The San Diego State Aztecs‘ empire has not reached its peak power, but following four consecutive bowl games — after attending a total of four from 1969 to 2009 — the top of the Mountain West is in sight.
The Aztecs have maintained the foundation left by former head coach Brady Hoke under Rocky Long, but could 2014 finally be the year when SDSU breaks from the eight-win plateau and takes the next step in establishing supremacy in the conference? Twelve starters have departed, but the return of key skill players and a formidable run defense will make San Diego State an intriguing team to watch this season.
After redirecting SDSU’s train wreck of a start last season, senior QB Quinn Kaehler will be back under center with a reliable arm (19 touchdowns to nine interceptions in 2013). Efficiency is commendable, but the former JUCO transfer will need to become more of a playmaker this season if the Aztecs are going to win a conference title.
Despite the loss of Adam Muema (1,244 rushing yards and 15 TDs on 4.9 yards-per-carry), San Diego State could feature an improved running back unit this season, as scat back D.J. Pumphrey (125 attempts for 752 yards and eight TDs) will bring the big-play ability while juniors Chase Price and Dwayne Garrett should be able to deliver the boom.
The Aztecs’ offensive line lost all-conference tackle Bryce Quigley and is relatively experienced with 57 career starts coming from five players. After playing well in short-yardage situations, becoming a more balanced unit will be a key to the offense’s success.
The receiving group is a little decimated, having lost three of the last season’s top-four targets. However, the unit does return its top pass-catcher in senior Ezell Ruffin, who hauled in 68 passes for 1,146 yards in 2013. Colin Lockett‘s 52 receptions are gone, putting a lot of pressure on sophomore Eric Judge (13 receptions for 218 yards) to step up as the second option. Thankfully, tight end Adam Roberts (20 receptions for 217 yards) and Pumphrey (22 for 224 yards) provide a bit more returning production as well.
SDSU’s 3-3-5 defense should be stout up front, but there are question marks in the backfield. The Aztecs lost two linebackers and a defensive end, but the run defense looks to be very good again with returnees like Dontrell Onuoha (19.5 tackles), Jon Sanchez (16.5 tackles, four for-a-loss) and Josh Gavert (51 tackles, six for-a-loss and three sacks) leading the charge. USC Trojans transfer Christian Heyward adds even more depth to the mix.
MLB Jake Fely will make his return after suffering an early-season foot injury to aid a strong linebacking unit that will also work in senior Derek Largent, redshirt freshmen Fred Melifonwu and Dakota Turner and JUCO transfer Devante Davis.
The secondary could be vulnerable to the big play again this season despite having the benefit of playing behind two solid groups. The Aztecs dealt with the loss of two starting cornerbacks last season and will experience more of the same in 2014 with very little experience returning at safety (Malik Smith‘s 16 tackles represents the most in-game action). Two more JUCO transfers — Davontae Merriweather and Na’im McGee — and redshirt freshman Kalan Montgomery will be looked upon for immediate production. Senior J.J. Whittaker (14 passes defended and three interceptions) and sophomore Damontae Kazee (34.5 tackles and one interception) form a nice duo of starting corners.
SDSU will likely get out to another slow start in 2014, as a non-conference slate that features road games against the North Carolina Tar Heels and Oregon State Beavers constitutes as a tough challenge to build early momentum. It’s not like the Aztecs won’t have a chance in either, though — especially with an extra week to prepare for the Beavers. These clashes with power conference programs, along with road trips to take on the Mountain West’s best competition, will make 10 or more wins daunting, but certainly not impossible with the returning talent.
Toughest Games: Sept. 6 at North Carolina, Sept. 13 at Oregon State, Oct. 3 at Fresno State, Nov. 1 at Nevada and Nov. 15 at Boise State.
The Aztecs do not have to play Utah State, which helps their cause, but they received a tough draw with all of their toughest games coming on the road. Although San Diego State appears on the verge of taking the next step, another seven to nine-win season is more likely.