San Diego State Aztecs football: 2010 Poinsettia Bowl Champions return to the gridiron this Saturday
Up until a season ago, the San Diego State Aztecs had one nagging question surrounding its football program: “When was the last time?”
As in: When was the last time the team had a winning season?
When was the last time SDSU had an NFL caliber player?
When was the last time the Aztecs won a bowl game?
Unless you were extremely familiar with Aztec football, the answers to those questions usually took some thought and research into the program’s history. It had been long time.
Up until a season ago.
SDSU finished the 2010 campaign with a record of 9-4, their first winning season in 12 years. Their success was capped off by a 35-14 win over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl, the team’s first bowl appearance since 1998 and their first bowl victory since 1969.
It was a game that saw SDSU freshman running back Ronnie Hillman rush for 228 yards and score four touchdowns, earning him Offensive MVP honors while bringing his total rushing yards on the season to 1,532, the highest total in the Mountain West Conference and the 10th most yards by a running back in the NCAA last year.
His season total was also high enough to surpass the old SDSU freshman rushing record of 1,429, previously held by none other than recent Hall of Fame inductee Marshall Faulk. For his effort, Hillman earned the Mountain West Conference Freshman-of-the-Year award.
A number of other successes highlighted the Aztec’s 2010 season as well, including junior quarterback Ryan Lindley finishing the season ranked No. 1 in the conference and No. 7 in the nation for most passing yards with 3,830 yards, most of which were thrown in the direction of senior wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Demarco Sampson. The standout SDSU receivers, each of which ended the year with over 1,200 yards, were eventually drafted into the NFL earlier this April.
Junior linebacker Miles Burris and sophomore Leon McFadden were the anchors of a solid Aztec defense that allowed just over 350 yards per game. Burris led the team in nearly every defensive category and finished the year ranked in the nation’s top 25 in tackles for a loss, quarterback sacks and forced fumbles, while McFadden led the league and tied for 17th nationally in passes defended per game. Both players were named first-team all-conference selections.
But enough about the past already, it’s time to talk about the future. That starts with officially letting the Rocky Long era at San Diego State begin.
After spending the past two seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Aztecs under Brady Hoke, Long was named the head coach back in January, just weeks after Hoke departed for the coaching vacancy at Michigan.
With a resume that boasts 37 total years of coaching experience and the title of second-winningest coach in MWC history, SDSU also got a man who has earned the respect of the players over the past two years and should provide a smooth transition for a team that’s returning 14 starters and seven all-conference selections in 2011, including Lindley, Burris, Hillman and McFadden.
“Coach Long is straight up with you,” Lindley said. “He’ll tell you how it is, he’s always an honest guy, and you love that about him. You know that you can go in and speak your mind to him and it makes you want to play hard for a guy like that.”
Apparently, with all that returning talent, the voters in the preseason MWC poll don’t expect the head coaching change to have much of an effect on the Aztecs either.
SDSU was picked to finish fourth in the MWC by conference beat writers, marking the first time in seven years the Aztecs were a preseason pick to finish in the upper division of the league. Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel suggests the scarlet and black might fair even better than that, predicting the Aztecs to finish the year 10-2, and in Sports Illustrated’s annual college football preview SDSU was tabbed to finish second in the MWC.
At the same MWC media day that unveiled the preseason predictions a month ago in Las Vegas, it was also announced that Burris, Hillman, McFadden and senior punter Brian Stahovich were all named to the preseason all-conference team, the program’s most preseason all-league picks since 2004.
Additionally, Burris is on the preseason watch list for the Nagurski Award (top defensive player), Butkus Award (outstanding linebacker) and Lombardi Award (top down lineman), and Hillman finds himself on the watch list for the Maxwell Award (college player of the year), Walter Camp Award (college player of the year) and Doak Walker Award (top running back).
Hillman also made ESPN’s list of potential Heisman Trophy candidates from non-automatic qualifying conferences just a few weeks ago. Though likely a long shot, it’s still an honor.
As for Lindley, his was rated by Liddy’s Sports as the sixth-best quarterback in the nation and has been tabbed as one of the most “NFL ready” quarterbacks in the NCAA. His name has been included on a host of award watch lists as well, but a major question of how he and the offense will handle the loss of their two best receiving targets still remains.
Luckily for Lindley and company, four out of five starting offensive lineman are returning from a season ago, they have a monster of a tight end in Gavin Escobar who was a freshman All-American last season, and, according to Lindley, the Aztecs have a hard-working albeit young receiving core that has shown much improvement over the course of training camp.
“They’ve improved a ton,” Lindley told the media in a press conference this past week, according to goaztecs.com. “It took them a couple of weeks. They struggled, they were in and out and were a little inconsistent, but they have really found a way to gel. We have a really good group of guys who don’t have a ton of experience, but they’re going to get it quickly.”
A favorable schedule could also play a part in SDSU’s success this season as well. Though the team faces some tough road games, including trips to Michigan on September 24 and Air Force on October 13, the Aztec’s are also lucky enough to host two of their most challenging conference opponents, Boise State and TCU, at the comforts of their Qualcomm Stadium home, a place the Aztecs went 6-1 against visiting teams last season.
According to goaztecs.com, last year’s on-field success brought an increase of nearly 10,000 fans to home games from 2009, the sixth largest home attendance increase in NCAA Division I football in 2010, and season tickets sold for this year’s home contests have already surpassed totals from the last three seasons.
Though San Diego isn’t quite on par with other college football meccas like Auburn, Alabama, Columbus, Ohio or South Bend, Indiana, fans are starting to take notice. And with a team talented enough to compete against 2010 Rose Bowl Champion TCU or perennial BCS top-fiver Boise State this year, having the crowd support can only help further the cause of knocking off one or either of those rivals and perhaps garnering a little national attention of their own.
“[The crowd support] is great,” Lindley said. “I can still remember the dog days of the 2-10 seasons when we weren’t getting a whole lot of support so I think that the fan support helps. But at the same time, it comes down to us playing hard and winning games. We know that football’s a competitive game, it’s an entertaining sport, but no one wants to see a loser so you’ve got to win games.”
On paper the Aztecs are poised for success yet again this year. Their season begins this Saturday at home against Cal Poly. But one of those nagging questions still remains.
When was the last time the Aztecs had back-to-back winning seasons? The previous answer is 1996.
Up until this season, hopefully.