NCAA Football Preview - San Jose State Spartans

The team started off well enough with a 24-0 blanking of visiting Sacramento State in late August, but that was to be expected. Unfortunately, the squad bit off slightly more than it could chew with non-conference battles against fourth-ranked Stanford and Minnesota, two top-notch competitors on the road that resulted in defeat.

The Spartans then opened the Mountain West Conference schedule against Utah State in late September, an encounter that left SJSU limping into October with a miserable 1-3 mark.

Against second-tier conference opponents the Spartans did gain some traction, defeating the likes of Hawaii, Colorado State, Wyoming and UNLV, lifting the squad to an impressive 4-1 league mark and a 5-3 record overall. However, San Jose State sputtered against San Diego State in a 34-30 home loss, and then fell off the wagon at Nevada in the middle of November by a score of 38-16.

The Spartans still kept the door open for a potential postseason bid, but a wild 58-52 triple-overtime loss to Navy effectively put an end to those aspirations. With little to play for, the Spartans went to war against 13th- ranked Fresno State in the regular-season finale and upset the Bulldogs, 62-52, taking FSU out of contention for being the latest BCS buster.

Coach Caragher cut loose quarterback David Fales last season, allowing the signal caller to throw for 349.1 ypg and 33 touchdowns, on an impressive 64.1 percent accuracy. The SJSU passing attack was second in the MWC and sixth nationally, but that still was not enough to make up for the fact that the defense ranked eighth in the league and 103rd in the country with 35.1 ppg allowed.


OFFENSE: The biggest obstacle facing coach Caragher and the Spartans this season is finding a suitable replacement for Fales. The fall depth chart had Blake Jurich penciled in as the starter, with Joe Gray serving as his understudy. Jurich was used sparingly last season, appearing in just five games and completing three of his six passes for a grand total of 22 yards and an interception.

Making the job even more difficult for Jurich is the fact that superstar wideout Chandler Jones is no longer on the roster. A potential game-breaker every time he got his hands on the ball, Jones turned 79 catches into 1,356 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013. The loss of Kyle Nunn (36 receptions, 505 yards, five TDs) will also be a tough hurdle, but at least the Spartans can count on Tyler Winston to pick up some of the slack.

Just a freshman last season, Winston was responsible for 58 catches, leading to 858 yards and five scores in 10 games. It remains to be seen how he handles being the major focus of the passing attack moving forward. Also expected to be more of an influence is wide receiver Jabari Carr who, in 10 games, caught 25 balls for 173 yards but failed to make it into the end zone.

Obviously the offense was built around the exploits of Fales last season, but it is still important to note that the running game brings back both Jarrod Lawson and Thomas Tucker who placed one-two in overall yardage with 788 and 338, respectively. The duo combined to score seven of the unit's 12 rushing touchdowns, so at least they have experience in that area.

DEFENSE: The defense for the Spartans lists as many as 11 returning starters, which should be encouraging even after the team's shaky performances down the stretch in 2013. However, the one glaring omission in the list of returnees is defensive back Bene Benwikere, who was fifth on the unit in tackles (55) and led the way in both interceptions (five) and pass breakups (11).

The good news has Christian Tago back for another go around after finishing second in total stops with 90, leading the program with 10 tackles for loss and tying for the team high with four sacks. Because of his dominating performance last season, Tago has been named to the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Award watch list.

Based on the numbers from last season, the secondary will be the group to watch on this side of the ball, given how many yards the squad surrendered over the top. Granted, the group did have to battle Fresno State's Derek Carr in the finale, but still there were other times when the back end of the defense failed to rise to the occasion.

"I saw the 'back seven' put in that extra effort to strip the football or come up with a pass break-up by hustling and following all the way through," coach Caragher said after the second day of preseason workouts. "We've been emphasizing that and really encouraged defensively and compliment the 'back seven' for the efforts they put forth."

SPECIAL TEAMS: Star performers are few and far between on the 2014 San Jose State roster, but there is one distinct exception on special teams in kicker Austin Lopez.

A scoring machine in 2013, Lopez knocked through all but five of his 27 field goal attempts, and was perfect on his two chances from 50 yards and beyond. One of only two kickers in school history with at least two field goals from 50 yards, Lopez has been named to the Lou Groza Award Watch List for the second straight year.

Unfortunately, while the Spartans do retain the services of Lopez, they must find a replacement for punter Harrison Waid, one of the best in the business last season with an average of 43.4 yards per kick. The options are rather limited right now with only freshmen Zach Steinberg and Richard Cole stepping up to fill the void.

OUTLOOK: Overcoming the losses of Fales and Jones on the offensive side of the ball will not be easy, and that transition to another quarterback could keep the Spartans from putting their best foot forward in the early going.

On paper, the season opener against FCS foe North Dakota may sound like a winnable game for SJSU, but jumping the gun there would be a mistake. Following up with road games versus Auburn and Minnesota could easily dig a significant hole for a program that is expected to take a step backward in 2014 already.

Also working against the Spartans during the final month of the campaign is road dates against Fresno State, Utah State and San Diego State, a run that will more than likely do more harm than good.

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