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San Diego State football’s finally become what it should’ve always been

The Aztecs just had their best season in 40 years and, despite some big losses, remain the division favorites.

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NCAA Football: San Diego State at Wyoming
Rashad Penny
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published April 14 and has since been updated.

On November 19, 1977, San Diego State delivered maybe its biggest statement to date. Claude Gilbert’s Aztecs did what they had been doing for most of the 1970s: wallop fellow Western mid-majors. Fullerton State fell, 34-17. UTEP, UNLV, Tulsa, and Pacific fell by a combined 150-28. Long Beach State did well to hold on in a 33-22 loss.

SDSU had gone 10-1 in 1976, with just an 8-0 loss to BYU spoiling an unbeaten mark. In 1975, they’d cracked the AP poll for a couple of weeks. The year before, they had entered the polls for one week.

In eight years since joining the top division of college football, SDSU had gone 71-15-2 under Don Coryell and Gilbert, but the Aztecs hadn’t been to a bowl since the 1969 Pasadena Bowl win over Boston U.

They wouldn’t bowl in 1977, their last year of independence. But they got to send a message to another thriving independent. They hosted Bobby Bowden’s first good Florida State team — one that would finish 10-2 and 14th in the country — and absolutely demolished it. They bolted to a 38-10 lead in front of a home crowd of 50,453 and cruised, 41-16. Ron Davis threw for 228 and three touchdowns. Deacon Turner rushed for 189 and two scores. The Aztecs survived an upset bid against San Jose State and finished 16th in the AP.

SDSU had discovered ambition a little late in life. When Coryell began destroying the California Collegiate Athletic Association, the school decided it could handle more competition. It left following 1975 to join college football’s “super conference,” which would become Division I-A. SDSU and Hawaii replaced Arizona and Arizona State in the WAC when the latter joined the Pac-10 in 1978.

The upward mobility of that decade-plus probably had SDSU dreaming big.

By 1979, the Seminoles would be playing in Orange Bowls and racking up top-10 rankings as SDSU became a victim of ambition. Gilbert began transitioning from a reliance on JUCOs to more high school athletes; he went 16-18 from 1978-80 and was fired. Doug Scovil went 24-32-3 in five years. Dennis Stoltz went 16-19 in three.

Brady Hoke and Rocky Long broke the long stretch of mediocrity. Hoke took over in 2009 and had the Aztecs bowling by 2010. Long hit a ceiling — eight wins per year with an average S&P+ ranking of 69.3 from 2011-14 — but he busted through it.

Since starting 2015 at 1-3, SDSU is 21-3. The Aztecs have won two straight MWC titles and just finished in the AP poll for the first time since 1977.

It’s easy to think that SDSU should always be this good. Even without a true home stadium — they play in Qualcomm Stadium, five miles from campus — and less than robust financial support, the Aztecs have geographical advantages in recruiting and a history of offensive brilliance, both in the Coryell/Gilbert years and when Marshall Faulk was romping.

They made their surge with defense, though. Long found the pieces for his 3-3-5, and SDSU has ranked 26th and 24th in Def. S&P+ the last two years.

Defense is why the Aztecs should remain viable. There is concern over what might happen now that SDSU’s primary offensive weapon, record-setting Donnel Pumphrey, and four beefy linemen are gone. But the defense remains stocked, and Pumphrey’s backup, Rashaad Penny, rushed for 1,018 yards last year.

Long has recruited well, and the cupboard still has a lot. SDSU remains the obvious favorite in the MWC West. But concern is understandable. Pumphrey did produce nearly 7,500 rushing and receiving yards. And there’s what happened 40 years ago, the last time SDSU finally finished ranked ...


2016 in review

2016 SDSU statistical profile.

Good news: South Alabama is no longer on the schedule. A home-and-home with Joey Jones’ Jaguars proved strangely disastrous; the Aztecs went 0-2 against USA in 2015-16 and 22-4 against everyone else. But in both years, losses to South Alabama proved to be catalysts.

In 2015, they lost 34-27 at home, fought Penn State the next week, then won 10 straight games.

In 2016, the USA loss again wrapped up a slow start. From there, SDSU went into overdrive.

  • First 4 games (3-1): Avg. percentile performance: 51% (~top 65) | Avg. yards per play: SDSU 6.2, Opp 5.2 (plus-1.0)
  • Next 6 games (6-0): Avg. percentile performance: 81% (~top 25) | Avg. yards per play: SDSU 6.8, Opp 3.8 (plus-3.0)

The Aztecs romped to 9-1 and beat conference foes SJSU, Utah State, Hawaii, and Nevada by a combined 183-32. They fell asleep a bit, with a division title in hand, and lost via last-minute pass at Wyoming, then got creamed by a smoking hot Colorado State.

To their credit, though, they rallied. They went back to Laramie and beat Wyoming in the MWC title game, then dismantled Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl, a mid-major showcase. Houston gained 74 yards in a 10-play scoring drive in the first quarter; beyond that, they gained 180 in 60 plays, and SDSU scored the last 34 as Pumphrey broke (sort of) the all-time FBS rushing record. It was a valedictory moment for the seniors who’d broken SDSU into the Group of Five’s upper echelon. Now we see if it can stay there.


Offense

SDSU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

There are two ways to look at a unit: who’s gone, and who’s back? We look at both, but depending on which takes precedent, you get a vastly different outlook for SDSU’s offense in 2017.

The “Who’s gone?” list appears terrifying. Pumphrey carried 25 times per game, combining between-the-tackles yardage with major explosiveness. In total targets and catches, he was also SDSU’s No. 2 receiver.

Pumphrey gave SDSU all it needed, when combined with a strong defense. And when he needed a boost from his burly line, he got it. The Aztecs got away with starting the same five guys up front in all 14 games, and by the end, the group had combined for 144 career starts and one hell of a track record. Now 130 of those starts are gone.

You could stop and say, “I guess SDSU’s going to regress, huh?” But the “Who’s back?” list muddies the waters.

NCAA Football: UNLV at San Diego State
Mikah Holder
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
  • Running back Rashaad Penny. Pumphrey gained at least five yards on 40 percent of his carries and averaged 6.7 highlight yards per opportunity last year. In about 10 carries per game, Penny hit 42 percent and averaged 9.8 highlight yards. And in about four carries per game, sophomore Juwan Washington hit 38 percent and 12.4. SDSU’s greatest offensive strength was that they could pummel opponents with Pumphrey, and then his backups did just as well. There’s never any guarantee that backups will maintain their averages as starters, but Penny’s career line — 7.1 yards per carry, plus five kick return touchdowns — suggests his upside is massive. And at 5’11, 220, he could form a fun combination with the 5’7, 175-pound Washington.
  • Quarterback Christian Chapman. I’m not going to pretend Chapman is a world-beater. He was only asked to throw about 20 passes per game last year, took too many sacks, and mostly stuck the ball in an awesome runner’s belly. Still, he’s started for two years, and he completed 61 percent with a 20-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio. He could become more of a play-maker in his third year. [Update: Chapman could be challenged by Rutgers grad transfer Chris Laviano, who’s played in 24 games.]
  • Receiver Mikah Holder. The only receiver targeted more than 40 times last year, Holder averaged a ridiculous 21.7 yards per catch, and every pass he caught resulted in a successful play (per success rate definitions).
  • Tight end David Wells. He caught 25 of 29 passes for 294 yards, four touchdowns, and a 76 percent success rate. He probably should have been targeted more. He probably will be this year.
  • Senior guard Antonio Rosales, six members of last year’s OL two-deep, and six former three-star recruits. There’s no getting around the fact that the line is a question. But Long didn’t rush out and sign five JUCO transfers; he appeared content with moving last year’s backups into the lineup. That might backfire, but it’s a show of confidence. And if the line is solid, this offense might not miss a beat.
NCAA Football: Mountain West Championship-San Diego State at Wyoming
Christian Chapman and blockers
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

SDSU defensive radar

Maybe the best thing the offense has going is that the bar isn’t that high — after all, even with Pumphrey, SDSU ranked 79th and 70th in Off. S&P+ the last two years. SDSU has flipped the old truism around: the best offense is a good defense, and SDSU’s defense has been awesome.

Few mid-major defenses combine efficiency and big-play prevention like this.

SDSU defensive efficiency & explosiveness

The Aztecs were as aggressive as Air Force and prevented big plays almost as well as Boise State. That’s a devastating combination.

It’s even more devastating when you realize that the Aztecs were young. The secondary lost contributors throughout the season and had to rely on youngsters like safety Parker Baldwin and cornerback Ron Smith. The linebacking corps had its own shuffling; six players averaged at least one tackle per game, but only two played in all 14 games. Sophomore Ronley Lakalaka put in major minutes.

NCAA Football: UNLV at San Diego State
Ronley Lakalaka
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Each level of the defense has a couple of impressive players to replace — ends Alex Barrett and Kyle Kelley, linebackers Calvin Munson and Austin Wyatt-Thayer, corners Damontae Kazee and Kalan Montgomery, safety Malik Smith. But we’ve already seen the replacements, and aside from the glitch against Colorado State, the unit held steady.

The national average for yards per play is around 5.8, and despite a shuffled two-deep, SDSU allowed greater than that just twice all year.

The list of play-makers is long, as is Long’s résumé. But I have a couple of potential concerns. If the unit does end up regressing, I’m guessing it’s because of defensive end depth or cornerback play.

Barrett and Kelley combined for 20.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, and four breakups last year. Senior Dakota Turner should replicate a good amount of that, and tackle Noble Hall has moved to end. But between sophomore Myles Cheatum, three-star JUCO Anthony Luke, and other unproven players, someone might have to step up. SDSU’s history suggests someone will, but it’s not a given.

Meanwhile, though Ron Smith could become the next Kazee in the back, someone needs to become the next Smith. In Montgomery and Derek Babaish (who missed half the season), SDSU boasts only one corner who saw action last year. Safety is loaded — Baldwin and seniors Kameron Kelly and Trey Lomax combined for 4.5 TFLs, eight picks, and 20 breakups — but it appears Kelly has moved to cornerback, and if he gets hurt or has to move back, the second CB spot is up for grabs.

SDSU has recruited incredibly in the back and boasts six former three-stars who are either true or redshirt freshmen. But there’s a high bar, and even good freshmen are typically inconsistent.

But those are only medium-sized concerns. San Diego State’s defense is becoming one of the mid-major universe’s sure things.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at San Diego State
Parker Baldwin
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Okay, so the best offense may be a good defense, but special teams also gave the offense quite a boost. SDSU ranked 10th in Special Teams S&P+ thanks to brilliant place-kicking from John Baron II (15-for-15 on field goals under 40 yards, 6-for-8 on kicks over 40) and the terrifying return prowess of Rashaad Penny and Juwan Washington. The running back duo combined to average 30 yards per return, score three touchdowns, and produce a kick return success rate that ranked 10th in the country. That’s unfair.

All three are back, as is punt returner Quest Truxton. SDSU needs to find a punter, but this will be a good special teams unit.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep UC Davis NR 36.3 98%
9-Sep at Arizona State 58 -1.9 46%
16-Sep Stanford 12 -12.1 24%
23-Sep at Air Force 116 14.2 79%
30-Sep Northern Illinois 86 12.9 77%
7-Oct at UNLV 118 14.6 80%
14-Oct Boise State 29 -2.3 45%
21-Oct Fresno State 115 19.1 87%
28-Oct at Hawaii 109 12.9 77%
4-Nov at San Jose State 105 12.3 76%
18-Nov Nevada 117 19.4 87%
25-Nov New Mexico 110 18.3 85%
Projected S&P+ Rk 52
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 61 / 42
Projected wins 8.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 7.5 (33)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 74 / 73
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 14 / 9.8
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 66% (79%, 53%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.9 (1.1)

It’s been easy for me to get caught up in the Mountain West’s rising ceiling during this preview series. I like what Colorado State might become (we already saw the Rams become it for a good chunk of last season), I think Utah State will bounce back, Wyoming should be solid, at least one of Air Force or New Mexico should be solid, and I see Hawaii, UNLV, Fresno State, and SJSU improving at least a little. The MWC is in better shape than it has been for a while.

But until proven otherwise, the king is still the king, at least in the West. Long has recruited well and has built a depth chart strong enough that, with a straight face, you can say, “I realize SDSU just lost the most productive rusher of all-time, but I think the run game might not fall much.”

San Diego State is deep, athletic, and well-coached. The two-time MWC champs were laps ahead of the rest of the MWC West and should remain in front in 2017, even if the field catches up.


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