Aztecs hope lessons from non-conference play fuel conference championship run

SDSU defense lines up against Oregon State (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Pregame at Reser Stadium (Don De Mars/EVT)

The first goal of every SDSU football season is to win the conference championship. Listen to any Aztec coach or player speak, and that statement becomes indisputable. 

“The good thing is we start conference play next week, and the championship is what we play for,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said following the loss to Oregon State Saturday. “We get to start that and learn from this.”

The first of an eight-game conference schedule begins Friday night against Boise State at Snapdragon Stadium. 

The win-loss record from non-conference games plays zero factor towards that goal, so is there any importance to these games?

Here are three ways non-conference games play vital roles for a football program.  

Bowl game eligibility

CB Noah Tumblin and S Marcus Ratcliffe tackle the Oregon State receiver (Don De Mars/EVT)

While winning the conference championship is the ultimate goal, playing in a bowl game is right behind it. 

A college football team becomes bowl-eligible with its sixth win. How well a team does in non-conference play can set up them on an easier path. In the Mountain West, teams play eight conference games. Without any non-conference wins, a team would need to win six of eight conference games. With four non-conference wins, a team needs only two conference wins. 

For the second consecutive season, the Aztecs scheduled two Pac-12 teams (one home, one away), a MAC team, and FCS Idaho State. Like 2022, the Aztecs went 2-2, beating Idaho State and the MAC team but losing big to the Pac-12 teams. 

The outcome of three of the four games was heavily predictable before the season began. The oddsmakers agreed based on how the spreads were listed the week of the games. The matchup against Ohio was the only one that was a coin flip, further evidenced by the -2.5 line given to the home team. 

The Aztecs’ 20-13 victory on the opening weekend gave them a valuable second non-conference win, ensuring that a split of their conference games would get them to bowl eligibility. The Bobcats’ three wins since the loss to SDSU, including against Iowa State this past weekend, make that victory look even better.  

Develop competition and gain experience

Unlike the NFL, college football does not play preseason games to provide live game reps for young and inexperienced players. Often, college coaches use the non-conference schedule for that purpose in a limited capacity despite focusing on winning the game. 

LB Trey White gets his left hand on a pass attempt by Oregon State (Don De Mars/EVT)

For an SDSU defense that lost a ton of talent and experience from a year ago, the opportunity to see the younger players in game action was a necessity. Through four games, 22 defensive players have played at least 49 snaps. They consist of seven defensive linemen, six linebackers, and nine secondary guys.

“We also played a lot of guys, which is a benefit right now,” said Hoke last Tuesday when asked about personnel changes on the defensive side. “You can see where guys are at and see their progress. I think that’s important, and it also gets you ready for conference play.”

The defense has not played well through four games, ranking 120th in passing defense, 114th in total defense, 84th in rushing defense, and 83rd in scoring defense. They have been severely hurt in the past two weeks from big plays resulting from missed tackles and assignments. 

These four games have provided the coaching staff valuable evidence to help their evaluations heading into conference play. Barring injuries expect the number of players receiving snaps on the defensive side of the ball to decrease and the rotations shortened moving forward.

Following the loss on Saturday, safety Cedarious Barfield likened the transition from the non-conference to conference schedule to the beginning of a “second season” and a “clean slate.” 

On offense, these four games allowed new offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley, calling plays for the first time in his career, to dig into the playbook and mix and match personnel packages.  

“It means a lot,” said QB Jalen Mayden on Saturday when asked about the opportunity to reset with the conclusion of the non-conference schedule. “Self-eval the first four games. See what you are not doing (well) what you are doing great. Keep doing what you are doing great and eliminate the negatives.” 

All three FBS defenses the Aztecs played in non-conference are ranked in the top 14 in scoring defense and top 24 in total defense. The only remaining team on the schedule ranked in the top 50 in either category is Air Force (9th, 1st). 

With a relatively healthy offensive group, the staff should feel comfortable with what they have seen from the film against three elite defenses and how they plan to attack moving forward.

Build your brand

RB Jaylon Armstead runs in the only SDSU TD against Oregon State (Don De Mars/EVT)

Entering 2022, the SDSU program was peaking, on the cusp of an invite to a Power 5 Conference. 

In 2021, the Aztecs won 12 games for the first time in school history. Three Aztecs were named All-Americans, and four were selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. 

A brand new, $310M stadium was opening in September on time and on budget. 

It would have been hard to find a Group of Five football program that had yet to secure a Power 5 conference invite with a bigger upside and potential than SDSU.

Two of those 12 wins came against Pac-12 teams. One of them came against Utah, the eventual conference champion. The team’s 7-2 record against the Pac-12 from 2016 through 2021, the highest winning percentage against the conference by any team in the country (minimum six games played) during that period, was not only noticed on the West Coast but across the nation. 

Rumors swirled about SDSU’s candidacy for not only the Pac-12 (to replace the Southern California market left vacated by USC and UCLA) but for the Big-12, which desired to add a fourth time zone to its conference. 

Notwithstanding several other factors like market size, location, and university prestige, there is no doubt that SDSU’s on-field success against Power 5 teams in recent years put them in solid standing for conference expansion. 

As strong of a resume that was built over six years, it seems to have fallen apart in short order. In the past two years, the Aztecs lost four games to four different Pac-12 teams by a combined score of 134-46. 

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The two home games were on CBS. The two road games were featured on ESPN2 and FS1. The nation was watching. 

Add in a major rape allegation scandal in 2022 that made national news due to the involvement of Buffalo Bills’ punter Matt Araiza (San Diego prosecutors later decided against criminal charges) and blunders by its administration this past summer communicating with the Mountain West related to its potential conference exit, and SDSU’s national image took a major hit. 

With the implosion of the Pac-12 and Big-12 expansion supposedly complete, SDSU’s next step was in peril even before it stepped on a football field in 2023. Opportunities against UCLA and Oregon State to stem the tide and show the nation the program belonged on the field with ranked Power 5 teams fell flat.

Home-and-home series with California and Washington State are set to begin next year. With California’s move to the ACC, that series appears intact. On the other hand, Washington State’s conference affiliation for 2024 is up in the air as one of two remaining teams (with Oregon State) in the Pac-12. With the possibility that SDSU and Washington State could end up in the same conference in 2024 or 2025, those non-conference games may need to be replaced. 

Roster update

CB Sam Dunnell and DL Joseph Hall are no longer on the roster. SDSU confirmed to EVT on Monday that both left the team a few weeks ago. 

Dunnell (6’4, 205), a Class of 2023 signing, enrolled at SDSU this past summer. Despite the official signing announcement listing him as a safety, the initial fall camp roster had him at cornerback. The 3-star athlete from St. Margaret’s Episcopal School chose SDSU over Oregon State and Washington State. With the strong talent and depth in the cornerback room, Dunnell was likely headed for a redshirt season. 

CB Noah Tumblin makes a leaping INT against Oregon State (Don De Mars/EVT)

Hall, a military veteran, committed to SDSU as a preferred walk-on from Saddleback College before spring camp. With a wide-open competition on the defensive line heading into the fall season, Hall hoped to make strides on the depth chart but was listed fourth at one of the defensive end positions coming out of spring camp, and with the freshman additions in fall camp, he may have fallen further behind.  

Quick Notes

  • Barfield’s three interceptions are tied with six other players for first in the country
  • The team’s eight interceptions are 2nd best in the country behind Liberty’s nine (no other FBS team has more than six)
  • Opponents have only scored seven points off SDSU’s eight turnovers
  • TE Mark Redman already has 16 receptions (on 21 targets) for 179 yards after only catching 21 passes for 233 yards last year
  • 29-yd receptions by Redman and RB Martin Blake are the longest passing plays for the Aztecs this season
  • Despite missing two field goals against Oregon State, Jack Browning’s 52-yd field goal made him 3 of 4 from 50-yd+ career attempts
  • The Aztecs rushed for 304 yards against their lone FCS opponent and 287 yards combined in their three FBS games
  • After committing 14 penalties for 125 yards against Idaho State, the Aztecs were only penalized a total of five times for 45 yards against UCLA and Oregon State
  • Opponents have outscored the Aztecs 43-23 in the 2nd quarters through four games, the only quarter with a margin greater than six
  • Through four games, the Aztecs do not have a player with 200 rushing or receiving yards
  • Third down defense has deteriorated as the game has progressed – Aztecs held offenses to a 36% (9/25) conversion rate in the 1st half versus a 48.3% (14/29) conversion in 2nd half
  • Opposing defenses have almost double the amount of TFLs as the Aztecs’ defense has (29 to 15)
  • WR Josh Nicholson, who was hampered throughout fall camp with an ankle injury, has really struggled to start the season – on ten targets per Pro Football Focus (PFF), he has only one catch (18 yards) with three drops
  • LG Cade Bennett has yet to allow a sack as an Aztec in 516 pass-blocking snaps over the last two seasons; out of six OL to take snaps this year for the Aztecs, Bennett holds the highest offense (71.5), pass block (75.5) and run block (71.5) PFF grades

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