the play-action, and he seemed to be a good fit overall.
But wow, did he take a lot of sacks. If he hadn't broken his ankle against Nevada, he'd have quite possibly ended up getting sacked a Tino Sunseri-esque 40+ times. When Dingwell took over, he dropped that sack rate a bit, but he was also a lot less effective throwing the ball, and any sack rate over about five percent means you're taking too many hits. His sack rate was still 7.7 percent.
It appears Dingwell will be the starter this fall, and despite the presence of a new offensive coordinator (Bob Toledo; yes, that Bob Toledo), one can expect another heavy dose of the ground game. But Dingwell is still going to have to pass, and his ability to avoid sacks and prevent disasters will be a determining factor in just how much SDSU can get away with running the ball and moving the chains. SDSU's line had downright awesome rankings on the ground -- this may have been the best mid-major line in the country in terms of run-blocking -- and awful rankings in pass protection, but when the ranks are that far apart, you can probably pin some of the Sack Rate, for better or worse, on the quarterback. For SDSU in 2012, that was very much worse.
|Adam Muema||RB||5'10, 205||Jr.||*** (5.6)||237||1,458||6.2||6.1||16||+24.8|
|Adam Dingwell||QB||6'4, 210||Jr.||** (5.4)||31||170||5.5||3.4||1||+0.6|
|Chase Price||RB||5'8, 200||So.||** (5.4)||29||114||3.9||2.8||1||-3.3|
|Dwayne Garrett||RB||6'0, 205||So.||*** (5.5)||7||30||4.3||1.5||0||-1.0|
|Donnell Pumphrey||RB||5'9, 170||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
|Colin Lockett||WR-Z||6'0, 180||Sr.||** (5.1)||38||20||293||52.6%||7.7||13.0%||47.4%||8.3||47.1|
|Ezell Ruffin||WR-X||6'1, 205||Jr.||** (5.4)||34||17||319||50.0%||9.4||11.6%||67.6%||9.0||51.3|
|Chad Young||FB||5'10, 230||Sr.||NR||18||18||108||100.0%||6.0||6.1%||77.8%||6.1||17.4|
|Tim Vizzi||WR-Z||5'10, 170||Sr.||** (5.3)||11||9||97||81.8%||8.8||3.8%||36.4%||11.1||15.6|
|Dylan Denso||WR-Z||6'2, 205||Sr.||NR||10||4||63||40.0%||6.3||3.4%||50.0%||6.3||10.1|
|Adam Muema||RB||5'10, 205||Jr.||*** (5.6)||9||9||147||100.0%||16.3||3.1%||100.0%||9.9||23.6|
|Adam Roberts||TE||6'3, 235||Jr.||** (5.4)||4||3||23||75.0%||5.8||1.4%||100.0%||3.5||3.7|
|Chase Price||RB||5'8, 200||So.||** (5.4)||3||1||-2||33.3%||-0.7||1.0%||33.3%||-1.2||-0.3|
|Julius Wilson||WR||6'1, 175||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|David Wells||TE||6'5, 220||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
5. A more explosive passing game?
When SDSU did pass in 2012, there were basically two options: dump short to Escobar, receiver Dominique Sandifer, or fullback Chad Young; or go long to Brice Butler, Colin Lockett, or Ezell Ruffin.
Escobar, Sandifer, and Young: 8.9 targets per game, 71 percent catch rate, 11.0 yards per catch
Butler, Lockett, and Ruffin: 9.4 targets per game, 50 percent catch rate, 15.7 yards per catch
Two-thirds of the efficiency options (Escobar and Sandifer) are now gone, and while Young returns, there is a chance that Locket and Ruffin are the leaders of the new receiving corps. In players like Tim Vizzi (82 percent catch rate in 2012), Dylan Denso (61 percent in 2011), and potentially tight end Adam Roberts, there are still some efficiency options, but there is at least a chance that, between the experience on hand and the new coordinator in the booth, SDSU's passing game goes longer, more frequently, in 2013. Of course, aggressive passing means more sacks, so ... we'll see.
|Nik Embernate||RG||46 career starts; 2012 1st All-MWC|
|Alec Johnson||C||42 career starts; 2012 2nd All-MWC|
|Bryce Quigley||LT||6'5, 295||Sr.||*** (5.5)||25 career starts|
|Zack Dilley||RT||6'5, 295||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13 career starts|
|Riley Gauld||LT||7 career starts|
|Japheth Gordon||LG||6'3, 295||Sr.||NR||7 career starts|
|Jordan Smith||OL||6'5, 270||So.||*** (5.5)||1 career start|
|Paul Rodriguez||RT||6'7, 285||So.||** (5.4)|
|Nico Siragusa||RG||6'5, 315||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Kwayde Miller||LT||6'7, 305||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Austin Maass||C||6'4, 270||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Arthur Flores||RT||6'5, 300||RSFr.||** (5.3)|
|Lenicio Noble||OL||6'2, 285||Jr.||** (5.3)|
|Q1 Rk||46||1st Down Rk||31|
|Q2 Rk||51||2nd Down Rk||77|
|Q3 Rk||68||3rd Down Rk||70|
6. Opponents knew to pass
Two things were certain in SDSU games: SDSU was going to run, and opponents weren't. The Aztecs and their 3-3-5 attack were stout on the ground, reeling in Top 40 rankings in Rushing S&P+ and all of its breakout components, but while they were also able to rush the passer pretty well, their bend-don't-break pass defense bent quite a bit. And while SDSU returns almost everybody -- seriously, this front six could be really, really good -- the primary losses are at corner, where both Josh Wade and, more importantly, third-round draft pick Leon McFadden must be replaced. McFadden defensed 15 passes in 2012, while returning CBs managed just six. If the secondary was a bit passive with McFadden, it probably will be without him, too.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Sam Meredith||DT||6'4, 275||Jr.||*** (5.5)||13||28.5||3.9%||5.5||1||0||1||0||1|
|Cody Galea||DE||6'3, 265||Jr.||** (5.4)||13||17.5||2.4%||3.5||2.5||0||0||0||0|
|Jon Sanchez||DE||6'2, 265||So.||*** (5.5)||13||16.0||2.2%||2||0||0||1||0||0|
|Jordan Thomas||DE||6'1, 255||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||14.5||2.0%||5.5||1||0||0||1||0|
|Dan Kottman||DT||6'1, 245||So.||** (5.3)||10||9.0||1.2%||1.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Everett Beed||DE||6'3, 255||Jr.||*** (5.5)||10||8.5||1.2%||4.5||2||0||0||0||1|
|Dontrel Onuoha||DE||6'2, 265||Jr.||*** (5.6)||4||7.0||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Robert Craighead||DT||6'3, 265||So.||** (5.3)||8||2.5||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Alex Barrett||DE||6'3, 245||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Teddy Queen||DE||6'1, 245||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Malcolm Jackson||DT||6'3, 255||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Fred Melifonwu||DE||6'5, 210||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
7. Slice and dice
SDSU was undersized up front in 2012 -- in a three-man line, you typically want your primary tackle to be bigger than 275 pounds -- and it showed: in short-yardage situation, you could push SDSU around pretty well (106th in Power Success Rate).
But the Aztecs had a quickness advantage that got them out of facing too many short-yardage situations. SDSU was 25th in Stuff Rate (negative plays against the run) and 27th in Opportunity Rate (downfield opportunities allowed for opposing running backs), and almost every reason for these stellar rankings returns. Of the 12 players who logged at least 2.5 tackles for loss in 2012, an amazing 11 return, including active ends Sam Meredith, Jordan Thomas, and Everett Beed and what might be the most effectively active set of mid-major linebackers in the country.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jake Fely||MLB||5'10, 210||Jr.||*** (5.5)||13||79.0||10.8%||11.5||7||0||2||2||2|
|Derek Largent||OLB||6'4, 235||Jr.||NR||13||49.5||6.8%||9.5||6.5||2||3||1||3|
|Nick Tenhaeff||OLB||6'2, 225||Sr.||** (5.1)||13||45.0||6.2%||13||3||0||0||1||0|
|Vaness Harris||OLB||6'2, 255||Sr.||** (5.3)||13||28.0||3.8%||6||3||0||1||1||0|
|Josh Gavert||OLB||6'2, 220||Jr.||*** (5.5)||13||21.0||2.9%||4||2||1||0||1||1|
|Scott Graves||MLB||5'10, 210||Sr.||NR||13||8.5||1.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jacob Driver||MLB||6'2, 220||Sr.||** (5.3)||12||7.5||1.0%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ryan Jack||OLB||6'0, 215||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Micah Seau||OLB||6'3, 235||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|D.J. Hunter||OLB||6'0, 210||RSFr.||NR|
|Marcus Stamps||LB||6'1, 195||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
8. Attack, attack, attack
SDSU's top three backup linebackers recorded 11 tackles for loss in 2012. Honestly, I've seen worse totals from some of the starters for the teams I've previewed so far. But SDSU's three starters combined for a downright ridiculous 34 TFLs, 17.5 sacks, seven passes defensed, four forced fumbles, and five fumble recoveries. This unit has experience and depth, and now it has some interesting three-star youngsters waiting in the wings as well. This front six is all sorts of exciting.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Nat Berhe||AZTEC||5'10, 190||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||81.0||11.1%||2||0||2||5||0||1|
|Eric Pinkins||WAR||6'3, 215||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||55.5||7.6%||7||2||3||2||0||1|
|King Holder||CB||5'10, 165||Jr.||** (5.4)||13||31.5||4.3%||2.5||1||1||5||0||0|
|Gabe Lemon||WAR||5'10, 195||Sr.||** (5.3)||12||26.5||3.6%||2.5||1||0||2||0||0|
|Rene Siluano||WAR||5'10, 180||Sr.||** (5.4)||8||23.5||3.2%||2||0||1||1||1||0|
|Marcus Andrews||WAR||6'0, 190||Sr.||** (5.4)||13||23.0||3.1%||0||0||1||4||0||1|
|Pierre Romain||CB||5'8, 165||So.||NR||13||8.0||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Darius Guillory||AZTEC||5'10, 185||So.||*** (5.5)||13||7.0||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|David Lamar||CB||6'2, 180||Jr.||*** (5.5)||13||6.0||0.8%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brandon Wright||WAR||5'11, 205||So.||*** (5.7)||12||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Damontae Kazee||CB||5'11, 175||So.||** (5.4)|
|Kendrick Mathis||WAR||6'0, 195||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Kalan Montgomery||DB||6'1, 170||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
|Tyler Morris||DB||6'3, 205||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
9. Experience, I guess
The "5" part of SDSU's 3-3-5 defense is the most worrisome. You've got basically a fourth linebacker in WAR safety Eric Pinkins doing linebacker things (seven tackles for loss, five passes defensed), but while the safety position as a whole seems to be in good shape, the losses of McFadden and Wade could be tough to overcome. King Holder was actually more aggressive and interesting than Wade last year, but the only other returning corners combined for just 14.0 tackles in minimal playing time. It's impossible to know what SDSU has here, but whatever it is, it might hold the defense back as a whole.
|Seamus McMorrow||5'11, 190||So.||41||41.7||7||9||13||53.7%|
|Joel Alesi||6'0, 235||Jr.||6||43.5||0||4||1||83.3%|
|Seamus McMorrow||5'11, 190||So.||68||62.8||33||48.5%|
|Wes Feer||5'11, 205||Sr.||5||54.0||0||0.0%|
|Colin Lockett||KR||6'0, 180||Sr.||30||25.9||2|
|Brandon Wright||KR||5'11, 205||So.||10||20.8||0|
|Tim Vizzi||PR||5'10, 170||Sr.||13||7.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||41|
|Field Goal Pct||65|
|Kick Returns Avg||24|
|Punt Returns Avg||76|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|7-Sep||at Ohio State||10|
|28-Sep||at New Mexico State||123|
|10-Oct||at Air Force||91|
|9-Nov||at San Jose State||72|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||77|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||86|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+1 / +3.4|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||16 (7, 9)|
10. Book the fourth straight bowl
When the 2013 season ends, it is quite likely that SDSU will have attended as many bowls since 2010 (four) as it did from 1969 to 2009. This is going to be a good team. It will be limited by its passing game and pass defense, but the run and run D will be good enough to fend off what is, as customary in the MWC this year, a schedule loaded with what I will politely call winnable games. SDSU plays six teams projected 90th or worse this season and plays host to four of the six teams projected better than that. Beat Oregon State on September 21, and you're potentially looking at a run toward a 10-win season, but even with a loss, seven or more wins is quite likely.
It's impressive how quickly we've become used to this. In terms of five-year averages, SDSU has already established itself as the Mountain West's No. 2 program behind Boise State, and momentum and recent history suggest that the Aztecs aren't really in the mood to go any lower than that. Brady Hoke planted the seeds, Rocky Long has managed the garden nicely (he's even thrown in some algorithm work just to melt my heart cockles), and the future is, like San Diego itself, quite sunny.