Column: With shortened season, Aztecs poised to make run at conference championship

San Diego State will play seven Mountain West Conference opponents with hopes of securing a conference championship for the first time since 2016

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Then-junior running back Chase Jasmin celebrates in the end zone by holding the ball in the air after scoring a touchdown during the Aztecs’ 48-11 win over Central Michigan on Dec. 21, 2019 at the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

by Andrew Finley, Contributor

Coming off of a 10-3 record in 2019, San Diego State football is primed to make a run at the Mountain West Conference title in 2020. Football for every team in the conference is set to play the weekend of Oct. 24 and only three of the 95 games played by MWC teams will come against non-conference opponents, excluding the conference title game on Dec. 19. 

Getting off to a late start compared to most other NCAA football conferences, the Mountain West is really in a league of their own this season.

For the Aztecs, that sentiment is much the same as they’ll be playing all of their home games at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California for the next two years while construction of their new home gets underway in Mission Valley. 

Week 1 (Oct. 24): UNLV at SDSU

Under a new but familiar head coach in Brady Hoke, SDSU kicks off its season in its rental home against the UNLV Rebels, who seem to be heading towards a rebuilding season under new head coach Marcus Arroyo. The last meeting between these teams was last October, as the Aztecs snuck out of Vegas with a 20-17 victory over the Rebels.

Week 2 (Oct. 31): SDSU at Utah State

The Aztecs will then travel to play Utah State to play the Aggies. Luckily for the Aztecs, this edition of the Aggies has moved on from quarterback Jordan Love, who was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers.

The unclear quarterback situation at Utah State could help the Aztecs get redemption on the Aggies, who spoiled SDSU’s conference opener at SDCCU Stadium last September. The 23-17 loss was a result of the Aggies scoring 20 unanswered points in the first three quarters, including a pick-six.

The Aztecs should look to limit the mistakes this time around and pounce early on the Aggies offensively. 

Week 3 (Nov. 6): San José State at SDSU

After playing the Aggies, the Aztecs will remain home for the next two weeks. Game three will be a Friday night matchup against the Spartans of San José State, who just missed bowl eligibility last season with a 5-7 record.

The Spartans have a new offensive backfield after their starting quarterback Josh Love and running back DeJon Parker departed, but don’t discount their offense. San Jose State’s receiving corp is as lethal as ever with senior Tre Walker.

SDSU was able to handle SJSU last October, as the Aztecs never played from behind and won 27-17 in San José.

Week 4 (Nov. 14): Hawaii at SDSU

The reigning MWC West Division champion Hawaii Rainbow Warriors come to Carson for a revenge game to mark the halfway point of the season.

The conference championship runners-up were able to defeat the Aztecs last season despite the low-scoring, narrow 14-11 victory. Not only was that the last conference game for the Aztecs, but it also knocked them out of the conference championship game.

Hawaii has a new head coach in Todd Graham, and is looking to improve their defense, which gave up 31.9 points per game last season.  

Week 5 (Nov. 21): SDSU at Nevada

SDSU will start the second half of its season with a date in Reno.

The Nevada Wolf Pack knocked the Aztecs out of the top 25 last season with a close 17-13 win at SDCCU Stadium last November.

The strong point for Nevada this season is their stability on offense, with several skill position players returning in 2020. The Aztecs need to take advantage of the Wolf Pack defense, which gave up over six yards per play last season. 

Week 6 (Nov. 27): SDSU at Fresno State

The Aztecs’ second Friday night game of 2020 is against Fresno State. SDSU walked away with the Old Oil Can last season after scoring 10 unanswered points after the first quarter en route to the 17-7 victory.

Fresno State is bringing in a new head coach in Kalen DeBoer and has an experienced offensive line coming back from injuries suffered in 2019. The Bulldogs also brought in new defensive coordinator Willam Inge after the 2019 defense allowed 5.7 yards per carry. 

Week 7 (Dec. 5): Colorado State at SDSU

SDSU wraps up MWC play in Carson versus Colorado State. The Aztecs took care of business in Fort Collins last October in the form of a 24-10 victory over the Rams. That win featured a seven catch, 120-yard, two touchdown night for SDSU then-sophomore wide receiver Kobe Smith.

Colorado State should run a similar offense to last season under new head coach Dan Addzio (from Boston College). The return of senior quarterback Patrick O’Brien and senior receiver Warren Jackson has the potential for the Rams to be dangerous in 2020, but limitations to the offensive line — who gave up 27 sacks in 2019 — could hinder the Rams’ potential. Additionally, Colorado State has switched their defensive scheme from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. 

Week 8 (Dec. 12): SDSU at BYU

The Aztecs’ regular season will come to a close in Utah against non-conference foe BYU.

SDSU quieted the Cougars’ offense last season, beating them 13-3 in San Diego to wrap up the 2019 season, with then-freshman-quarterback Carson Baker at the helm.

BYU is currently No. 14 in the AP Top 25 Poll going undefeated in their first five games, with potential darkhorse Heisman candidate junior quarterback Zach Wilson leading the way. Wilson has 16 total touchdowns and 1,760 all-purpose yards so far this season.

What to expect

The Aztecs could wrap up their season with a MWC trophy, but that certainly isn’t a given. They were able to avoid matchups against powerhouse teams in the BIG 10 and PAC-12 this season, but now they have to prove that they are truly the top dogs in the Mountain West. 

In a shortened season against a large majority of in-conference opponents, every game is crucial this season. Two road trips to Utah won’t be easy for the Aztecs, who already have to travel over 115 miles to get to their own home games.

In addition to traveling to Nevada and Fresno State, the schedule itself poses intangible challenges, including the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak amongst the team. The good news for the Aztecs is 13 of their 22 starters are returning, with many of them on a defense that allowed a measly 12.7 points per game.

The Aztecs have the potential to walk out of this season undefeated if the offense, with newly-announced starting quarterback Baker, can get hot early and consistently score early throughout the season.

Realistically, expect the Aztecs to rack up five or six wins this season, including a trip to the conference championship.

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