It’s that wonderful time of year when the weather is warm and every coach, player, fan and alumnus senses a bowl game in their future. The college football season is almost here.
This year is one of hope and uncertainty for the programs featured in A COACH AT HEART. Stanford and San Diego State both slipped in 2014 following a series of strong years, the Cardinal having gone to a couple of Rose Bowls and the Aztecs finishing five seasons in a row with bowl games. Stanford was felled by an inconsistent offensive line and strong competition in the Pac-12 to finish 8-5. A promising season at SDSU was undone by injuries to a quarterback, inconsistent receivers and a weird loss at Fresno State in which the Mountain West conference admitted to nine blown calls by the referees — favoring the Bulldogs. All that resulted in a 7-6 final record.
Now we’re back for more, with Stanford hoping for a return to dominance and San Diego State hoping to challenge Boise State for league preeminence.
Head Coach David Shaw
2014 Record 8-5, 5-4 second in Pac-12 North
2015 Preseason Rank No.21
Coming off several BCS bowl appearances, last year was a step backward on the Farm, leading to a lot of questions entering this season. Is this the Cardinal that blew a very winnable game against USC and was utterly uncompetitive at Arizona State last fall, or the powerhouse that blasted UCLA and Maryland at the end of the season? With strong recent recruiting, Stanford figures to be good for several years to come. The question is just how good.
Players to Watch on Offense –
- QB Kevin Hogan, who had to shoulder the load last year when the running game faltered;
- sophomore do-everything Christian McCaffrey, the son of former star receiver Ed McCaffrey, who some are building up as the next star on the Farm;
- the offensive line is set on the left side with T Kyle Murphy, G Joshua Garnett, and C Graham Shuler, but the right side is unsettled
None of the projected running backs appear to be of the caliber of the departed Tyler Gaffney or Stepfan Taylor, so McCaffrey is expected to get some snaps there. Receiver could also be a trouble spot, with Devon Cajuste injured and Michael Rector suspended.
Players to Watch on Defense –
- LBers Blake Martinez and Kevin Anderson are stars;
- CB Ronnie Harris will have one side nailed down, but the other side is uncertain;
- as a unit, keep an eye on a former strength, the defensive line, where replacements for departed starters are coming off injuries.
Despite the uncertainties, Stanford is projected for second in the Pac-12 North behind Oregon. The recruiting in recent years has been strong, so the players stepping in should be good.
Biggest Games –
- Sept. 5 opener at Northwestern, with all the big games ahead on Stanford’s schedule, this winnable but dangerous game needs to be won in order to have a big season;
- an October three-game homestand that brings Arizona, UCLA and Washington to Palo Alto will be crucial. Need to win two of those three;
- the finale is at home against Notre Dame, which could be standing in the way of a nine- or 10-win season, and the Irish by then could be on the verge of a playoff or access bowl appearance.
Projecting their fate, if they can survive their opener, and find a way to win a few of the brutal Pac-12 matchups, a final regular season record of 8-4 seems most likely. That includes defeating both NW and UCF in the first two weeks, and taking two of those three October home games. Any better would require a sweep of the October games and/or a win in the finale.
San Diego State
Head Coach Rocky Long
2014 Record 7-6, 5-3 second in Mountain West, West Division
2015 Preseasn Ranking (unranked)
The Aztecs are easy to figure out on paper. They have a strong running back corps, experience in the defensive line and secondary, two star linebackers and a good placekicker. They need to find a passer, someone to catch the ball, depth at linebacker and a punter. Fortunately for the Aztecs, potential answers abound at each spot.
The problem on Montezuma Mesa has always been that the football team is defined by the weakest link. SDSU entered 2014 with an experienced senior quarterback and very good senior receiver. Both got hurt, and there was no one to replace them. The backups at quarterback were true freshmen, so the injured starter gutted it out, and none of the receivers stepped up. So the offense struggled and, despite a defense that ranked in the top 20 nationally, the team was inconsistent.
Players to Watch on Offense –
- Maxwell Smith, a fifth-year senior transfer who played early in his career at Kentucky before getting hurt and losing his job, likely won the starting job with his performance at a scrimmage over redshirt freshman Christian Chapman and Oregon transfer Jake Rodrigues.
- Donnel Pumphrey set the school’s single-season rushing record last year and is backed up by experienced Chase Price, while sophomores Marcus Stamps and Rashaad Penny would start for every other team in the conference.
- T Pierce Slater is an NFL prospect.
Everyone is waiting for a receiver to step up, with sophomore Mikah Holder the most likely.
Defensive Players to Watch –
- CBs JJ Whitaker and Damontae Kazee will make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks and receivers;
- LB Calvin Munson is a budding star and LB Jake Fely is experienced;
- the defensive linemen, Jon Sanchez, Christian Heyward and Alex Barrett should dominate Mountain West offenses.
The defense should again be strong, so the biggest question will be whether the offense can score enough to keep up with good teams.
Biggest Games –
- the league opener against Fresno State and a Friday night home game against Utah State, both in October, and are both winnable and must be won, because…;
- those contests are mixed in with road games at Hawaii, my pick as a dark horse in the West division and a team always hard to beat on the islands, and at Colorado State, which is coming off a big season;
- to gain national attention, beating either Cal or Penn State on the road would do the trick;
- in the league schedule, the Aztecs do not play Boise State this year, but they would be the likely opponent in a league title game.
Best guess for SDSU, considering the program’s dreadful record in non-conference road games, they will probably lose to both the Bears and Nittany Lions. Hawaii with USC transfer Max Wittek at QB could be tough, so figure a 3-3 won-loss record out of the gate, followed by six straight wins. One league loss should make them the West champ and place them in that championship game and another bowl.
Making predictions, or even softer analysis, prior to football seasons is kind of like making war plans. They go out the window after the first kickoff and initial shot. Both Stanford and San Diego State, though, are headed for the post-season again and should have an interesting time getting there.