In the past, I’ve pointed out the similarities and parallel trajectories of the two football programs featured in A COACH AT HEART. Stanford and San Diego State revolutionized the passing game in the same era, were good and bad together, and generally differed only in the level of their conference.
In 2016, they’ll be very good again, each led by a running back with Heisman Trophy aspirations — a favorite in Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, who was second in last year’s voting, and a very dark horse in SDSU’s Donnel Pumphrey, who could very well be in the conversation by the middle of October.
Both schools have a chance at making the so-called New Year’s Six bowls, with the Cardinal even having an outside shot at college football’s 3-year-old playoffs. Stanford would earn another Rose Bowl berth by winning the Pac-12 North and conference championship game, while SDSU would make it by being the highest ranked among the non-power conference teams — and some prognosticators have the Aztecs listed right behind Houston, last season’s NY6 team from the so-called Group of 5.
How far they go will depend mainly on their differences. SDSU is experienced with starters and a couple of key backups on both offense and defense, but is woefully thin down the depth chart on offense. Stanford is very strong through the depth chart but has to replace some big-time players from the past few successful seasons.
The other difference is in the quality of their opposition. The first half of Stanford’s 2016 slate is ridiculous, making for what Fox Sports calls the third most difficult schedule in the nation. The Aztecs coasted through a weak Mountain West last year, and while the league should be better this season, it’s no Pac-12. The non-conference schedule, with two trips nearly across the country, is more difficult than it would first appear.
Here’s a look at each team.
SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS
2015 Record 11-3
Def. Air Force 27-24 in Mountain West championship game
Def. Cincinnati 42-7 in Hawaii Bowl
STRENGTHS: Pumphrey always seems a step ahead of Mountain West and other G5 defenders, while the left side of the offensive line returns intact. The defense returns seven starters, including preseason All-American cornerback Damontae Kazee and All-Mountain West defensive end Alex Barrett. Depth is no problem on defense, especially in the secondary, and the special teams were maybe the best in school history as Rashaad Penny returned three kickoffs for touchdowns.
WEAKNESSES: Pure and simple — depth on offense. Sophomore Christian Chapman was superb when he took over as quarterback late in 2015, so confidence is high that he’ll perform well this season. But if he is hurt, all that’s behind him is redshirt freshman Ryan Agnew, who has skills but no college-level experience. Even worse, the offensive line counts four true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen high up on the depth chart (which lists two deep at some line positions and three at others). Injuries among the blockers would derail the offense.
KEY GAME: At Northern Illinois, Sept. 17. NIU has recently been to where SDSU wants to go, and while they were embarrassed by Boise State in last year’s Poinsettia Bowl, the Huskies program remains strong enough to end any hopes the Aztecs have of playing over the New Year’s holiday. A loss to Cal the week before might be excusable if SDSU subsequently runs the table, but not a setback at NIU.
OUTLOOK: No matter how well, or poorly, things go with the offense, the defense will keep most games winnable, and Pumphrey and Chapman should collect enough points for the Aztecs to win most of their games. They have plenty of other weapons, too, in Penny, who will spell Pumphrey from time to time, and receiver Mikah Holder. Worst case scenario is an 8-4 record and a minor bowl, but a 10-2 regular season and berth in the league championship against Air Force, Boise State or dark horse New Mexico is far more likely.
2015 Record 12-2
Def. USC in Pac-12 championship game 41-22
Def. Iowa in Rose Bowl 45-26
STRENGTHS: This might sound really generic, but the Cardinal succeeds because of the firm foundation laid by Coach David Shaw and his staff. The result is strength across the board, as excellent talent now annually flocks to Palo Alto. Senior backup Ryan Burns beat out junior Keller Chryst for the starting quarterback job but in a close competition, and it’s likely that both will see action this season. It won’t matter a whole lot, because of McCaffrey, and offensive line that will control the trenches in most games — despite some key losses from 2015 — and big-play receivers Michael Rector and Francis Owusu. The defense returns stars in defensive lineman Solly Thomas, linebacker Peter Kalambayi and safety Dallas Lloyd.
WEAKNESSES: The schedule. The returning starters are great on both sides of the ball, but the offensive line replaces three great blockers and the defense will miss lineman Aziz Shittu and playmaking lineman Blake Martinez. You know the replacements will be good, but how good and when they’ll jell is a major question mark when your schedule goes Kansas State-Bye-USC-at UCLA-at Washington-Washington State-at Notre Dame. If Stanford survives that first half of the season unscathed, McCaffrey will indeed be a Heisman front-runner because the Cardinal will have to put up a lot of points.
KEY GAME: Kansas State. Last season’s opening loss at Northwestern kept Stanford out of the playoff. It would be a happy surprise if the Cardinal escapes the first half of the season with less than two losses between all those good teams. As tough as Coach Bill Snyder’s Wildcats normally are, they’re the easiest pickings of the bunch. Now there’s word that running back Bryce Love, McCaffrey’s explosive backup, will miss the Friday night contest. Lose at home to KSU and that run through murderers row could be more like 3-3, or worse.
OUTLOOK: But it won’t be that bad. The schedule eases considerably in the second half even with a trip to Tucson to play Arizona and a visit from Oregon. That just shows you have tough the first half is. The foundation for the team is solid, and the quarterback play and new faces on defense will settle in at some point. Sooner the better, of course. So there probably won’t be a playoff run, but the Rose Bowl remains there for the taking. Otherwise, against this schedule, an 9-3 regular season will be quite an accomplishment.