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San Diego State football has a chance to establish itself as a mid-major power

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After a long-awaited breakthrough in 2015, the Mountain West champions have a great shot at repeating.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

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1. Life ater the breakthrough

If SDSU is ever going to break the nine-win barrier, it will be this year. The Aztecs return plenty of fun pieces in 2016, but the conference schedule will flip and feature testy road games. This is an incredible opportunity for SDSU to break through.

-- The 2015 San Diego State guide

During a disappointing 7-6 in 2014, an increasingly talented SDSU continued to struggle on offense and ranked just 83rd overall in S&P+. Rocky Long was at a bit of a crossroads, toeing the border of Glen Mason territory, the zone of a coach's tenure in which the guy who has raised the bar fails to raise it further. Long knows this well -- during his tenure at New Mexico, Long engineered bowl trips in five of six seasons between 2002-07, but he only once topped eight wins.

At San Diego State, the Aztecs were quickly hitting a similar ceiling. After bowling only three times between 1970 and 2009, SDSU took a step forward in 2010, Brady Hoke's second season. Hoke left for Michigan, and Long won eight, nine, and eight games heading into 2014.

Last year was big for Long. He boasted a team that was, at worst, the second most talented in the Mountain West, and the schedule was kind.

Damned if SDSU didn't break through. After a dreadful September, things clicked. The Aztecs beat eight MWC opponents by an average of 36-11, held off Air Force in the conference title game, then destroyed Cincinnati in Hawaii to finish 11-3. The next time SDSU loses will be the first since September 26 of last year.

This was the breakthrough we always thought this program was capable of. Long's always-tricky defense was strong from front to back. The offense wasn't great but was just good enough to kill clock and get out of the way. And now the best part of the offense (running back Donnel Pumphrey) returns along with most of an awesome linebacking corps and secondary. So ... is a repeat possible? What about improvement?

There are questions to answer, mostly centered around a rebuilt passing game. But at 66, having built sustainable success at two programs that hadn't experienced much of it, Long's career might be approaching a new level as it winds down.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 11-3 | Adj. Record: 10-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 43 | Final S&P+ Rk: 45
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep San Diego N/A 37-3 W 66% 100% +14.9
12-Sep at California 29 7-35 L 10% 1% -20.4 -14.5
19-Sep South Alabama 102 27-34 L 19% 31% -21.8 -24.5
26-Sep at Penn State 47 21-37 L 9% 1% +1.9 -1.0
3-Oct Fresno State 103 21-7 W 73% 99% +8.1 +5.0
10-Oct at Hawaii 120 28-14 W 64% 98% +14.0 +17.0
17-Oct at San Jose State 89 30-7 W 96% 100% +30.4 +26.0
23-Oct Utah State 53 48-14 W 89% 100% +37.7 +39.0
31-Oct at Colorado State 86 41-17 W 63% 84% +20.8 +20.5
14-Nov Wyoming 115 38-3 W 87% 100% +11.7 +10.5
21-Nov at UNLV 105 52-14 W 94% 100% +26.3 +22.0
28-Nov Nevada 97 31-14 W 80% 99% -1.9 0.0
5-Dec Air Force 63 27-24 W 45% 48% -0.2 -1.5
24-Dec vs. Cincinnati 72 42-7 W 80% 99% +29.0 +34.0

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 28.8 68 21.5 25
Points Per Game 32.1 46 16.4 7

2. The proverbial switch got flipped

SDSU was a strange team to follow from afar in 2015. The Aztecs got romped by a Cal team that peaked in September, lost to what would eventually prove to be a bad South Alabama team at home, and put up minimal defensive resistance against a mediocre Penn State offense. At 1-3, it looked like the verdict was in: 2014's disappointment was carrying over to 2015.

But when the calendar flipped to October, the lightbulb turned on.

  • Average Percentile Performance (first 4 games): 26% (~top 95) | record: 1-3
  • Average Percentile Performance (last 10 games): 77% (~top 30) | record: 10-0

SDSU handled Fresno State and Hawaii with relative ease, then mauled San Jose State. None of these results were standout wins, however.

Then the Aztecs beat Utah State and Colorado State by a combined 89-31. They cruised past Wyoming and UNLV, then whipped Nevada in the regular season finale. Written off in September, they beat eight conference opponents by an average of 25 points in October and November. They struggled to put a strong Air Force team away in the MWC title game but did so with Donny Hageman's 46-yard field goal and a late midfield stop. And then they did some brutal things to Cincinnati in the bowl.

Looking at the passing splits, you'd think that SDSU changed quarterbacks. But that wasn't really the case. With Maxwell Smith throwing the lion's share of the passes, the Aztecs managed a woeful 95.6 passer rating in the first four games. (Yes, that included an 83.8 against a good Penn State defense; it also included a 73.3 against San Diego.)

But with Smith still leading the way for the most part, SDSU produced a 179.3 rating over the final 10 games. This was almost all Smith until he got hurt against Nevada; redshirt freshman Christian Chapman took over did as well or better. Against Nevada, Air Force, and Cincinnati, he completed 23 of 34 passes for 360 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks. In fact, neither QB threw a pick after the Penn State game.

This was a full-team improvement, mind you -- the defense went from allowing 5.7 yards per play in the first four games to 4.2 in the last 10. But the improvement of the sparingly used passing game opened things up for Pumphrey and the run game and gave the Aztecs enough oomph to give the defense all the points it needed. SDSU only once scored less than 27 points in the last 10 games and only once allowed more than 17. That's a pretty good recipe.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.26 67 IsoPPP+ 97.6 80
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 42.9% 50 Succ. Rt. + 96.8 84
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 27.2 15 Def. FP+ 29.7 67
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 5.1 18 Redzone S&P+ 102.6 67
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 15.4 ACTUAL 12 -3.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 85 81 84 80
RUSHING 14 89 80 90
PASSING 119 64 97 50
Standard Downs 90 87 90
Passing Downs 61 88 51
Q1 Rk 52 1st Down Rk 93
Q2 Rk 95 2nd Down Rk 91
Q3 Rk 104 3rd Down Rk 91
Q4 Rk 75

3. The power of identity

It's difficult to glean much from full-season numbers for SDSU when it was like a completely different team filled the uniforms one-third of the way through the regular season. Regardless of the mediocre 2015 numbers, though, SDSU seemed to benefit from knowing exactly what it was on offense.

With running backs coach Jeff Horton taking on offensive coordinator duties in 2015, SDSU took on the exact kind of plodding, bludgeoning attack that a defensive coach like Rocky Long tends to love. The Aztecs ran almost as frequently as an option team -- in fact, their 81 percent standard downs run rate was seventh in FBS, behind only six option teams (Army, Navy, Georgia Southern, New Mexico, and Georgia Tech) -- and did just well enough at it to put themselves into third-and-manageable.

Donnel Pumphrey and Chase Price combined for 35.6 carries and 190.1 yards per game, but players like Rashaad Penny and Marcus Stamps managed to get some looks as well. For predictability's sake, the Aztecs could have perhaps benefited from a bit more mobility at the QB position (Smith and Chapman combined for just 28 non-sack carries all season), but this approach worked pretty well after September.

It worked doubly well when the play action game actually began to pay off. Chapman ended up averaging 15 yards per completion and 8.3 yards per pass attempt, and while Smith took quite a few hits, Chapman really didn't. He proved more mobile than Smith in the run game and managed to take far fewer sacks as well.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Maxwell Smith 110 200 1529 13 2 55.0% 18 8.3% 6.5
Christian Chapman 6'0, 200 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8167 29 49 436 2 1 59.2% 2 3.9% 8.3
Ryan Agnew 6'0, 175 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8184
Mason Hall 6'3, 195 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) NR
Jimmy Walker 6'3, 220 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) NR

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Donnel Pumphrey RB 5'9, 180 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8044 309 1653 17 5.3 6.7 36.2% 3 2
Chase Price RB 190 1008 6 5.3 4.3 41.6% 2 1
Rashaad Penny RB 5'11, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8432 61 368 4 6.0 5.5 44.3% 0 0
Dakota Gordon FB 37 187 3 5.1 8.7 24.3% 1 0
Marcus Stamps RB 6'1, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8448 16 33 0 2.1 1.5 18.8% 0 0
Christian Chapman QB 6'0, 200 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8167 14 83 0 5.9 1.9 71.4% 0 0
Maxwell Smith QB 14 58 2 4.1 5.6 28.6% 4 1
Juwan Washington RB 5'7, 175 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8286
Chase Jasmin RB 5'11, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8389
Parie Dedaux Jr. RB 6'1, 180 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8156







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Mikah Holder WR-X 6'0, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8538 49 24 439 49.0% 20.2% 9.0 38.8% 40.8% 2.06
Donnel Pumphrey RB 5'9, 180 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8044 49 28 416 57.1% 20.2% 8.5 26.5% 42.9% 1.89
Jemond Hazely WR-Z 31 21 263 67.7% 12.8% 8.5 48.4% 51.6% 1.49
Eric Judge WR-X 6'1, 195 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8148 29 15 296 51.7% 11.9% 10.2 44.8% 44.8% 1.91
Daniel Brunskill TE 6'5, 250 Sr. NR NR 19 10 112 52.6% 7.8% 5.9 68.4% 47.4% 1.18
Dakota Gordon FB 16 12 167 75.0% 6.6% 10.4 75.0% 68.8% 1.43
Chase Price RB 15 13 118 86.7% 6.2% 7.9 13.3% 46.7% 1.47
Chase Favreau WR-Z 6'1, 200 Jr. NR 0.7000 10 2 16 20.0% 4.1% 1.6 20.0% 10.0% 1.45
Rashaad Penny RB 5'11, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8432 9 8 120 88.9% 3.7% 13.3 77.8% 66.7% 1.96
David Wells TE 6'5, 255 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7793 9 4 22 44.4% 3.7% 2.4 55.6% 22.2% 0.98
Christian Cumberlander WR-X 6'3, 205 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8400 4 1 0 25.0% 1.6% 0.0 50.0% 0.0% 0.00
Maxwell Smith QB 1 1 7 100.0% 0.4% 7.0 100.0% 100.0% 0.88
Curtis Anderson III WR-Z 6'3, 200 Sr. NR NR 1 1 6 100.0% 0.4% 6.0 0.0% 0.0% 0.00
Lloyd Mills WR-Z 5'10, 175 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8091 1 1 6 100.0% 0.4% 6.0 0.0% 100.0% 0.45
Jerry Chaney WR 6'0, 180 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7817
Tayler Hawkins WR 6'1, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8410
Parker Houston TE 6'3, 240 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8115
Timothy Wilson Jr. WR 6'4, 190 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8066

4. In search of ever-elusive pass efficiency

That Pumphrey, Penny, Stamps, and three offensive line starters (including all-conference guard Nico Siragusa) return is obviously good news considering SDSU's run-heavy identity. Plus, Long signed two JUCO linemen and two three-star running backs (in addition to three-star redshirt freshman Juwan Washington); the run game could be even deeper than it was last year.

But the passing game is a little bit muddy. Chapman could be quite good, SDSU's best quarterback since Ryan Lindley at the very least. But a lot of receivers took turns serving as the go-to guy in 2015, and quite a few of them are gone. Four players (three wideouts and Pumphrey) were targeted between 29 and 49 times, and six more were between nine and 19.

Mikah Holder was the leader, but he made nearly half of his catches in the first four games and only once caught more than two passes in a game during SDSU's winning streak. Jemond Hazely was perhaps the go-to during the streak (he had zero catches through five games and 21 in the final nine), but he was a senior.

Maybe San Diego State doesn't need a go-to guy. But Hazely was the only of the top five targets with a success rate above 47 percent, and that added bit of efficiency seemed to make a difference. Can Holder or Eric Judge become more reliable options? Might big former three-star signee Christian Cumberlander be ready for a breakthrough? A tight end like Daniel Brunskill or David Wells? Star freshman Tayler Hawkins (who could end up on either or both sides of the ball)?

Depth in the passing game is clearly an issue, but if you're going to have questions like this, it might as well be with the part of the offense you don't use very much. The run game should be ready to roll, and that's what's important.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 96.3 3.06 3.26 38.2% 67.1% 17.1% 76.6 10.0% 6.2%
Rank 89 38 65 78 57 27 103 124 43
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Nico Siragusa LG 6'5, 335 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8428 14 28 2015 1st All-MWC
Pearce Slater RT 14 27 2015 1st All-MWC
Darrell Greene RG 8 33
Kwayde Miller LT 6'7, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8394 14 14
Arthur Flores C 6'5, 305 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8352 14 14
Robert Craighead LG 6 9
David Servatius LT 6'5, 350 Sr. NR NR 0 0
Ryan Krum OL 6'4, 320 Sr. NR 0.7000 0 0
Ryan Pope LT 6'7, 320 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7000 0 0
Joe Salcedo RT 6'7, 300 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7333 0 0
Daishawn Dixon OL 6'5, 340 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7652

Nick Gerhard RT 6'5, 285 RSFr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7533

Derrick Achayo OL 6'4, 285 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8116

Donnell Greene OL 6'6, 340 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7933

Yasir Durant OL 6'7, 345 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8220

Douglas Tucker II OL 6'5, 300 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8181

5. Biiiiiiig boys up front

I probably shouldn't overlook the fact that those responsible for 28 of SDSU's 70 offensive line starts in 2015 are gone. Tackle Pearce Slater played at an all-conference level, and there's no guarantee the Aztecs can maintain last year's levels.

But at the very least, they'll be big. Holy smokes, will they be big. The 13 linemen listed above average 6'6, 318, and that includes two freshman signees and two 285-pounders who haven't seen the field before. This line isn't big by Mountain West or power conference standards; it's big by NFL standards. Last year's San Diego CHARGERS averaged 6'5, 319 up front.

Size isn't everything, obviously, but at the very least, it means defenders have to run around larger bodies of mass to get into the backfield. The line wasn't incredibly efficient in 2015, but it very much kept defenders from making run stops behind the line. That should be the case again.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.26 69 IsoPPP+ 115.4 22
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 34.6% 11 Succ. Rt. + 115.1 19
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 33.2 8 Off. FP+ 30.2 60
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.1 40 Redzone S&P+ 113.6 24
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 27.4 ACTUAL 34.0 +6.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 5 17 19 22
RUSHING 7 5 12 8
PASSING 10 38 35 47
Standard Downs 37 33 42
Passing Downs 5 7 9
Q1 Rk 30 1st Down Rk 15
Q2 Rk 32 2nd Down Rk 53
Q3 Rk 28 3rd Down Rk 20
Q4 Rk 6

6. The perfectly realized 3-3-5

A 3-3-5 sacrifices size for speed and deception, swarms on passing downs, and more or less just hopes to survive against the run. Rocky Long's 3-3-5 pulled off a remarkable combination: fifth in Passing Downs S&P+ ... and fifth in Rushing S&P+. The Aztecs generated all the pass rush you would hope for from this alignment but stopped the run as well as almost anybody. They struggled against Air Force, but they almost completely erased big rushing plays -- opponents managed just 38 rushes of 10-plus yards (fourth in FBS) and nine of 20-plus (sixth).

SDSU maybe allowed a few more big pass plays than it would have preferred, but this defense was Long's masterpiece (after September, at least), and he's had a lot of good defenses.

The best part: The defense was pretty young. The Aztecs do have to replace two of their top three defensive linemen, but the second stringers got plenty of reps, and all of them return. And if the line doesn't regress, then the linebacking corps (which returns five of its top six) and secondary (which returns four starters and four second stringers) should again dominate. SDSU broke through in a major way last year and returns most of the defensive reasons why.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 120.2 2.32 2.75 33.1% 54.9% 23.9% 124.8 4.6% 12.0%
Rank 7 9 25 12 14 16 29 80 7
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Alex Barrett DT 6'3, 260 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7500 14 47.5 6.7% 13.0 5.5 2 1 2 0
Jon Sanchez DE 14 29.0 4.1% 8.0 5.5 0 1 0 1
Christian Heyward DT 10 22.0 3.1% 5.5 2.0 0 1 1 0
Kyle Kelley DE 6'3, 260 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8741 14 19.5 2.8% 9.0 7.5 0 1 1 0
Noble Hall DT 6'3, 265 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8163 11 14.0 2.0% 6.0 0.5 0 1 1 0
Dakota Turner DE 6'3, 255 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8149 6 10.5 1.5% 4.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jordan Watson DE 6'5, 285 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8181 7 5.0 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Julian Rochelin DE 6'5, 245 So. NR NR 13 2.0 0.3% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Sam Tai (UCLA) DT 6'3, 280 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8281
Sergio Phillips DT 6'2, 300 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8280
Myles Cheatum DE 6'2, 250 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7685
Jondarius Gardner DT 6'4, 285 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7600
Chibu Onyeukwu DE 6'4, 240 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7000








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Calvin Munson LB 6'1, 240 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7444 14 71.5 10.1% 15.0 9.5 2 2 2 1
Jake Fely LB 12 57.5 8.1% 8.5 1.5 0 1 3 1
Ryan Dunn MLB 6'3, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8307 13 28.5 4.0% 4.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Randy Ricks MLB 6'5, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8133 9 15.0 2.1% 5.0 2.5 0 4 2 0
Austin Wyatt-Thayer LB 6'5, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7633 12 10.0 1.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Ronley Lakalaka LB 6'0, 225 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8081 11 8.0 1.1% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jay Henderson MLB 6'2, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8174 9 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Tyler Morris LB 6'3, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8175 14 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Kyahva Tezino LB 6'0, 225 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9024
John Carroll LB 6'2, 225 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8517
Dwayne Parchment WAR 5'11, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8226
Reggie Murphy LB 6'5, 250 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8173
Jeff Clay WAR 6'0, 180 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7859
Dru Mathis LB 6'3, 205 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8326
Troy Cassidy LB 6'3, 210 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8235
Kaelin Himphill LB 6'2, 225 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) NR








7. Too many linebackers, too little playing time

The departure of Jake Fely opens up a little bit of playing time, and wow, does SDSU appear to be loaded with options for filling that space. First, the Aztecs return Calvin Munson, one of the better blitzers in the Mountain West. They also bring back both of last year's primary middle linebackers. But who takes Fely's reps? Senior Austin Wyatt-Thayer? Three-star junior Tyler Morris? Three-star sophomore Ronley Lakalaka? Four-star redshirt freshman Kyahva Tezino? Three-star redshirt freshman John Carroll?

You get the idea. Never mind the MWC, this might be one of the best linebacking corps in the country. Pursuit should be fantastic. But there are indeed still some questions to answer up front. Speedy tackle Alex Barrett is back, and former four-star signee Kyle Kelley had a nice junior season, but the loss of end Jon Sanchez and tackle Christian Heyward still hurts.

Honestly, what SDSU might have going for it the most is injury. Heyward missed foru games, sophomore Noble Hall missed three, and juniors Dakota Turner and Jordan Watson missed a combined 15. That means quite a few players got reps. So the Aztecs are, in a way, losing two starters and returning two or three.

Hall, Turnver, and sophomore Julian Rochelin could all be ready for larger roles, and Long signed two JUCOs (Jondarius Gardner and Chibu Onyeukwu) and brought in UCLA transfer Sam Tai for depth. The odds are good that the line will hold up, and if that happens, the linebackers will dominate.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Damontae Kazee CB 5'11, 185 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7900 14 66.5 9.4% 5.5 0 8 7 2 0
Na'im McGee AZTEC 6'0, 200 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8122 14 63.0 8.9% 4.5 1 0 7 0 0
Malik Smith WAR 6'0, 190 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7900 14 60.5 8.6% 5 0 5 9 1 1
Kameron Kelly WAR 6'2, 195 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7907 13 47.5 6.7% 3 0 2 3 0 0
J.J. Whittaker CB 14 40.0 5.7% 0.5 0 3 8 0 0
Pierre Romain CB 14 13.5 1.9% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Parker Baldwin AZTEC 6'2, 200 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7794 14 11.0 1.6% 0 0 1 0 1 0
Billy Vaughn, Jr. CB 6'3, 255 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8098 8 10.5 1.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Trey Lomax WAR 5'11, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8108 5 7.5 1.1% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Kalan Montgomery CB 6'1, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8235 14 7.5 1.1% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Kendrick Mathis WAR 6'0, 195 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8255 14 7.0 1.0% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Kevin Walcott CB 5'11, 185 Jr. NR NR 8 6.5 0.9% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Derek Babiash WAR 6'1, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8838 7 2.5 0.4% 0 0 0 3 0 0
Tayler Hawkins DB 6'1, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8410
Trenton Thompson DB 6'12, 185 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8381
Dwayne Johnson Jr. DB 6'2, 190 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8217
Kyree Woods DB 6'0, 175 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8100
Keoni Stallworth DB 6'1, 190 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8081

8. A corner void?

At first glance, SDSU's secondary appears loaded as well. Last year's top four tacklers return, as do 10 of the 12 players who recorded at least six tackles. Experience in the secondary matters a lot, and the Aztecs have it.

They do have to replace two of their top three corners, though. Damontae Kazee is incredible, but J.J. Whittaker is gone, and Pierre Romain was the top backup. Juniors Billy Vaughn Jr., Kalan Montgomery, and Kevin Walcott are all back, and we could always see one of about 17 awesome safeties changing positions, but there's at least a little bit of a question there.

Forgive me if I can't worry too much, though. Kazee is as good a No. 1 CB as there is in the group of five, and safeties Na'im McGee, Malik Smith, and Kameron Kelly combined for 12.5 tackels for loss, seven interceptions, and 19 break-ups last year. And I want to see more of junior Derek Babiash, a former star recruit who managed to break up three passes while making just 2.5 tackles in seven games. That's a combination that screams either "future ball hawk!", "risk taker!" or "horrific tackler!" All three are pretty entertaining.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Tanner Blain 6'0, 205 Sr. 77 40.3 8 24 22 59.7%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Donny Hageman 86 62.9 24 4 27.9%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Donny Hageman 57-57 12-14 85.7% 5-8 62.5%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Rashaad Penny KR 5'11, 210 Jr. 24 33.5 3
Chase Price KR 10 18.4 0
Lloyd Mills PR 5'10, 175 Sr. 15 9.5 0
Mikah Holder PR 6'0, 180 Jr. 6 7.5 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 64
Field Goal Efficiency 44
Punt Return Success Rate 111
Kick Return Success Rate 5
Punt Success Rate 108
Kickoff Success Rate 101

9. And when you score on them, they might score right back

There's nothing more demoralizing than finally scoring on a tough defense, then watching your ensuing kickoff get returned for a touchdown. And in Rashaad Penny, SDSU returns one of the most impressive, explosive kick returners in the country.

That's ... about all SDSU returns here, though. The Aztecs ranked in the triple digits in punt, kickoff, and punt return efficiency, and solid place-kicker Donny Hageman is gone. Despite Penny, I'd be impressed if SDSU cracked the top 60 in Special Teams S&P+.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep New Hampshire NR 29.1 95%
10-Sep California 49 2.7 56%
17-Sep at Northern Illinois 79 0.7 52%
1-Oct at South Alabama 115 13.3 78%
8-Oct UNLV 114 20.1 88%
15-Oct at Fresno State 94 5.5 62%
22-Oct San Jose State 92 12.3 76%
29-Oct at Utah State 73 -0.2 49%
5-Nov Hawaii 118 20.9 89%
12-Nov at Nevada 91 4.7 61%
19-Nov at Wyoming 110 12.0 76%
26-Nov Colorado State 96 13.8 79%
Projected wins: 8.6
Five-Year F/+ Rk 1.0% (57)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 79 / 74
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 22 / 12.0
2015 TO Luck/Game +3.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 66% (52%, 79%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 10.6 (0.4)

10. The schedule cooperates again ... sort of

There are two ways to look at SDSU's schedule:

A. The Aztecs are projected to have at least a 49 percent chance of winning in every single game.

B. They are between 49 and 62 percent in five games.

The former makes you think San Diego State's about to go 11-1. The latter introduces 8-4.

Everything came together for Long's Aztecs last year. The defense caught fire, the offense was just good enough, and even turnovers luck was favorable. (I would have noted that before now had they played in more than two close games.) The timing was right.

SDSU's success in 2016 -- the Aztecs' ability to hover again in the range of double-digit wins -- will depend on stability on the defensive line and the emergence of an efficient receiver or two. They have the depth to outlast most MWC opponents, and while having two trips east of the Mississippi River is inconvenient, the Aztecs should at least be superior to NIU and South Alabama.