SDSU football faces huge road tests in 2014

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

An improved SDSU football squad will face its share of challenges in 2014.

It's far too early to know for sure, but the 2014 San Diego St. Aztecs football team appears to be better and worse in the following areas:

Passing: Better

Quinn Kaehler will play his first full season as SDSU's starting quarterback. As a walk-on last year, Kaehler passed for 3,007 yards and 19 touchdowns. During the season he developed strong chemistry with wideout Ezell Ruffin. Ruffin emerged from the multitude of Aztec wideouts as SDSU's number one option, netting 1,136 yards and three touchdowns on 68 catches. Aztec fans can look forward to a lot of connections between these two next season.

Running: Worse

Coach Rocky Long and his staff filled the void Adam Muema leaves next year as best they could. The running back recruits are good, but they won't equal Muema's production. Speed-demon Donnel Pumphrey will produce as starter, but SDSU will lack its traditionally strong running tandem next season.

Pass defense: Worse

SDSU retains many of its cornerbacks for the 2014-2015 season (King Holder, J.J. Whittaker, Damontae Kazee). However, the Aztecs lose two key safeties (Nat Berhe and Eric Pinkins). SDSU picked up some solid defensive back recruits, including Na'Im McGee, a standout from Diablo Valley College. But they won't develop into talent like Berhe for at least a year.

Run defense: Better

SDSU's run defense last year dominated some games and floundered in others. Get ready to see more of the dominant type defense this year. With the addition of recruit Christian Heyward and the return of linebackers Jake Fely and Josh Gavert, SDSU's run defense will be much better.

Special teams: Better

How could it get worse?

Season outlook

Looking forward, it appears that the SDSU Aztecs will improve in the 2014-2015 season. They'll need every ounce of improvement to face an extremely daunting schedule. SDSU's four most difficult games come on the road. Here's a closer look at the 2014-2015 schedule:

Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014

vs. Northern Arizona Lumberjacks

In SDSU's 2013-2014 opener, Eastern Illinois proved that no game is a gimme game. The NAU Lumberjacks aren't slacks; they ended last season ranked No. 15 in the Coaches' FCS Top 25 Poll, and they play in a powerful FCS conference, the Big Sky Conference. Five Big Sky teams were in the top 25 at season's end. With all that said, SDSU should win this game with relative ease. I would hope that they've learned their lesson.

Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014

at North Carolina Tarheels

ESPN pegs UNC as the preseason-No. 16 team in its "Way Too Early Top 25." The Tarheels dug themselves an early hole last season, losing five of their first six games, but finished the season 6-1. Coach Larry Fedora and the rest of the coaching staff built upon the momentum and signed Elijah Hood, ESPN's 80th best player in the 2014 class. Hood, who ran 3,609 yards his senior year, turned down Ohio State, Stanford, USC, South Carolina, Michigan, Miami, Notre Dame, Georgia, Florida State, Clemson and many more schools to be a Tarheel. Traveling to Chapel Hill to face an up-and-coming Atlantic Coast Conference team with a stud running back will provide a great challenge for SDSU's improved run defense.

Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014

at Oregon St. Beavers

Although Beavers star quarterback Sean Mannion loses speedster wideout Brandon Cooks, OSU recruited the 21st best 2014 class, according to 247sports.com. However, the Beavers' biggest weakness will be their secondary; the Aztecs biggest offense strength will be the arm of Quinn Kaehler. That's a nice equation for SDSU fans.

Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014

vs. UNLV Rebels

The Rebels shot SDSU's hopes for a legitimate bowl game by stomping the Aztecs 45-19 in the season finale. Unfortunately for UNLV fans, the Rebels couldn't ride the momentum of their best season in 13 years and recruited the worst MWC 2014 class, according to 247sports.com. UNLV also loses its talented quarterback, Caleb Herring.

Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014

at Fresno St. Bulldogs

The Bulldogs won the MWC West Division by beating SDSU 35-28 in overtime last season at Qualcomm Stadium. The West will once again come down to the Aztecs and the Bulldogs. Fresno loses its two biggest weapons to the NFL: quarterback Derek Carr and wideout Devonte Adams. SDSU returns Kaehler and breakout star Ruffin, but Fresno head coach Tim DeRuyter will no doubt assemble another prolific offense. This game begins a series of tough MWC road games for SDSU.

Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014

at New Mexico Lobos

Three UNM running backs ran over 500 yards this season, and two return in 2014. In fact, UNM actually had the fourth best running attack in the country in 2013. But you need a lot more than a running attack to win games, and UNM just isn't there yet. However, you can definitely win ONE game with good running backs. Also, UNM recruited better than Utah State--quite surprising. Watch out for a potential trap game in Albuquerque.

Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014

vs. Hawaii Warriors

Remember when Hawaii had Colt Brennan and won fans' hearts across the country as one of the first true BCS-busters? Yeah, that was a long time ago...

Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014

at Nevada Wolf Pack

Nevada returns multi-tooled quarterback Cody Fajardo for his senior season. Fajardo threw for 2,668 yards and ran for 621 yards in 2013. He actually passed his season-high in Nevada's overtime loss to the Aztecs in Qualcomm. Kaehler and Fajardo will enjoy playing against poor secondaries. This game will come down to running, though: which running attack will allow for more effective play action plays?

Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014

vs. Idaho Vandals

This will be Idaho's first year in the Sun Belt Conference. The new Sun Belt members won only one game last year. Idaho has assembled a pretty difficult 2014 schedule so far, playing SDSU, Florida and Ohio University. One day the difficult games will add up and the Vandals will improve; Nov. 8, 2014 will not be that day.

Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014

at Boise St. Broncos

This has become a great MWC rivalry. The Aztecs have upset the Broncos two years in a row. Although Boise might go through a transition year with new head coach Bryan Harson, the Broncos will still be a national force. Boise retains quarterback Grant Hedrick, who completed over 70% of his passes in 2013. Boise is usually a top 15 program; it fell off the map last year and will look to bounce back this year. This will be SDSU's most difficult task of the season--Boise has a strong secondary, a solid run defense and a potent offense. It will test every facet of SDSU's game.

Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014

vs. Air Force Falcons

A few years ago, Air Force was the best Armed Forces academy program and could take down some powerful teams with its dynamic running attack. Air Force will get back there in a few years, but not next year.

Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014

vs. San Jose St. Spartans

SDSU ends its season with a huge trap game. SJSU loses almost its entire offense in David Fales and Chandler Jones. But Ron Caragher is one of the best coaches in the MWC. As long as Caragher wears the headset on the Spartan sideline, you can never count SJSU out. Big potential trap game to end the year (just like UNLV this year).

Here's another aspect of SDSU's game look at this season: SDSU will have a more reliable pass attack, but the Aztecs pride themselves on a run-first mentality. It'll be interesting to see if SDSU changes to a pass-first offense next year.

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