San Jose State took the Mountain West by storm during the 2020 season, winning every regular-season game and capturing the Mountain West Conference Championship. Coach Brent Brennan took a long-term approach to build the program, endured numerous blow-out losses, and tried seasons before becoming the top team in the conference. However, 2021 is a new season, and the question is will the Spartans repeat as champions, or will another team knock them off? Vic and Mike list five reasons to support both claims in today’s post.
5 reasons they will
1. There is still a ton of offensive star-power (Vic)
Yes. It’s funny how each teams’ cycles go. Early on, QB play was sketchy until Josh Love opened the doors to a 5-7 season in 2019. All it took was one true hungry leader. Now, you have more-than-capable Nick Starkel and in the wings, Nick Nash, so the question isn’t about the QBs anymore. Then it was the lack of running game for a few years until last year’s notable breakout. This year, it’s a question about the receivers after losing Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither. That ebb and flow is normal and not really an issue, I feel.
I see a bigger breadth of receivers than any other year; meaning OC Kevin McGiven has more to work with overall than ever before.
As the run game showed up last year, it didn’t hurt that Starkel was a threat on every play that made defenses consider both the run and pass equally...finally. This year teams will be aware of the run game and we should expect more from it, which means there’s some margin for the receiving game to play out. Traditionally, that’s the way it should be - the run will open up the pass game.
And at the foundation of it all, the returning offensive line is just as much of that “offensive star-power.”
2. Cade Hall and the majority of the defense return (Vic)
There’s some “grown-man” play going on with the likes of Hall, Junior Fehoko (DE), Jay Leonard (S), Kyle Harmon (LB) and more. Literally seeing them physically grow up and get more and more comfortable in the Derrick Odum defense from past seasons is remarkable.
Seeing how they read and adjust collectively to anything shows maturity and intelligence that’s beyond being coached up. Along with their speed and power, teams know they’re not facing a push-over defense. There’s still a lot of payback mentally going on and many of us can’t wait to see more of it.
3. Their schedule is favorable
For the most part, San Jose State has a pretty favorable schedule, at least on paper. Although 2020 was an odd season, only two teams on their schedule went to bowl games last season (although at least one more team should have). Looking at their out-of-conference slate, it would be a surprise if they did not go 3-1, with wins over Southern Utah, Western Michigan, and New Mexico as close to guarantees as one can get in college football. USC would likely be the only loss, although the team should be highly motivated to prove themselves in that game, if nothing else. Moving over the conference slate wins over Colorado State, UNLV, and Utah State seem certain, with wins over Hawaii and Fresno State likely. Plus, probably at least one of the San Diego State, Wyoming, and Nevada. Adding all of that up, and a safe bet would be that the Spartans reach 8 or 9 wins, including 5 or 6 in conference play. That could very well lead to another West division title and a return trip to the championship game.
4. Winning has given the team the confidence to know they can succeed
Winning makes teams confident, and in turn, confidence helps teams win, especially in bigger games. This circular cause and effect started small, with establishing initial confidence in 2017/2018 for just winning a game or two in those seasons. The confidence to compete came from the 2019 season after going 5-7 and competing for a bowl berth. All of those seasons snowballed the confidence level, and it should now be at an all-time high after winning the Mountain West Championship last year and beating perennial powerhouse Boise State. Last season, Coach Brennan and his staff appeared to instill in the team the confidence that they could win a conference title. Now, they have done it, which should lead to even more confidence that they can do it again this year.
5. Coach Brennan is still at the helm, and the culture is still strong (Vic)
Like any great team in any sports program across the country, they reflect the persona of their head coaches. It’s a safe bet to say Brennan wants to be that kind of legacy guy and a person who truly has the best interests of everyone around him. He has high energy to match anyone around or in that program. He’s an authentic, high-integrity guy who really believes when all the human factors are properly addressed, all else will fall into place.
People are really starting to feel and think he can be that legacy-kinda-guy.
5 reasons they won’t
1. They lost their two best wide receivers
One of the most significant constants in the college football world is the constant roster turnover, which occurs for one reason or another. Graduation and sights set on the NFL were the main reasons as to why the Spartans will head into 2021 without their top two wide receivers from the 2020 season. Tre Walker (45 receptions, 627 receiving yards, 4 TDs) and Bailey Gaither (41 receptions, 725 receiving yards, 4 TDs) were the two players targeted most in the offense, with each of them getting twice as many reps as the next person and actually accounting for about 50% of the receptions on the team. While there are other talented pass-catchers on the team, none were as prominent as last year, and the gap to replace Walker and Gaither could not be bigger.
2. Some of their coaches were poached in the offseason
It’s a tale as old as time. A team wins games, and in that offseason, other teams target the coaching staff for openings, and some coaches leave for those staff openings. It’s the price of success, particularly for G5 teams, and San Jose State was no exception after winning the conference championship last season. Wide Receivers coach Kevin Cummings left for Arizona, and QB coach Ryan Gunderson left for UCLA. Both of those positions have been crucial to the success of the Spartan offense, and it would make sense a change to the coaches at those spots would cause the units to take a step back or be less effective overall. It’s worth keeping an eye on the quarterback, and wide receiver play this season.
3. They are due for some regression in terms of player health
Health is almost always a prime factor in how successful a team can be over the course of the season. Good health usually correlates with a team having a good season. During the Covid Season of 2020, heaving healthy players was even more imperative. Last year, the Spartans were talented, executed well, and had a great run of health. Until they didn’t. While teams around them were missing players due to covid, SJSU stayed healthy and arguably benefitted late in the season when they couldn’t play their home games at home and went into a tighter bubble. However, the pandemic finally caught up to them in the bowl game, when five key starters and two starters missed the Arizona Bowl due to Covid, and stand-out tight-end Derrick Deese was injured on the first play of the game. It is unlikely their run of clean health can last over the course of an entire season, but how much it will impact them is the question.
4. The bowl loss gave teams a blueprint for beating them (Vic)
Relatively speaking, I biasedly disagree:)
Yes, the Spartans were man-handled by Ball State in that bowl game, but I think they were shell-shocked a bit well before that particular game knowing they were going to be down some key foundational players and coaches due to COVID. But another key thing behind that is those who missed the bowl game had the key seasonal reps that made their basic scheme and plays work reliably over the course of 2020.
Talking to Brennan in this case, he touts the absolute need to execute at the highest level and reps and game-like practice is essential. He points out a good example in coach Mike Leach, currently at Mississippi State. He’s been running a very limited amount of plays forever and he still scores at a high rate. Teams know what’s coming, thus to his point of execution.
I had even mentioned to Brennan that I could guess decently on plays from certain formations last season, but in the end, yes, it’s about execution, as sometimes that same play I could pick out worked to varying degrees.
5. The rest of the conference will be gunning for them and preparing for them (Vic)
This would have to go hand-in-hand with my previous reply above.
Even if opponents know everything that’s coming at them, it still comes down to who executed best. If everyone executed well on particular play or one person broke their assignment, it’s about consistent execution throughout an entire game.
The variables are many and preparing for the Spartans, or for anyone really, is the least any team should be doing. Also, I think the edge goes to the Spartans in terms of seeing what more they’ll come at you with.
So the preparation and chess game always goes both ways.