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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: San Diego State

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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What’s Changed. The NFL, at least, liked the Aztec offense in 2007. Only four offensive players from the Mountain West went in April’s draft, and three of them – quarterback Kevin O’Connell, a third rounder, and receivers Chaz Schilens and Brett Swain, seventh rounders – came from San Diego State. The prolific attack that suggests might come as a surprise to the defenses of the MWC, though: SDSU finished second in the conference in passing yards, but outside of a win over I-AA Portland State, the Aztecs topped 30 points and/or 400 yards of total offense only twice, finishing slightly behind the curve in yards and points in one of the nation’s more offensively-challenged conferences.

So if the Aztecs weren’t particularly explosive with draft-ready talent on hand, where does it leave the team with a ton of new starters on offense, including a new quarterback from among a trio with no significant playing time between them, and that went 9 of 24 in the Spring game? I’m not sure why that group doesn’t include Darren Mougey, easily the most experienced passer on the team: Mougey started three games early in 2006 and has pro size at 6-6, 225. So, yeah, he has four times as many interceptions (8) as touchdowns (2) over his career, was knocked out for the season before he earned his first win as a starter and spent 2007 at wide receiver, where he apparently will spend this fall, too, according to the depth charts. The only other skill player whose done anything is Vincent Brown, who caught 30 passes in the fourth receiver role as a freshman, and the passing game has to find someone to rely on – O’Connell led the team in rushing last year, which is not a testament to his athleticism, and there are no running backs who logged 60 carries or 20 yards per game in the meekest ground attack in the conference.

The least you should know about San Diego State...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 4-8 (3-5 Mtn. West; 6th)
2003-07: 22-37 (15-23 Mtn. West)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 46 • 57 • 86 • 63 • 77
Returning Starters, Roughly
12 (4 Offense, 8 Defense)
Best Player
Career starter and conference tackle leader Russell Allen is the only returnee worth even an honorable mention all-MWC vote, according to the coaches, but no member of a defense as bad in all respects as SDSU's can hold up as a beacon for the team. Look instead to quarterback-turned-receiver Darren Mougey, a huge (6-6, 225) red zone threat who finished third on the team behind a pair of draft picks with 32 catches last year off an injury that cost him the QB job in the fourth game in 2006. Given the lack of experience around him, his consistency as the go-to guy is essential, although one also suspects a real standout would be a part of a doomed-looking quarterback derby, which Mougey is not.
Mascotin' (We Don't See Race Here)
I'm having a hard time keeping straight exactly what's up with the Aztec mascot, a seemingly noble homage to the vicious Mexican overlords of the 14th-16th centuries that nevertheless came under fire for its flame-and-spear-wielding, "Monty Montezuma" depiction around the turn of the century. The university suspended the mascot for a few years and wound up having to endure unofficial versions until it relented and brought back a revised, PC-friendly version of the "Aztec Warrior" in 2006. All of which I mention only to direct you to this photo gallery of the Aztec through the years, which – like all mascot retrospectives – is equal parts hilarious and disturbing, with both emotions fueling the other. It's a, uh, chicken-and-egg thing.
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* According to Rivals.

There apparently was some optimism for running back Atiyyah Henderson going into last year, off a great start as a freshman, but Henderson wore down noticeably at the end of 2006 and was basically a banged-up third-teamer as a sophomore. They desperately need him to travel back to October ‘06 and bottle his mojo, or whatever it was that set him off out of the gate. Even if what it was was illegal – I’m not saying it was, massive frat-run drug rings notwithstanding; SMQ assumes Atiyyah is an upstanding, class-attending, shirt-ironing young man of staggering honor – drastic times call for drastic measures.

What’s the Same. Not to pile on here, but warts and all, the offense was considerably rosier than the defense, which finished last in the Mountain West in every possible category, including a two areas – run defense, sacks – in which SDSU also finished last in 2006, an indictment to the porous front seven. In fact, to say the Aztecs were the worst defense in the conference last year understates the point to a significant degree, somewhat quantifiable thusly:

The only team in the country that allowed more yards per game rushing was UAB, and even the Blazers didn’t completely fall apart to the extent the SDSU front did over the last month: UNLV, Air Force, TCU and BYU rolled up 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns in the last four games, on a ghastly 6.5 per carry between them; Air Force alone had 569 and eight touchdowns in one evening.

Given that, it’s hard to paint six returning starters in the front seven as a positive, and the coaches apparently agree: veteran front-liners are under fire at at least two positions, according to the school’s Spring prospectus, and possibly three, if you believe some of the magazines. Under the circumstances, incremental improvement is inevitable.

The Sun God Relishes the Flesh of Fired Coach. Chuck Long was brought in from Oklahoma in 2005 to be a turnaround guy – he succeeded Mike Leach as Bob Stoops’ offensive coordinator and was integral in mythical championships, BCS wins and the Most Outstanding™ campaigns of Josh Heupel, Jason White and Adrian Peterson – but is probably on one of the hotter seats in the country after two years. This is not only because neither of his initial efforts has matched the worst year under his deposed predecessor, Tom Craft, but also because attendance has dropped dramatically, from 36,000-plus on average in 2005 to less than 28,000 last year – subtract the usual bump for season ticket no-shows, and that’s probably less than half Qualcomm Stadium’s capacity. In the meantime, the program’s very existence has come under heat for being an extraordinary cash cow burden amid dwindling returns: the athletic department’s take from the university’s general fund is about twice the national average, and the faculty pushed a resolution to abolish football last September.

Pete Thamel is probably right that, short of a long shot winning season, Long is on his last legs here.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. Statistics aren’t the be-all, end-all, right, so the defense was not necessarily that bad. At least it’s going to be better. It must be, because otherwise, the headline:

...could be pretty traumatic. Redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley came out of the morass as the favorite to win the quarterback job in the fall, which surprised even him after a 2 for 7 performance in the scrimmage, with one interception. One thing in the kid’s favor: to the extent it matters in the murky world of mid-major recruiting, Lindley was far higher rated by Rivals out of high school than Kelsey Sokoloski and JUCO transfer Drew Westling, just by being rated at all – he was the No. 34 QB in the class of 2007, and the rare three-star signee, which gives him a leg up in the "upside" category even if things get ugly. San Diego State on You Tube. A couple guys claim they were visiting colleges in 2007, called somebody from the SDSU film department, and ten minutes later were on scene, filming this with no preparation whatsoever:

That’s pretty much how I picture California all the time, except with Mexicans and Spiccoli-like stoners. That’s what it is, right?

See Also: Shocking, shocking footage of the SDSU party scene. ... A pack of carefully-chosen lies in the 2007 SDSU defensive highlights. God bless editing. ... Playboy presents "SDSU Reggae Sun Splash Party." Dude thinks the girls are hot. ... And someone named Mark Dice, neé John Conner, wakes up some student zombies at SDSU to the truth about 9/11 (hey, babes in bikinis know what’s up).

Best-Case: The receivers are the strength of the team, if a quarterback can make the offense go at all. Unlike last year, when they opened with Washington State, Arizona State and Cincinnati in the first four games, the Aztecs have better than a fighting chance at a 3-1 start, with Cal Poly, San Jose State and Idaho likely victims that can get SDSU halfway to .500 before October. That makes a three-game conference stretch in late October/early November crucial: at New Mexico, vs. Colorado State, at Wyoming. SDSU won two of three from that group last year, as it did in 2005, which it will have to do again if it has any realistic hope of breaking even in the finale against UNLV. There are winnable games in the league: the Aztecs haven’t won fewer than three MWC games since 2002, which puts 6-6 and maybe some rock bottom bowl game (no postseason since 1998) within reach.

Worst-Case: It’s not hard to envision complete disaster: a revolving door of ineffectual quarterbacks, a static, vulnerable defense, a disappointing loss to San Jose (probably a toss-up in reality) or Idaho that knocks a mildly optimistic start off its track. There are no certain wins in the league, though even pessimistically speaking there’s probably one in Colorado State or UNLV, if the Aztecs’ psyche is still intact by then. Long could easily be bounced after a low-scoring, 3-9 slog.

Non-Binding Forecast: Retention or Bust. The schedule is like a mirror image of last year’s brutal early run – the Aztecs trade three much better BCS opponents and one I-AA pushover for three manageable stiffs and only one likely loss, against certain-to-be-improved Notre Dame – and that alone can offset all the key personnel losses on offense. Without being a much better team, SDSU can look much better on paper by holding serve in those games and in the conference, where, again, three wins is the norm. Given the major problems on offense, seven straight losses to New Mexico, the unholy reaming at the hands of Air Force’s option game last year and an unlikely sweep against Colorado State, Wyoming and UNLV, two seems more likely. The question is whether 5-7 is enough of a step to keep Long around for another shot.