Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Coming off an impressive 9-4 campaign in 2012, during which they finished tied for first in the Mountain West Conference standings with seven wins in eight tries, the San Diego State Aztecs set the bar rather high for themselves last year, but managed to rise to the challenge after a rough start.
San Diego State enjoyed a seven-game win streak to close out the 2012 regular season before being thumped by BYU in the Poinsettia Bowl (23-6), but no one thought that slip-up in the postseason would carry over into 2013.
However, the Aztecs hit a snag right out of the gate a season ago when they were tripped up by FCS foe Eastern Illinois at home, 40-19. San Diego State was plagued by five turnovers in the opener and continued to have issues in that department in the following weeks with a combined six miscues during setbacks to Ohio State and Oregon State.
Head coach Rocky Long was expecting a much more positive start and wasn't getting the results he was hoping for, but good things were just around the corner for SDSU nevertheless.
In late September the Aztecs picked up their first win, a 26-16 victory over New Mexico State on the road in Las Cruces and from there the team rattled off seven wins in eight chances. San Diego State took 15th-ranked Fresno State to overtime before suffering a 35-28 home loss in late October and also was stunned by a resurgent UNLV group at the close of the regular season, 45-19, at Sam Boyd Stadium in Sin City.
For the third time in as many seasons, coach Long was able to move the Aztecs into the postseason, but the difference this time around was that they were able to take down Buffalo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl by a convincing score of 49-24. Since 1970, the Aztecs have appeared in a total of just seven bowl games, with last year's victory over the Bulls marking just their second triumph (2010 Poinsettia Bowl versus Navy).
OFFENSE: For the first couple of weeks in 2013, the offense was less than impressive for the Aztecs, but eventually quarterback Quinn Kaehler was able to gain his footing and give the team the boost it needed to be successful.
Kaehler, who is coming off elbow surgery, is the key to it all on offense again this season, after completing close to 60 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns against nine interceptions in 12 appearances a year ago.
"I don't think there's any question that he's much better now," says coach Long of his quarterback. "Physically, he's not any better. Mentally, he understands the offense a whole lot better. He'll be able to do some things this year because he understands the offense better and how he fits. I think if he stays healthy, he'll give us a real good chance to win a lot of games."
The scary part about Kaehler and the offense is that if he gets hurt or is ineffective, the season could speed wildly out of control. Each of the other five signal callers on the depth chart are freshmen, which means it would be like starting from scratch.
On a more positive note, the offense does feature one of the more exciting wide receivers in the league in Ezell Ruffin. The senior is the top returning receiver after catching 68 passes for 1,136 yards and three touchdowns, more than enough to earn him a spot on the 2014 Biletnikoff Award Watch List.
Just a freshman a year ago, Donnel Pumphrey managed to gain quite a bit of experience not only as a key running back for the Aztecs, finishing with 752 yards and eight touchdowns, but also as a huge weapon slipping out of the backfield who managed to catch 22 passes for 234 yards and two more scores. Replacing an enigmatic Adam Muema (1,244 yards rushing, 15 TDs) will still be a big hurdle to clear for SDSU and offensive coordinator Bob Toledo.
"This year is going to be much harder because last year, we had Adam Muema and I looked up to him," says Pumphrey. "Now as the feature back, I just hope to have a big year this year and go into each game and have a good game."
DEFENSE: The Aztecs have lost their top three tacklers and five of the top six overall coming into this season. Coach Long prides himself on an aggressive pass defense that makes big plays and causes turnovers, but that just wasn't the case a year ago when the team posted only eight interceptions and was 117th nationally in turnover margin (minus-0.85).
Defensive back J.J. Whittaker will get a lot of attention since he is one of the leaders in the secondary and must help coach up his teammates who will often be tested by aggressive MWC offenses from one week to the next. Whittaker made a total of only 32 tackles in 13 games, although he did lead the way with three picks and was credited with 11 pass breakups.
Cody Galea, one of the top returning tacklers for the Aztecs who registered 36 stops and recovered a couple of fumbles, will be transitioning from defensive end where he was a starter to linebacker, in order for coach Long to ease the stress on the defense. The move will also open up more opportunities for Dontrell Onuoha at defensive end.
In addition to losing a host of starters from the defensive side of the ball, the Aztecs are also dealing with senior linebacker Josh Gavert who will miss time with an injury. Gavert finished fourth in tackles with 68, posting three sacks ands six tackles for loss.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Coach Long is not hiding the fact that he is still unsure of how his special teams, particularly his kickers, will turn out in 2014. The team made just 8-of-16 on field goal attempts a season ago, with Seamus McMorrow missing all four of his opportunities. McMorrow will again be the backup in that department, at least as the season gets rolling, sitting behind Donny Hageman.
Joel Alesi will retain his job as punter for the time being, but nothing is written in stone in San Diego. Alesi averaged only 39.4 yards per punt and had one of his 53 attempts blocked.
In terms of returning punts and kickoffs, those duties could fall to a committee of players, depending on who is available and capable of making a significant contribution.
OUTLOOK: In addition to crossing his fingers for the health and well-being of Kaehler, coach Long will also being saying prayers for his red zone defense, which ranked 123rd nationally a year ago when it allowed opponents to score 95.3 percent of the time.
The Aztecs have their work cut out for them early on with four road games through the first six outings. Making life that much harder is the fact that SDSU has to play Fresno State, Nevada and Boise State all in hostile environments. However, the Aztecs do have the luxury of hosting some of the weaker opponents on the schedule (Idaho, Air Force and San Jose State) in the final month and that could be just what the program needs in order to make itself bowl eligible.