Normally, Division I college football fans would be thrilled to start a season against an FCS school--easy win, good playing experience for younger players. But San Diego State football fans know all too well that one can't underestimate any opponent after seeing their Aztecs walloped by the FCS Eastern Illinois Panthers 40-19 in last season's opener.
The Aztecs begin this season playing another FCS school in Northern Arizona. The NAU Lumberjacks play in the Big Sky Conference, arguably FCS's best football conference (five of the final FCS Top 25 teams in 2013 were Big Sky teams, NAU was No. 15). So yes, the Lumberjacks won't have the athletes or skills that the Aztecs will. NAU also loses eight significant defensive contributors and its all-time leading rusher Zach Bauman. But after last year, the Aztecs know they must treat every game like its their last.
Here's what you need to know about SDSU's first 2014 opponent.
Coach: Jerome Souers
This will be Souers' 17th season as head coach of NAU. His career record is 93-88. Souers led the Lumberjacks to their best season during his tenure last season, and he's looking to continue that positive trend.
Conference: Big Sky Conference
Northern Arizona (15), Montana (8), Montana State (20), North Dakota State (1) and Southern Utah (24) all finished in the final FCS Top 25 last year.
2013 schedule and record: 9-3 (7-1 Big Sky)
|@ Arizona||L 35-0|
|@ UC Davis||W 21-10|
|South Dakota||W 22-16|
|@ Montana State||L 36-7|
|@ Sacramento State||L 39-38|
|Idaho State||W 39-30|
|@ Cal Poly||W 17-13|
|North Dakota||W 48-27|
|Northern Colorado||W 24-7|
|@ Southern Utah||W 24-10|
|South Dakota State||L 26-7|
Playoffs: Lost in the first round of the FCS Playoffs to No. 14 South Dakota State 26-7.
Five key Lumberjacks:
WR Dejzon Walker (6'3", 225 pounds) Senior
Walker will be the senior leader of a wide receiving core that loses two big-time targets in Jesse Brantley and Nick Cole. Walker had a solid 2013, grabbing 24 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns. With his impressive height, Walker is a great big-play target down the field who can outreach most defensive backs matching up against him. In fact, he averaged over 15 yards-per-reception in five of his nine games played in 2013.
FB Nick Butier (6'1", 240 pounds) Junior
Butier reminds me a lot of former-Aztec great Chad Young. Former NAU running back Zach Bauman received most or all of the credit for his 1,456 rushing yards last season. But Butier quietly earned a spot on the All-Big Sky Second Team. In other words, Butier helped pave the way for his superstar running back, and there's no reason to believe why he can't make an average running back look great this year (not saying that Bauman was average, by the way).
QB Kyren Poe (6'3", 195 pounds) Redshirt junior
Last year Poe played the role of game manager. He didn't need to lead the offense--he had Bauman for that. Poe only threw 270 passes, completing 163 for 1,602 yards, six touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also ran 65 times for 173 yards and two touchdowns. But this year he'll need to be much more of an offensive leader. The Lumberjacks will spend a good chunk of time this summer making sure Poe and his receivers are on the same page.
LB Austin Hasquet (6'1", 225 pounds) Senior
The NAU defense will be depleted next year, but this linebacker leader stays for one more year. Hasquet led the team with 91 tackles and picked off three passes--one of which was a pick-six. Last year Hasquet shared the defensive leadership role with several other players, but this year he's the unquestioned leader. Expect to see his stats improve.
DB Marcus Alford (5'10", 160 pounds) Junior
The Lumberjack secondary will be especially weakened next year--Alford is the only returning starter. As starter last year, Alford recorded 26 tackles. He also intercepted one pass, returning it 47 yards for a touchdown, and he turned a fumble recovery into another defensive touchdown. With Hasquet and returning defensive lineman Zach McDonnell working on run defense up front, it will be largely up to Alford to batten down the hatches to reduce the production drop-off from last year.
NAU will be without running back Zach Bauman for the first time in four years--a big hit to the offense. Not only did Bauman lead the team in rushing, but he also led the team in receptions. In fact, Bauman accounted for 159 more yards than his quarterback threw last year. The wide receiving core looks to be solid despite losing two starters, but the team does lose starting offensive tackle Kyle Walker. This offense's exact production is still up in the air, but one thing is very clear: it will be different and it won't be as good as last year.
NAU's defense was phenomenal last year. It allowed the fewest first downs per game in the Big Sky (17.7). It also led the Big Sky in opponent third-down conversion rate (34.9 percent). It even led all FCS teams with eight defensive touchdowns. But the Lumberjacks lose eight players who started a minimum of six games, including one Associated Press All-American and three College Sports Madness All-Americans. The 2014 defense will have a tough time matching the 2013 defense.
Early prediction: SDSU won't repeat its 2013 season opener--SDSU 36 NAU 14