Year three. It’s the season that typically serves as the litmus test for a college football head coach’s tenure. If their football program can’t improve by the third go-around, fan bases and athletic directors tend to get impatient. It’s safe to say that most fans of San Jose State’s football team are already at that point with head coach Brent Brennan.
In his two campaigns commanding the Spartans, Brennan has managed just three wins, with a staggering 22 losses. The only team in the FBS worse during that stretch were the 1-23 UTSA Roadrunners.
In an effort to turn things around, Brennan has assembled an impressive coaching staff. Many of his own recruits are finally ready to start. He’s a player’s coach, and seems to be well liked and respected in the locker room. But all of those things are irrelevant if you can’t win. And coach Brennan is ready to shake the criticism and get the monkey off his back.
Is 2019 the season that turns San Jose State’s fortunes?
Reasons for optimism: For the first time since the David Fales era, there’s no quarterback controversy in Silicon Valley. Josh Love is the guy, plain and simple, and he was effective in 2018. He led the nation’s 32nd ranked passing attack with nearly 2,000 yards, 14 touchdowns and only nine interceptions in his junior season. He just couldn’t stay healthy. And with suspect depth at the QB spot, the Spartans crumbled when Love was out. Luckily for them, there should be solid backup QB play. Chance LaChappelle and Alec Trujillo are battling for the QB2 spot in fall camp, and either would be able to get the job done. Obviously, it would be preferred if Love could stay on the field, but SJSU would be in capable hands if he were to get hurt.
The wide receiver crew should have fans excited. The Spartans will have a vertical passing attack thanks to the speed of wideouts like Tre Walker, Leki Nunn and Bailey Gaither, who was having a fantastic season in 2018 before suffering a torn achilles. Love will have a diverse set of weapons, as a solid set of tight ends will attempt to fill the void left by Josh Oliver.
Cause for concern: The main reason why SJSU had issues keeping quarterbacks healthy last year? An offensive line with as many holes as swiss cheese. Love and backups Michael Carillo and Montel Aaron took beatings while waiting for routes to develop. QB’s had to get rid of the ball earlier than preferred. The run game was basically nonexistent, despite talent and depth at running back.
Coach Brennan recognized and addressed these issues in the offseason. He brought in Minnesota transfer Quinn Oseland, who will likely start at right tackle. The other spots are up for grabs, and if the Spartans can improve the line, the potential for the offense is almost limitless.
Key Stat: 130. That magical number is where the Spartans ranked in the FBS in rushing one year ago, at 61.5 yards per game. For those that don’t know, that’s also the number of teams in the FBS. Washington State was second-to-last at 77.7 YPG, a full 16 yards above SJSU. There were only five teams below 100 YPG. Simply put, that number needs to improve dramatically if SJSU wants to even catch a whiff of bowl season.
Wildcard: The playbook. At the start of 2018, Brennan’s playcalling was basic and unadventurous. But as Love continued to impress and the receivers made plays, the playbook opened up. By the end of the season, Brennan was going all out with trick plays, reversals, deep balls, you name it. Was that because he gained trust in Love, or did he start to feel the flames radiating off the hot seat? Who knows. But it’s something that should continue. Brennan is a creative offensive mind, and he needs to remember that the biggest risks bring the biggest rewards.
Reasons for optimism: The Spartans’ coaching staff took a huge blow shortly after the 2018 season when linebacker coach Bojay Filimoeatu took the same position at his alma mater, Utah State. Luckily for them, coach Brennan was able to promote former analyst Scott White to coach the linebackers, a position he held at UCLA for years.
The linebackers will remain SJSU’s strongest unit on defense. Last year’s breakout star Ethan Aguayo will remain the anchor at middle linebacker, along with Kyle Harmon who should improve after an impressive freshman season. On the edge, Jesse Osuna will be out for blood, looking to improve on his two sacks in 2018.
Cause for concern: The defensive line is going to struggle. A lot. That’s not an unfamiliar sight for Spartan fans, but this year will likely be harsher than others for a young d-line group with little experience. The line was vastly improved in 2018 after a disastrous 2017 season, but losing Bryson Bridges and Boogie Roberts, who is competing for a spot on the Los Angeles Rams, it’s something the Spartans might not be able to overcome.
They bring back Cade Hall, last year’s leading sack artist, but he only had three. SJSU will trot out a smorgasbord of different linemen like Cameron Alexander and Sailosi Latu, but don’t expect any of them to replicate Roberts’ production.
Key Stat: 11. The Spartans were tied at 125th in the nation in sacks in 2018 with 11, less than one per game. That number simply isn’t going to fly. SJSU did improve in pressuring the QB, but it will need that to translate to sacks. There were far too many plays last season where a QB would nearly be taken down, only for him to escape and make a big throw downfield.
Wildcard: The safeties. Replacing Dakari Monroe is no easy task, but the Spartans may have done it anyway. The competition between Jay Lenard and Stan Livingstone Jr. for the free safety spot has been heated at Fall camp, and it’ll likely bleed into the start of the regular season. Turnover creation was a strength for SJSU last year, and it likely will be again behind a solid cast of defensive backs.
Thurs. Aug. 29 vs. Northern Colorado
Sat. Sept. 7 vs. Tulsa
Sat. Sept. 21 at Arkansas
Fri. Sept. 27 at Air Force
Fri. Oct. 4 vs. New Mexico
Sat. Oct. 12 at Nevada
Sat. Oct. 19 vs. San Diego State
Sat. Oct. 26 at Army West Point
Sat. Nov. 2 vs. Boise State
Sat. Nov. 9 at Hawaii
Sat. Nov. 23 at UNLV
Sat. Nov. 30 vs. Fresno State
Schedule analysis: The scheduling gods were not kind to the Spartans this year. The elephant in the room is of course week one. The Northern Colorado Bears come to town, hailing from the Big Sky conference, which is of course also home to UC Davis, which upset SJSU last year to open the season. It’s strange to say this about a season opener, but it’s simply a must win, not only for the good of the rest of the season, but maybe for the program as a whole if the Spartans want to stay in the Mountain West.
The only non-conference G5 game is against Tulsa, which is basically a coin flip. In conference play, the Spartans were simply unlucky. Draws against Air Force and Boise State are unfortunate for them, as both teams match up incredibly well against SJSU. If the Spartans have bowl expectations for themselves, they have to get some wins early before the gauntlet of their conference schedule catches up to them.
Best case scenario: SJSU takes care of business against UNC and Tulsa at home. It takes a two game skid at Arkansas and Air Force before grabbing a win over New Mexico at home to go 3-2. With three wins in the four games against Nevada, SDSU, Hawaii and UNLV, the Spartans shock the Mountain West and go bowling for the first time since 2015. Coach Brennan heads into year four with big expectations for the reborn SJSU football program.
Worst case scenario: History repeats itself. Another week one FCS upset derails the Spartans and sends them into another season where even one win would be cause for celebration. The Spartans pick up their lone victory against New Mexico on a Friday night, setting up another 1-11 season, and an offseason search for a new coach.
What’s probably going to happen: SJSU continues its upward trajectory. The team is competitive in nearly every game, but because of the sheer brutality of its schedule there isn’t a vast improvement record-wise. The Spartans win the games they should win (UNC, UNM, maybe UNLV) and pull off an upset along the way. They finish either 3-9 or 4-8, and the season is considered a success, with major expectations for coach Brennan and his staff next year.