Underdogs are one of the many reasons that make college football so great, so we’ve created Underdog U with this week’s focus on San Diego State.
Part of what makes college football great is a good underdog story. Most of the press is dedicated to covering the national powerhouses from Power Five conferences, but there are plenty of other teams out there who are worthy of your attention. In Underdog U, a series started by Austin Taliaferro, we take a look at one team from a non-Power Five conference who may be flying under your radar. This week we look at San Diego State from the Mountain West, who has rushed out to a 5-0 start, including a win over previously #19 Stanford.
Why You Don’t Know Them:
San Diego State started out the 2016 season in similar fashion to the ‘17 season, beating a Northern California school, Cal, in non-conference play. The two times the Aztecs broke into the AP Top 25, they promptly lost their next game. Still, they finished the season strong with a bowl game win over Houston, bringing them to 11-3 and finishing at No. 25 in the AP Poll.
One big reason why many expected San Diego State to regress this season was the massive loss of Donnel Pumphrey, the all-time FBS leader in rushing yards.
Last season, which was perhaps his most spectacular, Pumphrey rushed for 2,133 yards (1st in FBS) and 17 touchdowns (11th in FBS) and finished tied for 10th in Heisman voting with Dalvin Cook. In addition to his raw talent, SDSU also misses his leadership. Head Coach Rocky Long said that Pumphrey “leads with his ability, but is also one of the vocal leaders of the team.” Taking all of this into account, it’s no wonder people did not expect the same dynamic San Diego State team to emerge in 2017.
Also, historically, San Diego State have not been a wildly successful college football program, more commonly recognized for their recent success in college basketball. Back-to-back eleven-win seasons in 2015 and 2016 were actually the school’s first seasons with double digit wins since 1977. Another strong finish to this season would begin to put the Aztecs on the map of Group of Five teams, perennially ready to spoil College Football Playoff plans. Currently, San Diego State has the 36th- ranked strength of schedule in the nation, a figure that is certain to drop given they have already played Stanford and Arizona State, so any New Year’s Six ambitions will likely require them to win out.
Why You Should Know Them:
Despite the loss of Donnel Pumphrey to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Aztecs have not missed a beat. Through five games, Rashaad Penny is already up to 823 rushing yards, good for second in the nation behind Stanford’s Bryce Love. Penny has not been held below 100 yards in a game yet and has not been held out of the end zone either, scoring at least once in every game and already nine times on the season. In his two games against Power Five teams, Penny put up 391 rushing yards, 69 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He can’t beat you in so many different ways, running between the tackles, but with the speed and ability to get to the edge as well.
Simply put, this man is a stud, and the nation is starting to take note.
Beyond Penny, San Diego State still has a very talented football team. Quarterback Christian Chapman isn’t asked to do much on offense, but is quietly becoming a much more efficient passer, completing 67% of his passes, up from just 61% last season. Despite their relatively challenging start to the season, the Aztecs also rank 28th in the nation in total defense, and are holding opponents to just 21.2 points per game. Taking out the one game where Air Force rushed 60 times against them, San Diego State is only allowing 100 rushing yards per game, good enough for 17th in the nation. Their front seven, led by edge rusher Ronley Lakalaka and defensive lineman Noble Hall has already racked up 16 sacks on the season and continues to control games.
Part of the credit for San Diego State’s success so far this season is their ability to control games. Three of their wins have been wire-to-wire victories, and they led for the majority of the game against a ranked Stanford team as well. Controlling the pace of the game and playing out in front allows them to focus on establishing the run, and then picking and choosing the moments to throw the ball, minimizing critical mistakes. In fact, five games into the season, the Aztecs have amassed twelve takeaways with only three turnovers of their own. Their +9 margin has them up with teams like Alabama, Penn State, and South Florida as the leaders in turnover margin. Those extra possessions are crucial for a team like San Diego State that loves to dictate play.
The Road Ahead:
San Diego State has already traversed the difficult part of their schedule. Of their remaining opponents, according to ESPN FPI, the toughest remaining matchup is at home against Boise State, a matchup in which FPI gives San Diego State a 68.7% edge. Based on FPI, the Aztecs have about a 23% chance to finish the regular season undefeated; this scenario, coupled with a win in the Mountain West Championship Game, would make life difficult for the College Football Playoff Committee. With wins in the last two Mountain West Championship Games, San Diego State is now looking to take that next step, to enter the upper-echelon of Group of Five teams, to have the same sort of name recognition that Boise State does when is comes to college football. The way this season is shaping up for them so far, it might just be their chance.
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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