2011 Season Preview: The San Diego State Aztecs And A Pretty Damn Good Year

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

In Friday's San Jose State profile, I shared the following list:

Largest Discrepancy Between Def. F/+ Ranking and Off. F/+ Ranking (2006-10)
1. 2008 Central Florida (113 spots -- seventh in Def. F/+, 120th in Off. F/+)
2. 2010 Boston College (98 spots -- sixth, 104th)
3. 2009 Nebraska (93 spots -- first, 94th)
4. 2008 San Jose State (93 spots -- 26th, 119th)
5. 2009 Middle Tennessee (91 spots -- 20th, 111th)
6. 2007 New Mexico (89 spots -- 19th, 108th)
7. 2007 Iowa (89 spots -- 22nd, 111th)
8. 2008 Tennessee (88 spots -- 12th, 100th)
9. 2008 New Mexico (88 spots -- 27th, 115th)
10. 2010 Texas (85 spots -- 21st, 106th)

Teams No. 6 and 9 were led by none other than Rocky Long, who inherited the San Diego State head coaching position when Brady Hoke quite predictably took the Michigan job. Long built a steady program at New Mexico, but his last few teams did not feature nearly the offensive explosiveness the Lobos displayed when players like Hank Baskett (shudder) were in uniform. But they did have that wonderfully confusing, underdog-friendly 3-3-5 defense upon which Long has built his name. And almost because of that alone, they won nine games in 2007.

At first blush, then, San Diego State seems like the perfect team for Long to inherit. The Aztecs will be running Long's 3-3-5 for the third season this fall, and in theory, the offense could thrive simply because of the presence of a good quarterback (Ryan Lindley) and a potentially great running back (Ronnie Hillman ... shudder). I do not know what SDSU's long-term prognosis may be with Long (after all, he did not exactly leave New Mexico in good shape upon his departure), but this strikes me as a short-term hire, and in the short-term, this could work out well. That is, as long as an incredibly inexperienced receiving corps doesn't drag them down. Their leading returning wide receiver has exactly four more career catches than I do.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk**: 45
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Nicholls State
47-0 W 36.3 - 11.8 W
11-Sep at New Mexico State 41-21 W 23.8 - 36.3 L
18-Sep at Missouri 24-27 L 27.3 - 27.5 L
25-Sep Utah State 41-7 W 35.3 - 15.8 W
9-Oct at BYU 21-24 L 36.8 - 29.3 W
16-Oct Air Force 27-25 W 37.2 - 25.2 W
23-Oct at New Mexico 30-20 W 16.8 - 27.6 L
30-Oct at Wyoming 48-38 W 28.3 - 32.0 L
6-Nov Colorado State 24-19 W 19.8 - 18.2 W
13-Nov at TCU 35-40 L 41.2 - 22.4 W
20-Nov Utah 34-38 L 48.1 - 32.2 W
27-Nov UNLV 48-14 W 29.7 - 25.2 W
23-Dec vs Navy 35-14 W 45.2 - 25.5 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 35.0 19 22.1 36
Adj. Points Per Game 32.7 24 25.3 44

San Diego State's 2010 season consisted of three unequal sections. Over the first six games of the year, the Aztecs suffered oh-so-close losses to Missouri (via a 70-yard touchdown pass in the final minute) and BYU (via controversial non-fumble and pass interference call) but played at a generally high level, especially considering the depths to which the program had fallen in recent years. After a late-October slump in which they sleep-walked through wins over the dregs of the Mountain West, SDSU found fifth gear in November. They gave TCU their only regular-season challenge, scoring two late touchdowns and forcing the Horned Frogs to hold on for dear life. Then they took a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter against Utah before fading late. They destroyed UNLV and made a statement in the Poinsettia Bowl against Navy to finish off an incredible final four games.

First Six Games: San Diego State 32.8 Adj. PPG, Opponents 24.3 (+8.5)
Next Three Games: Opponents 25.9, San Diego State 21.6 (-4.3)
Last Four Games: San Diego State 41.1, Opponents 26.3 (+14.8)

Considering it was their first winning season in 12 years, the 2010 campaign was a successful one no matter how you slice it. But the Aztecs' 2-4 record in one-possession games, and their four near-miss upset bids cast a bit of a "what could have been" pall, as did Hoke's departure. Still, not only did SDSU matter for the first time in quite a while, but ... they mattered in the right way. They were athletically, physically competitive. They had speed and pro potential on offense and began to grasp the intricacies of the 3-3-5 on defense. This was a strong team.

When combined with San Diego State's basketball run -- the hardcourt Aztecs went 34-3 and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen -- this was a pretty damn good year to be an Aztec fan (despite the heartbreaking football losses), eh?

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 36 67 28
RUSHING 65 81 53 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 24 44 20 99
Standard Downs 70 100 50 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 5 6 6 4
Redzone 93 95 88
Q1 Rk 70 1st Down Rk 52
Q2 Rk 27 2nd Down Rk 51
Q3 Rk 47 3rd Down Rk 17
Q4 Rk 44

San Diego State had a startling amount of pro-potential last fall. Big, 6-foot-4 quarterback Ryan Lindley (3,830 yards, 9.1 per pass, 58% completion rate, 28 TD, 14 INT) threw to explosive DeMarco Sampson (1,220 yards, 18.2 per catch, 57% catch rate, 8 TD, now an Arizona Cardinal) and even more explosive Vincent Brown (1,325 yards, 19.6 per catch, 66% catch rate, 10 TD, now a San Diego Charger), then handed off to an incredible, young talent in running back Ronnie Hillman (1,532 yards, 5.8 per carry, +26.9 Adj. POE, 17 TD), who finished second in Adj. POE as a freshman. Some iffy blocking held the running game back at time, but Hillman's explosiveness was impressive and timely.

Lindley and Hillman are back, but the main area of concern should be quite obvious. Sampson and Brown are gone, as is RB/WR Brandon Sullivan (383 receiving yards, 124 rushing yards); plus, No. 4 guy Dominique Sandifer (263 yards, 11.4 per catch, 46% catch rate) was lost for the season with injury (as was redshirt freshman Jay Waddell). That leaves tight end Gavin Escobar (323 yards, 11.1 per catch, 63% catch rate, 4 TD) ... and, basically, that's it. The latest depth chart listed the following players on the wide receiver two-deep: sophomore Dylan Denso (a walk-on who caught four passes last year), sophomore Colin Lockett (a defensive back last year), redshirt freshman Ezell Ruffin and freshman Paul Pitts. Yikes. Sometimes youngsters come out of nowhere and surprise you, but you rarely want to count on that. The Aztecs have no choice.

A dropoff in the passing game is alarming because of just how incredible Lindley and company were on passing downs last year. SDSU was a below-average offense on standard downs, as much because of poor run blocking as anything; but Lindley, Brown and Sampson consistently bailed themselves out on passing downs. Now, when Lindley drops to pass on 3rd-and-7, he's going to see no recognizable, reliable weapons running routes. Who makes a play?

New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was Jeff Tedford's coordinator at California the last two seasons, and Cal's offensive footprint was quite similar to SDSU's last year.

California tended to run a bit more than SDSU did last year; this is something that, by necessity, Ludwig may duplicate this year. (Then again, they are evidently trying not to tinker too much with last year's attack.)

Other tidbits:

  • So passing downs may not be much of a strength this year; that isn't the worst thing in the world as long as SDSU is experiencing standard downs success. The key there will be better run blocking for Hillman, Walter Kazee (320 yards, 4.8 per carry, +1.1 Adj. POE, 3 TD) and company. Lord knows there is enough experience here. Only center Trask Iosefa has departed, leaving behind six players with starting experience and 81 career starts. Four players -- tackles Kurtis Gunther and Tommie Draheim, guard Nik Embernate and guard-turned-center Alec Johnson -- have at least one full year's worth of starts in them. In theory, experience leads to better performance, but after ranking 99th in Adj. Line Yards last year, there's quite a bit of leeway between "better" and "good."
  • Still, this wasn't a line without strengths. SDSU's passing attack was based quite a bit in intermediate routes; if you're throwing a lot on passing downs (i.e. facing a lot of blitzes), if your receivers are not running a ton of short routes, and if you rank in the Top 5 of Adj. Sack Rates, you're doing something right. Lindley is solid in terms of maneuvering inside the pocket, but the line obviously has to get quite a bit of credit here.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 65 69 63
RUSHING 52 65 46 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 76 80 76 40
Standard Downs 44 45 53 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 71 71 72 65
Redzone 33 22 47
Q1 Rk 37 1st Down Rk 49
Q2 Rk 100 2nd Down Rk 62
Q3 Rk 50 3rd Down Rk 33
Q4 Rk 32

Since Long waltzed into San Diego two years ago, the Aztec defense has taken two giant strides toward respectability. By no means were they a truly strong defense last year, but...

San Diego State's Def. F/+ Rank (2006-10)
2006: 106th
2007: 118th
2008: 115th
2009: 94th
2010: 63rd

Pretty much the definition of tangible improvement, no?

The defense was still finding its bearings in 2010. Opponents would struggle initially in the first quarter, then surge in the second when they got used to playing against this orthodox attack; similarly, they struggled on first-and-10 before getting back on schedule on second-and-long.

Really, the characteristics of this different do not equate with our assumptions of a three-man line. SDSU was better against the run and stood up well against run blocking, and that was their largest strength. It is probably a bit alarming, then, that four of the top five linemen are gone. Their three top ends -- Ernie Lawson, Jacob Tauanuu and B.J. Williams (combined: 57.0 tackles, 15.5 TFL/sacks) -- are gone, and one of their two primary tackles (Neil Spencer) is academically ineligible. The back eight on the defense will probably improve, but the biggest strength will most likely be weaker.

Credit Long, then, for securing the signatures of a couple of strong, three-star defensive ends: Sam Meredith and Jon Sanchez. They will vie with the likes of J.J. Autele (11.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks) and Larry Gibbs (7.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks in seven games) for playing time on the outside (when Gibbs comes back from a foot problem, anyway), while unknown backups will get in line behind the solid Jerome Long (23.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) at tackle.

Other tidbits:

  • The linebacking corps is as deep as the line is thin. Miles Burris (67.0 tackles, 20.0 TFL/sacks, 4 FF) is incredible attacking from the strongside position, and despite the loss of middle linebacker Marcus Yarbrough, there are plenty of proven options in Logan Ketchum (42.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU), Rob Andrews (29.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU), Demetrius Barksdale (27.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and Nick Tenhaeff (26.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks). Meanwhile, injury-prone redshirt freshman Jake Fely (1.5 tackles, all for loss, in three games before a medical redshirt) looks like he might start over a lot of upperclassmen.
  • The secondary, too, is strong. Leon McFadden (46.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 12 PBU) might be the best cornerback in the Mountain West, while four interesting safeties are fighting it out for three starting spots: Khalid Stevens (32.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU), Nat Berhe (32.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU as a redshirt freshman), Brandon Davis (30.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and Marcus Andrews (26.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 5 PBU as RSFr). (Davis has been suspended for a couple of games to start the season.) If there is a question mark, it is at the No. 2 CB spot. Projected starter Josh Wade (19.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU) injured his Achilles and was lost for the season, meaning senior Larry Parker (21.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU) will take a lot more snaps.

San Diego State's 2010 Season Set to Music

This was the first time since 1996 that the Aztecs won at least eight games in a season, so ... how about ten great songs from 1996?

"Bulls On Parade," by Rage Against the Machine
"Can't Knock the Hustle," by Jay-Z
"Elevators (Me and You)," by Outkast
"Fu-Gee-La," by The Fugees
"Hotel Arizona," by Wilco
"How Do You Want It," by 2Pac
"Jack-Ass," by Beck
"Off He Goes," by Pearl Jam
"Say Goodbye," by Dave Matthews Band
"Stickshifts and Safetybelts," by Cake

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Teams With Highest Yards Per Target Among Top Two Targets
1. Navy (79 targets, 948 yards, 12.0 per target)
2. Air Force (60 targets, 696 yards, 11.6 per target)
3. San Diego State (222 targets, 2,572 yards, 11.6 per target)
4. Auburn (139 targets, 1,596 yards, 11.5 per target)
5. Hawaii (284 targets, 3,195 yards, 11.3 per target)
6. Georgia (136 targets, 1,507 yards, 11.1 per target)
7. Ohio State (166 targets, 1,796 yards, 10.8 per target)
8. Boise State (201 targets, 2,166 yards, 10.8 per target)
9. South Carolina (186 targets, 1,979 yards, 10.6 per target)
10. Oklahoma State (237 targets, 2,518 yards, 10.6 per target

National Average: 157 targets, 1,323 yards, 8.4 per target)

So among teams that actually threw a lot (i.e. not Navy or Air Force), San Diego State had the most explosive Top Two (Vincent Brown and Demarco Sampson) in the country. The least explosive: Indiana (247 targets, 1,538 yards, 6.2 per target).

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 95
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 74
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -6 / -2.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (7, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -3.0

There is quite a bit to like about this team -- Lindley, Hillman, an experienced offensive line, options at linebacker, deep(ish) secondary -- but the two holes are glaring. It isn't hard to assume a drastic dropoff in the receiving corps, and the defensive line is alarmingly thin. The schedule is built in with six likely wins -- Cal Poly, at Army, Washington State, Wyoming, New Mexico, at Colorado State -- and another bowl bid is likely (95%, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011), but because of these extreme weaknesses, it is difficult to gauge their ceiling.

Rocky Long has built a strong track record through his career (among other things, he is the winningest coach in New Mexico history), and under his leadership it is rather likely that, at least in the short-term, the upward momentum Brady Hoke built should at worst plateau. Despite being located in a relatively fertile recruiting area, San Diego State has never been to back-to-back bowl games, but that should change in 2011. Whether Long can sustain this newfound power over the long haul, we'll see. But then, two years is pretty "long haul" when it comes to SDSU's football history.

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today. The college portion is available for just $5, and the print version is now available!

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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