The top 25 college football rankings are out and surprise, surprise SDSU is nowhere to be found. Don’t get yourself too down though Aztec football fans because there is a lot to be excited about in 2017. In the six seasons that Rocky Long has been the head coach at SDSU it has been a steady upward trajectory for the football team, including two straight Mountain West conference championships. But talking about the past doesn't really do much to get you ready for the future and this season it’s time to find out just what kind of a future Coach Long and the Aztecs can have.
Reasons for optimism: This running back situation. Rashaad Penny and Juwan Washington are a tandem of backs that would make any coach happy. I have addressed in previous articles that Penny is an exciting talent so SDSU fans should be well acquainted with the featured back in their offense but it’s the depth that’s so exciting. Last season Juwan Washington averaged 8 yards per carry and scored a touchdown in five straight games so this kid is no scrub. What is doubly nice is that the passing attack with junior Christian Chapman starting at quarterback. Last year Chapman threw for just shy of 2000 yards and with one of his favorite targets in Mikah Holder returning team won’t be able to focus solely on defending vs. the Aztec running game.
Cause for concern: A slow start vs some big teams. SDSU plays two Pac-12 games in the first 3 weeks then takes a road trip to the high altitudes of the Air Force Academy, which is a rough way to start the season. You can write off one loss as a learning experience that toughens up a team, but two weeks of Pac-12 defense and then traveling to high altitude may be a daunting task for this run heavy offense. A bad stretch early in the season could mean real problems for an Aztec’s offense that has six new starters finding their groove. A slow offensive start to the season could mean trouble producing down the line.
Key Stat: 1000. How many running backs can break the 1000 yard rushing mark on the season? In each of the past two seasons SDSU has had 2 running backs go over the 1000 yard mark on the season.
Wildcard: A fresh new offensive line. There are four new starting offensive linemen this year, which may seem like something that should have been brought up in the ‘cause for concern’ category but there could be more good than bad in the new crew. The main man to know is new left tackle Tyler Roemer, a redshirt freshman, who is a mountain of a man at 6’7’’ 305 lbs. Yes, it’s always possible, the new line could underwhelm and be Swiss cheese but it’s more likely the fresh legs and size will end up being a huge (pun entirely intended) advantage for the Aztecs in 2017.
Reasons for optimism: Senior leadership. Six seniors will be starting on the defense this year including team captain Trey Lomax. Quality senior leadership can be hard to exactly quantify but it is a string positive. There are a lot of prolific offenses on the schedule this season and a strong senior class is a great foundation to build a defense on.
Cause for concern: Red zone defense. Last season the Aztecs only stopped opponents four times inside the twenty, twice with interceptions and twice on downs. That’s not great. With teams like Arizona State, Stanford, and Boise State on the schedule having the ability to generate turnovers and turn seven points into three, will be the difference between winning and losing games.
Key Stat: 3rd down conversions. If the Aztecs want to get national respect they need to blow teams out, and in order to do that the offense needs the ball. Last season the defense allowed a 37% conversion rate on 3rd downs, this season needs to be at or below that number to put the team in a position to win a lot of games in demonstrative fashion.
Wildcard: Position changes. Senior Ryan Dunn who started at middle linebacker last season will now start at linebacker which means more outside responsibility. Junior Noble Hall who started at D tackle last season will now be at D End. Not that either of these are going to be fish out of water situations and total failures.
When and Where:
September 2nd vs UC Davis
September 9th at Arizona State
September 16th vs Stanford
September 23rd at Air Force *
September 30th vs Northern Illinois
October 7th at UNLV *
October 14th vs Boise State *
October 21st vs Fresno State *
October 28th at Hawaii *
November 4th at San Jose State *
November 11th - Bye
November 18th vs Nevada *
November 24th vs New Mexico
(* indicates conference game)
Thoughts: It’s a big boy schedule. If you look at it in a vacuum two PAC - 12 games and Boise State is a hard year for most teams. It’s entirely possible to have a few losses that are deemed acceptable and just so long as the Aztecs win the conference title the season is still a success. It’s also possible that this is the year that SDSU gets over the hump and becomes the big name power five conference school nationally that makes waves. Several polls have Arizona State as a middle of the pack school and Stanford is a home game, it seems that SDSU has more than a chance in both games. If they can avoid having one trap game and one major blowout like they suffered last season the schedule looks to be a pretty solid year for the Aztecs.
Best case scenario: This has to be a 12 - 0 right? With a big physical attack up front on offense if everything starts clicking right out of the gate then who’s to say that Rashaad Penny can’t get this done.
Worst case scenario: Early losses to ASU and Stanford drain momentum and lead to a road loss at Air Force and before we know it things have spiraled to 7 - 5 on the year.
What’s probably going to happen: A strong Aztec squad is going to have a season long dog fight with Boise State for the top spot in the Mountain West. Arizona State will be a huge win for the team to get some national attention, then Stanford will be a loss that Rocky Long can write off as growing pains of having to play with the big boys. Boise State is a toss-up game that could go either way as of right now so that could be a loss that gets avenged in the conference title game. Lets also throw in one possible trap game late in the season on the chance that injuries pile up. A 9 - 3 regular season is very realistic and achievable for this year’s team.