The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. We’ll take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 85: San Diego State
Coach: Rocky Long (8-5 entering second season at SDSU, 73-74 overall entering his 13th season)
2011 record: 8-5 (4-3 in Mountain West, finished fourth in MWC)
Look back: Following the departure of Brady Hoke to Michigan, defensive coordinator Rocky Long made a smooth transition to head coach of the San Diego State program. Long, who previously spent 11 seasons as head coach at New Mexico, helped the Aztecs reach back-to-back bowl games (2010 under Hoke and 2011 under Long) for the first time in school history.
San Diego State opened the season with a 49-21 win over Cal Poly, a 23-20 win at Army and a 42-24 win over Washington State. The Aztecs faced Hoke in game four, falling 28-7 at Michigan. San Diego State then lost its Mountain West Conference opener 27-14 against TCU. The team recorded a 41-27 win at Air Force, then lost 30-27 against Wyoming. Long faced his former team for the first time as head coach, leading San Diego State to a 35-7 win over New Mexico. The Aztecs added an 18-15 at Colorado State, then lost 52-35 to loaded Boise State. San Diego State closed out the regular season with a 31-14 win at UNLV and a dramatic 35-28 win over Fresno State.
The Aztecs were on the disappointing end of one of the most entertaining 2011-12 bowl games. San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley connected with Colin Lockett for a 12-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds left in the 2011 New Orleans Bowl, giving the Aztecs a 30-29 lead. Louisiana State quarterback Blaine Gautier led the Ragin’ Cajuns to the Aztecs’ 38-yard line. Brett Baer lined up to attempt a 55-yard field goal, but a pre-snap penalty on the Aztecs moved five yards. Baer hit a 50-yard field goal as time expired, helping Louisiana-Lafayette claim a 32-30 win over San Diego State in the New Orleans Bowl.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 5/6
Defensive starters lost/returning: 5/6
Key losses: RB Ronnie Hillman, QB Ryan Lindley, LT Tommie Draheim, LB Miles Burris, CB Larry Parker, DL Larry Gibbs, DL J.J. Autele.
Top returnees: CB Leon McFadden, TE Gavin Escobar, C Alec Johnson, QB Ryan Katz, WR Brice Butler, LB Jake Fely, LB Nick Tenhaeff, CB Josh Wade.
Strengths: The Aztecs limped through a brutal spring, with many returning starters sidelined for injuries. The rough stretch did give young players a lot of opportunities to scrimmage and gain experience. Although Oregon State transfer quarterback Ryan Katz didn’t look sharp during the San Diego State spring game, he was playing in rough playing conditions with a storm rolling through the San Diego area at the time of the contest. Katz brings much-needed experience and maturity to the team. Former USC receiver Brice Butler and tight end Gavin Escobar should contribute significantly to the San Diego State offense. While it’s a big challenge to lose playmaker Ronnie Hillman, Long has a history of emphasizing the rushing attack and developing young athletes into star running backs.
The Aztecs will likely be stronger on the defensive side of the ball. Linebackers Jake Fely and Nick Tenahaeff are capable returning starters, while Leon McFadden and Josh Wade lead a experienced and talented secondary.
Weaknesses: It’s not easy to replace long-time starting quarterback Ryan Lindley, a star rusher in Hillman, most of the starting offensive line and some key starting defensive linemen. The Aztecs’ biggest challenge this offseason will be helping the offensive line develop. If the line can’t block, San Diego State is in for a rough season.
Outlook: After years in the Mountain West Conference cellar, San Diego State earned back-to-back bowl appearances and earned an invitation to join the Big East in 2013. The big challenge for the Aztecs is reloading after a crop of players who helped fuel the turnaround moved on from the program. San Diego State has a favorable schedule, but the team has to resolve its issues in the trenches to make its third consecutive bowl trip.
Sept. 1 At Washington
Sept. 8 Army
Sept. 15 North Dakota