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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...SAN DIEGO STATE AZTECS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


We have a message for San Diego State.

Be careful what you wish for, Aztecs!

We’re hoping someone reminded San Diego State about that old saying about the time the Aztecs decided to enlist with the Big East Conference (San Diego State in the Big East?) for the 2013 football season. The Aztecs’ master plan involved not only that move but a transfer of all other sports operations into the Big West Conference, and complete abandonment of the Mountain West, beginning next year.

But, is it really going to happen?

There remain a collection of college sports insiders west of the Rockies who believe that SDSU might never make the big switch despite whatever proclamations from the school and athletic department.

The reason could be money...the same one that motivated the Aztecs to contemplate the switch in the first place.

What gives?

The same sources who alerted us last summer that TCU still had some wiggle room to extricate itself from its own scheduled move to the Big East are saying similar things about San Diego State and Boise State and their proposed moves to the Big East next season.

In other words, hold on for a moment, as developments could still arise to derail those transfer plans, just as what happened with TCU last year.

What the Aztecs, Boise, and practically everyone else in college football are watching intently involves the future of the BCS and the big bowl games it encompasses. As far as the Big East is concerned, its ongoing involvement in that cartel-by-another-name is on shaky footing, because the entire system appears due for an overhaul, with a playoff likely in the near future. The BCS itself could soon become a dinosaur.

Where the Big East fits in this new order remains to be seen. Inclusion for its gridiron champ into one of the big-money bowls has been good business for the Big East, but if the current form of the BCS is disassembled, it could be bad news for SDSU and Boise. A potential drop, perhaps a substantial one, in conference TV revenues is possible if the league is no longer part of the big bowl equation. And money from TV revenue is the only reason the Aztecs and Broncos consented to the jump in the first place.

As it stands right now, SDSU and Boise are due for inclusion in the Big East TV package for only the 2013 season, the last year of the current agreements. That one year figures to pad the Aztec and Boise athletic department budgets by an extra $5-6 million each. But beyond 2013, no one knows if the Big East is still going to be able to command similar big dollars with its TV contracts.

In that case, sources say it is not outside the realm of possibility that the Aztecs and especially the Broncos could both parachute safely back into the Mountain West, which itself figures to increase its TV revenues and, according to sources, would gladly welcome both back into the fold.

There is a difference, however, between the SDSU and Boise situations as of late June, as the Aztecs have already formally withdrawn from the Mountain West, effective at the end of this 2012-13 school year; Boise has yet do so and is fast-approaching a decision deadline. More on those specifics in our upcoming Broncos preview.

Sources in the Mountain West also say that the Aztecs have not exactly endeared themselves to the remaining conference members as they prepare for their transition. Whether this dynamic plays out on the gridiron this fall, or comes back to bite SDSU in case it wishes to do an about-face from the Big East, will come into further focus as the year progresses. Stay tuned.

Boise's predicament is a bit different, as the Broncos have a real pickle on their hands with the non-football sports. The WAC, originally the target base for Boise's other sports, is splintering and might not be around itself next year. Boise knows all about this, and recently made a pre-emptive move to join up with its former Big West brethren, along with the Aztecs. But the Big West reportedly rejected the Broncos, which means Boise might be having to knock on the door of the Big Sky to find a landing spot for its other sports.

Staying in the Mountain West might be a better call for Boise, It might be for SDSU as well, although the Aztecs seem more comfy with the move plans that do the Broncos. Whatever, the next few months should be interesting.

What is most curious about the Big East’s proposed expansion is that it could be the first time a true coast-to-coach college athletic league has existed. The concept is not novel; in 1959, National Airlines (remember those Florida-themed commercials?) was ready to sponsor a “National Conference” to coincide with its introduction of fan jets to its fleet. The idea was to enlist UCLA and Southern Cal, all three service academies, plus Pitt, Penn State, Syracuse, and Notre Dame for a true continental league. With UCLA and Southern Cal in a bit of limbo at the time due to sanctions in the old PCC, and the unraveling of that consortium, the Bruins and Trojans seemed ripe for the picking, and the other independent entries in the proposed league were in a rare mood for change.

The idea soon fizzled but the concept was planted that a coast-to-coast league could be viable. Although no one has really made an attempt to align schools from across the country until the Big East succeeded with the Aztecs and Broncos.

The Big East is also adding several others including Houston, SMU, Memphis, UCF, and Navy (football only in 2015), in addition to Temple, but the geographical fit is a bit easier for those schools, and a reduction in Big East TV revenues would be unlikely to scuttle the transfer fans of any. For San Diego State and Boise, however, the situation is different. Stay tuned for further developments.

As for the Aztecs, they’ve been in an adventurous mood since the 1960s, when the program first rose to prominence under the one and only Don Coryell (right), whose innovative, progressive passing offenses caused quite a stir on the coast. In those days, the Aztecs were playing at Balboa Stadium on the campus of San Diego City College in downtown San Diego after moving from the old Aztec Bowl (now the site of Viejas Arena) on campus. The opening of the new San Diego Stadium in Mission Valley, just a few miles from campus, provided a fancy home for the Aztecs in 1967, and over 45,000 fans jammed the sparkling facility for the SDSU opener that year when the Aztecs beat Tennessee State, coached by the legendary John Merritt, 16-8. The program then moved from the old “College Division” to I-A status and the “University Division” in 1969 as a charter member of the PCAA.

The Coryell Aztecs developed a marketable brand in those days, even securing a tape delayed-TV package outside of San Diego and into the nearby Los Angeles market on local station KTTV. Their many Friday night home games under the lights meant the Aztecs had the attention of local and regional sports pages and often didn’t have to share the Saturday afternoon spotlight with higher-profile schools.

Never mind the old “small college” label; sources from the day insist that the likes of USC and UCLA wanted no part of the Coryell Aztecs in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

When the Coryell Aztecs finally collared a Pac-8 team in 1972, they whipped Oregon State in the home opener.

After Coryell left for the NFL St. Louis Cardinals in 1973, the Aztecs continued to seek higher ground and made the switch to the WAC a few years later in 1978, along with Hawaii (which entered the following year) taking the place of Arizona and Arizona State, which moved to the newly-expanded Pac-10. Eventually, SDSU would leave the WAC in 1999 for the newly-formed Mountain West, with the further progression to the Big East scheduled for next year.

Along the way, there have been occasional hopes of inclusion in the Pac-10, with the NFL-level San Diego/Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium a supposed selling point, but no serious discussions with the Pac ever materialized.

Pac-10 snub or not, the Aztec program still boasts of a colorful history, although it's getting a bit harder to recall the last glory days during the Coryell era. Those teams were swashbuckling, featuring high-tech passing offenses that made stars out of QBs Don Horn, Dennis Shaw, and Brian Sipe (right), and WRs Haven Moses, Gary Garrison, Tom Reynolds, and Isaac Curtis, all of whom went on to play with varying degrees of success in the NFL. Other notables such Fred Dryer, Herm Edwards, Willie Buchanon, and Joe Lavender moved from the Coryell Aztecs to prominence in the pro ranks, too. Coryell had a staggering .840 win percentage while on Montezuma Mesa, and his staffs were legendary, including ones that included the likes of John Madden, Joe Gibbs, and Ernie Zampese all at the same time.

The Aztecs have never quite scaled those heights since the Coryell days. SDSU stayed formidable in the mid 70s for HC Claude Gilbert with QBs Jesse Freitas and Craig Penrose (who eventually went to the NFL Broncos and USFL Denver Gold) leading the way, but the program would stall under the late Doug Scovil in the ‘80s. A brief revival in the mid 80s coincided with the hiring of former Michigan State and Bowling Green HC Denny Stolz, who took the Aztecs to the hometown Holiday Bowl in 1986 behind QB Todd Santos, but the program stalled again before the intense Al Luginbill was hired in 1989. Luginbill would eventually recruit RB Marshall Faulk and get the Aztecs back to a bowl (the Freedom) in 1991 before his regime also fizzled in the mid 90s.

The pattern continued under ex-Southern Cal HC Ted Tollner, who fielded some competitive and occasionally entertaining teams through the mid and late ‘90s before losing momentum, much like Luginbill’s and Stolz’ teams, at the start of the last decade. Tollner was thus replaced by a former Aztec QB and assistant, Tom Craft, but the program failed to gain any traction whatsoever and Craft was relieved of duties following the 2005 campaign. Things got worse before they got better, as SDSU hit rock bottom the next three years with the failed experiment that was Chuck Long.

The Coryell glory years seemed further away than ever by the time Chuck Long got through dismantling the program.

That, however, was before Ball State HC Brady Hoke, a deft quick-fix artist, revived the Aztecs, netting SDSU its first bowl win in 41 years in the hometown 2010 Poinsettia vs. Navy. Hoke’s tenure on Montezuma Mesa was brief, however, lasting only two years before he was lured to Michigan.

The Aztecs now enter their second year under former New Mexico HC and Aztec d.c. Rocky Long, was promoted in the wake of Hoke’s departure. Rocky got the Aztecs back to a bowl last season, where SDSU lost a last-second thriller in New Orleans vs. UL-Lafayette, but prospects for a third straight bowl (which would be a SDSU first) look a bit dicey this fall.

The reason? Departures of recent offensive linchpins QB Ryan Lindley and RB Ronnie Hillman, the pivot points of the strike force the past few seasons but now preparing to spend their respective summers in NFL camps (Lindley drafted by the Cardinals, Hillman by the Broncos).

All Lindley did in his career was become the school’s all-time passing leader, heady stuff considering the credentials of some of Coryell’s best QBs (such as Horn and Sipe). Hillman, who gained a whopping 1711 YR in 2011 and scored 20 TDs, was merely regarded as the best Aztec RB since the legendary Faulk, and is expected to make contributions for Peyton Manning’s Broncos this fall. Those two were central to the offense producing an impressive 30 ppg in 2011, an average that might be hard to replicate this fall.

As luck would have it, however, Rocky appears to have stumbled onto a short-term fix at the QB spot in sr. Ryan Katz (right), most-recently a member of Mike Riley’s Oregon State teams. Strangely, however, Katz fell out of favor in Corvallis last season after flashing considerable moxie in his starting debut as a soph in 2010 for the Beavers when completing 60% of his throws for 2401 yards and 18 TD passes. Much like Russell Wilson did a year ago when transferring to Wisconsin and using his last year of eligibility as a Badger after obtaining his degree from NC State, Katz has graduated from OSU and has enrolled post-graduate at SDSU, already on campus for spring work while learning the Aztecs' offense from coordinator Andy Ludwig.

Katz’ demotion in Corvallis a year ago was the source of much conjecture in West Coast football circles, as some were comparing Katz to a young Drew Brees at times in 2010. Many still believe he was a better option for last year’s OSU than Sean Mannion, who was eventually preferred by Riley. The Beavers’ loss thus becomes SDSU’s gain.

Redshirt soph Adam Dingwell, who caddied for Lindley a year ago, competed for the starting job with Katz in the spring but appears ticketed for more back-up duty in the fall.

Unfortunately, no Katz-like component has fallen from sky to help Rocky replace the departed Hillman at RB, so look for Ludwig to instead utilize a RB-by-committee approach in the Aztecs’ pro-style looks. The bulk of the carries at the outset likely go the way of soph Adam Muema (left, in the bowl vs. UL-Lafayette), a pinball-like threat who gained an impressive 6 ypc in limited work last fall. Skittery Brandon Wright, a touted Las Vegas prep who redshirted in 2011, could also emerge as a key component for the infantry.

The good news for Katz is that the apparent strength of the platoon lies in a receiving corps that returns its top three producers from 2011 in big-play wideout Colin Lockett (right, 16.7 yards per catch last year), TE Gavin Escobar, and possession-type Dylan Denso. The trio combined for 158 catches last fall and will be augmented by the arrival of Southern Cal transfer WR Brice Butler, who impressed in spring.

But the bad news for Katz is that the offensive line is undergoing an overhaul and could hardly keep healthy in the spring when injuries forced continual shuffling during scrimmaging. Without accomplishing much in spring, the forward wall hopes that its lone returning starters, C Alec Johnson & RG Nic Embermate, stay healthy in the fall, and that the unit can finally coagulate when reconvening for camp in August. Rocky and Ludwig also expect the switch of jr. Bryce Quigley from TE to LT to pay dividends.

Further concerns lie in the kicking game, where Rocky is expected to entrust a true frosh, Seamus McMorrow, with both the place-kicking and punting chores.

Mention of Rocky Long teams always suggest defense and Rocky’s unique 3-3-5 alignments that once upon a time featured a hybrid named Brian Urlacher from Long’s days at New Mexico. No Urlacher appears on hand in San Diego this fall and indeed only three starters return from last year’s platoon that featured a couple of hard-to-replace components in NFL draftees LB Miles Burris (Raiders) and NT Jerome Long (Chiefs).

Rocky’s defensive expertise, however, is not to be underestimated. Rocky, who was Hoke’s d.c. for two years before assuming the top spot, and whose platoons have always been noted for aggressive play from his days at New Mexico and earlier stints as a d.c at Oregon State and UCLA, inherited a shell of a stop unit from the Chuck Long regime, one that ranked 113th in total “D” in 2008. Rocky’s stoppers had improved to 68th-ranked by last season, still not what Rocky envisions but a big improvement from a few years ago.

Rocky has always insisted that it takes a couple of years to properly learn the keys and reads in his 3-3-5, but the fact only three starters return from 2011, along with the departures of playmakers Burris and Jerome Long, are concerns.

The departure of Jerome Long is part of a worrisome narrative for Rocky’s defensive front that will blood three new starters in the fall and is likely to be extremely undersized (again, another Rocky defense trait), with no likely starters expected to tip the scales at more than the 255 pounds carried by soph DE Cody Gates. MWC sources alert to watch soph NT and former TE Sam Meredith (though only 250 pounds himself), and there might also be room for touted true frosh DT Alex Barrett, although he needs to bulk up from the 245 pounds he carried in high school. The linebacker corps is similarly undersized, with 210-lb. MLB Jake Fely the only returning starter.

The strength of the platoon likely rests in an all-upperclass secondary and especially shutdown sr. CB Leon McFadden (left, last season vs. Colorado State WR Lou Greenwood), who skipped on early entry into the NFL Draft and enters the fall as the likely the top-rated DB in all of the Mountain West. The hybrid DB/DB “Urlacher” role (called “Aztec” in Rocky's parlance) is played by returning sr. starter Nat Berhe, again a bit undersized at 5'10, 185 but with an uncanny nose for the pigskin.

Long’s “D” will be tested early with games at Steve Sarkisian’s Washington Huskies (at the NFL Seahawks’ Century Link Field) and home vs. the awkward Army option. Otherwise the slate seems manageable, and SDSU and won’t have to worry about a trip to TCU, either, after the Horned Frogs moved to the Big 12. If this indeed is the Aztecs’ last trip around the MWC track, another bowl is a possibility as long as Katz hits the ground running and Rocky can continue to scheme an acceptable performance from his stop unit.

Spread-wise, keep in mind that Rocky’s teams at New Mexico were notorious as a scrappy underdog, covering at a profitable 60% clip over the last seven years of his Lobo regime, although last season’s Aztecs only split their four chances as the “short” vs. the line. Conversely, Rocky's teams have often been subpar as a favorite, dropping 14 of their last 21 spread decisions as chalk with the Lobos and 6 of 9 a year ago at SDSU.

Summary...The heady nectar of success during Brady Hoke’s brief term at SDSU has been replaced by the often joyless-pragmatism of big-time football and the Aztecs’ bolt for the supposed riches of the Big East next season. Sorry, but the opportunity to play South Florida, UConn, and Rutgers is not the sort of stuff to motivate an already passive SDSU support base in America’s Finest City. While Rocky Long is a respected coach, the heights to which Aztec football have always promised to climb and began to reach with Hoke seem once again out of reach. Rocky should at least keep SDSU afloat much better than the Ted Tollner-Tom Craft-Chuck Long era, and the potential short-term fix provided by Oregon State transfer QB Ryan Katz could get the Aztecs back into the postseason. But with plenty of other holes to fill and a significant rebuild job on defense, SDSU can at best hope to squeeze into the furthest reaches of bowl eligibility and perhaps another minor postseason assignment, while serious regional observers pay closer attention to business dealings in the rest of the college football world that could yet scuttle the Aztecs’ conference switch next season. We find the latter to be more compelling stuff than contemplating if SDSU can qualify for the hometown Poinsettia Bowl this fall.


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