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Nevada football offseason opponent preview: San Diego State

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Barring any unforeseen setbacks due to COVID-19, there are eight Saturday’s until the Nevada Football team will kickoff its 2020 season.

Assuming the Nevada football season begins on-time and non-conference play occurs, here is a look at its 2020 schedule:

Nevada Football 2020 Schedule

Date Opponent Time TV 2019 Final FPI Rankings 2020 Preseason FPI Rankings
Date Opponent Time TV 2019 Final FPI Rankings 2020 Preseason FPI Rankings
August 29 vs. UC Davis TBD TBD --------- ---------
September 5 at Arkansas TBD TBD 93 66
September 12 vs. UTEP TBD TBD 128 129
September 19 at South Florida TBD TBD 95 86
September 26 vs. San Diego State TBD TBD 71 88
October 3 at Hawai'i TBD TBD 79 119
October 10 BYE --------- --------- --------- ---------
October 17 at New Mexico TBD TBD 121 124
October 24 vs. Fresno State TBD TBD 81 93
October 31 vs. Utah State TBD TBD 73 85
November 7 at San Jose State TBD TBD 103 108
November 14 vs. Wyoming TBD TBD 68 77
November 21 BYE --------- --------- --------- ---------
November 28 at UNLV TBD TBD 116 117

Each Friday leading up to the season, I will be previewing each Pack opponent on their 2020 schedule. This week, we will be previewing their first conference matchup: the San Diego State Aztecs.

Previous weeks:

6/12: Week 1 vs. UC Davis

6/19: Week 2 at Arkansas

6/26: Week 3 vs. UTEP

7/3: Week 4 at South Florida

Week 5: San Diego State Aztecs

2019 record: 10-3 (5-3 MWC)

When: Saturday, Sept. 26

Where: Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.

Matchup History: SDSU leads 7-5

SDSU 2019 season-in-review:

San Diego State had an odd start to its season, despite rattling off three straight victories. It began with a 6-0 shutout on two field goals at home versus Division-I AA opponent Weber State. Both teams combined for 392 total yards on 3.2 yards per play. SDSU earned a 23-14 victory road victory over UCLA in its next game followed by a convincing 31-10 road victory against New Mexico State. Its first loss came in its opening conference game versus Utah State (23-17) before following up with four straight victories — three coming on the road — moving to 7-1 and No. 24 in the AP poll. The Wolf Pack shoved the Aztecs out of the national rankings with a slim 17-13 win — Nevada’s first ever road win over a ranked team in program history. The Aztecs picked up wins in three of their final four contests, including a blowout 48-11 victory over Central Michigan in the New Mexico Bowl — the largest margin-of-victory for SDSU in 2019 and the largest bowl game margin in school history.

2020 Preview:

Offense:

Despite winning ten contests last year, the Aztec offense was pretty lackluster. They ranked last in the conference in scoring offense (21.2 ppg) and total offense (343.2 ypg), placing among the bottom-20 teams across the nation in both categories. They did move up three spots from 2018 in their offensive efficiency ranking, but still ranked No. 108 in America in offensive efficiency (per ESPN’s efficiency metric).

The calling card for the Aztec offense for the last decade has been its potent rushing attack. From 2010-2017, the program produced at least one 1200-yard rusher. In three of those seasons (2015-17), the Aztecs rushed for 3000-plus yards as a team — including a single-season program record 3,681 yards in 2016.

That has slowed down in the last two seasons.

The Aztecs’ rushing total dipped to 2,102 yards in 2018 and 1,837 yards last year. From 2014-17, SDSU ranked inside the Top-30 in the FBS in rushing offense and placed inside the Top-10 in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, it ranked No. 74 (161.7 ypg) and No. 94 last year (140.5 ypg).

In 2018, Juwan Washington was one yard away from becoming the 11th Aztec 1,000-yard rusher since 2010 and the 26th in school history.

Washington, who battled the injury bug for the second consecutive season, mustered just 500 rushing yards on 3.3 yards per carry in nine games last year. He graduates, but the trio of Chance Bell, Jordan Byrd and Chase Jasmin will aim for carries in the backfield.

Bell is the team’s leading returning rusher from last year. He rushed for 384 yards (on 89 carries) with three rushing touchdowns. Byrd totaled 78 carries for 355 yards and three rushing scores.

Jasmin is the only senior tailback on the roster. He totaled 366 yards on 79 carries with four rushing touchdowns last year. Jasmin is arguably the best pass-catcher among the trio, hauling in 14 receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown.

Carson Baker is expected to be the team’s starting quarterback. In just one start versus BYU — the only game he appeared in — Baker completed 19-of-24 passes (79.2 percent) for 172 yards and a touchdown. Baker became the second Aztec Division-I quarterback ever to win his first career collegiate start after not attempting a pass.

The Aztecs return their top two pass catchers in Kobe Smith and Jesse Matthews. Smith recorded team-highs in receptions (58), receiving yards (691) and receiving touchdowns (4). Matthews finished second on the team in receptions with 48, totaling 633 yards with two receiving scores. Tight end Daniel Bellinger returns for his junior season. Bellinger tallied three receiving scores — T-4 most among any Mountain West tight end. He finished the year with 15 receptions for 201 yards in 13 contests.

Three starters — tackle Kyle Spalding with guards Zachary Thomas and William Dunkle — return on SDSU’s offensive line. Dominic Guidino will finally start at center after 14 career starts and Jacob Capra looks to solidify the starting right tackle job after six starts at both tackles spots last year.

Defense:

Despite Rocky Long retiring after nine years as head coach and promptly becoming the defensive coordinator at New Mexico, the Aztecs still boasts one of the conference’s top defenses.

Long created a defensive identity with the Aztecs. Since 2015, they ranked in the Top-40 in defensive efficiency three times — placing No. 16 last season. The Aztecs ranked atop the Mountain West in total defense (287.8 ypg), scoring defense (12.7 ppg) and rushing defense (75.4 ypg) — ranking in the Top-5 nationally in each category.

With Long’s departure, head coach Brady Hoke, who was the defensive line coach last year, inherits a very strong group. It suffered some tough departures, but should return as one of the conference’s best defenses heading into 2020.

The Aztec defensive excellence begins on the defensive line, arguably the best returning core in the conference.

Their two key cogs on the defensive front are Cameron Thomas and Keshawn Banks. Thomas made an immediate impact as a freshman, finishing seventh in the conference in sacks with 5.5, also totaling 9.0 tackles-for-loss.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at San Diego State
Fresno State Bulldogs quarterback Jorge Reyna (11) runs as San Diego State Aztecs defensive lineman Cameron Thomas (65).
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas was named to the All-Mountain West first team and The Athletic’s Freshman All-American second team. He was the only freshman given All-Conference first team honors.

Banks totaled 43 tackles, including a team-high tackles-for-loss (13.5) and third in sacks (4.5). His 13.5 tackles-for-loss were the fourth-most in the conference.

Connor Mitchell and Jahlil Lecky will both bring experience that could fill the defensive end spot opposite of Banks. Mitchell, who appeared in all 13 games, registered just four tackles with one tackle-for-loss. Lecky had five tackles with one sack in seven games. Jonah Tavai (15 tackles, 1.5 sacks) will also get snaps at nose tackle in SDSU’s 3-3-5 base defense.

The linebacking corps takes the biggest hit, losing two-time first-team All-Mountain West honoree and the team’s leading tackler Kyahva Tezino to the NFL.

Caden McDonald (34 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks) and Andrew Aleki (35 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack) hold the starting outside linebacker spots. Kaelin Himphill (four tackles), Michael Shawcroft (five tackles) and Seyddrick Lakalaka (seven tackles, 0.5 tackle-for-loss) all have experience and will compete to fill the enormous shoes left by Tezino.

The Aztecs also feature arguably the best secondary unit in the conference, led by three-time second-team All-Mountain West honoree Tariq Thompson. Mountain West Connection’s own James Fragoza labeled Thomspon as the best returning Aztec player heading into 2020.

Thompson finished T-3 on the team in total tackles with 55, tallying three tackles-for-loss, one sack, four interceptions and eight pass breakups. He also had three fumble recoveries, tying the most in the conference and the sixth-most nationally. His three fumbles are T-6 most in SDSU single season history.

NCAA Football: Brigham Young at San Diego State
San Diego State Aztecs safety Tariq Thompson (14) intercepts a pass intended for Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Aleva Hifo.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Thompson’s counterpart is another dynamic defensive back, safety Dwayne Johnson Jr., who earned All-Mountain West honorable mention honors last year. He leads returning Aztec players in tackles with 92. The 6-foot-2 playmaker also totaled 1.5 tackles-for-loss, two fumble recoveries, one interception and one pass breakup. Johnson Jr. and Thompson are a hard-hitting dynamic combo that create the best safety unit in the conference.

Darren Hall was a disruptor in the passing attack on the outside, recording 16 pass breakups and one interception. His 16 pass breakups were tied with teammate Luq Barcoo and Louisiana Tech’s Amik Robertson for the most in the FBS. Barcoo signed as an undrafted free agent to the Jacksonville Jaguars while Robertson was taken in the fourth round (No. 139 overall) to the Las Vegas Raiders.

Overall:

Nevada jumps into conference play with far-and-away its toughest opponent to date. It’s still a home contest for Nevada, but that does not make it easier by any stretch of the imagination. Hoke inherits one of the most talented squads in the conference that is primed for another ten-win season (well, if ten games are even played). I would circle Nevada-SDSU if I were a Mountain West football fan. It could be a must-watch showdown between the top-two teams in the West Division — a early-season contest that could be a potential tiebreaker for the division winner as the season’s conclusion.