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Cal football 2015 opponent preview: San Diego State Aztecs

Donnel Pumphrey enters the season with big expectations. Can the Aztecs live up to the hype?

The Next Great One
The Next Great One
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

San Diego State Season Preview

When you enter the season and one of your most talked about positional battles involves your quarterback, it certainly doesn't breed enthusiasm from a fan base. Sadly, this is the where San Diego State starts their football season in 2015. The Aztecs have some elite players on the offensive side of the ball, specifically Donnel Pumphrey at running back, but bigger questions remain for the program. Spring ball helped to whittle down the quarterback competition from a handful of candidates to three intriguing choices heading into fall camp.

Don't get me wrong, the Aztecs have plenty of reasons to be optimistic coming into the season, especially with new offensive coordinator Jeff Horton taking over the playbook. The offense should pick up where last season left off, with even more of an emphasis around the run game and feeding the aforementioned Pumphrey the ball early and often. The Aztecs vaunted defense returns stacked with juniors and last year's best performing unit should manifest itself quite nicely in the upcoming season. With a make or break year for Rocky Long on the line, the 2015-2016 season represents an opportunity for the Aztecs to break into the upper echelon of the Mountain West conference.

Positions to Watch

Lucky Radley

Photo credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Running Back: Without a doubt, the most exciting player to watch on the Aztecs is Donnel Pumphrey. San Diego State's lead runner amassed a school record of 1,873 yards as a sophomore, good enough for fourth in the country behind elite collegiate talent last season. Pumphrey is a smaller sized back with shifty moves and the ability to shoot the gap with his 4.3 speed.

He is running behind a BIG offensive line, but they lack game experience and already lost Darrell Greene for six games due to suspension. A lot of the success for the Aztecs this year will depend on the ability of the offensive line to execute and create enough holes for Pumphrey to navigate through. I expect Donnel Pumphrey to put up another year of huge numbers with offensive coordinator Jeff Horton bringing his Barry Alvarez-esque approach to the Aztecs running game.

Quarterback: It's not often that you list five different players to watch at a single occupancy position. However, the questions around quarterback for the Aztecs are endless. After spring, it appeared Kentucky transfer Maxwell Smith had distanced himself from the pack with Christian Chapman not far behind. Waiting in the wings are Oregon transfer Jake Rodrigues who played behind Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota last season. Finally, Nick Bawden and Ryan Agnew both hope to carve out some playing time in one of the most crowded quarterback competitions in the conference.

For Maxwell Smith, the opportunity at San Diego State represents a homecoming and shot a redemption for a once promising career that has been derailed by injuries. Ultimately the quarterback position has promise, but suffers from a lack of depth and veteran leadership.

Defense: The most exciting unit to watch for Aztec fans will be their premier defense, which has become the staple of Rocky Long's teams. The defensive unit last year excelled as the offense sputtered, and the team's strongest unit returns almost all defensive linemen and defensive backs for the upcoming season.

I expect the defense to be one of, if not the biggest key to success for the Aztecs in the Mountain West this year. Furthermore, when San Diego State plays against bigger opponents such as Penn State and Cal, the defense will be instrumental in controlling possession and dictating the game flow. The biggest question mark on the defensive side of the ball comes at linebacker. Three key contributors left the program and they struggled in short yardage situations last year. As with any strong defense, spectacular units will cover some weaknesses and the Aztecs should expect their stellar secondary and strong defensive line to make life easier for the linebackers against better opponents.

How San Diego State matches up against Cal

The Cal-San Diego State matchup should be one of the more fun games to watch as one of the stronger defensive units take on what should be an elite passing attack from our Golden Bears. The strengths of the Aztecs forecast extremely well in this matchup; their experienced defensive line can push the Cal offensive line off the line of scrimmage and force Goff to deliver the ball quickly. If last season was any indicator, Rocky Long will continue to use a variety of blitzes to keep the Cal offense guessing and force the Bears out of their game plan.

Meanwhile, the Cal defense will have their hands full with Pumphrey and an offensive line known for their size. They will have to force the Aztecs to become one dimensional and force Maxwell Smith to beat them instead of the running attack. If Cal can contain Pumphrey the same way Oregon State did last season, they should be in control of the football game and ultimately win in Berkeley without too many nervous moments. However, if the Aztec defense plays up to their standard from last year and Pumphrey finds holes in the Cal defense, this could be an exciting and tough game for the Bears.

2015-16 Prediction

Rocky Long

Photo credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

I have a lot of issues making bold claims about a team that hasn't figured out their quarterback position heading into the fall. I buy the hype behind Maxwell Smith as well as Christian Chapman, however neither of them separated themselves enough in spring ball. The defense shouldn't be a concern and special teams is in strong shape with Donny Hageman, an early 2015 candidate for the Lou Groza award. Bowl eligibility has become the staple of the Rocky Long era at San Diego State and with success comes expectation.

Without a stable leader at the helm, I anticipate San Diego State to narrowly miss another chance to take the step forward most fans hope for in 2015-16. I expect the Aztecs to finish with 7 wins and find themselves bowl eligible for a sixth straight year, but fall short of an appearance in the Mountain West championship game.