The Aztecs (3-0) have emerged as the favorite among the Group of 5 teams to land that coveted New Year's Six slot after back-to-back victories over Arizona State and Stanford. San Diego State boasts a strong defense that has allowed just 18 points and 300 yards per contest.
If there's a team that could throw a wrench into the works, the Falcons (1-1) are it. Air Force gave Michigan all it could handle before the Wolverines pulled away in the fourth quarter. Like the Aztecs, the Falcons excel at shutting down opposing teams. Air Force leads the Mountain West Conference in both scoring defense (14.5 ppg) and total defense (227.0 ypg).
Air Force leads the all-time series 19-15, but San Diego State has had the upper hand in recent seasons. The Aztecs have won six straight in the series, most recently beating the Falcons 27-24 in the 2015 Mountain West Championship Game. Air Force hasn't beaten San Diego State since taking three straight against the Aztecs from 2007-09.
San Diego State at Air Force
Kickoff: Saturday Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: San Diego State – 3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Rashaad Penny be stopped?
Life after Donnel Pumphrey has been much smoother than expected for San Diego State. Rashaad Penny is a major reason why that's the case.
Penny is following in Pumphrey's footsteps in the backfield. He is the nation's leading rusher after three games. The senior has totaled 588 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, while averaging 8.3 yards per carry, and is on pace to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in November. It mirrors what Pumphrey accomplished when he ranked in the top 15 nationally in rushing in each of his final three seasons with the Aztecs.
The best part for San Diego State is that Penny is no one-dimensional back. He is equally dangerous as a receiver and a kick returner. Penny leads the nation with 774 all-purpose yards and gains an average of 9.4 yards every time he touches the ball.
Air Force faces a mammoth defensive task trying to keep Penny from making game-changing plays. "He's as good of a tailback as there is in college football,” Falcons head coach Troy Calhoun said.
2. Falcons soaring on defense
Air Force is a dark horse contender to reach the Mountain West Conference championship game again this season, because the Falcons arguably have the top defense of any team in the Mountain Division. Against Michigan, Air Force surrendered only one offensive touchdown and forced the Wolverines to settle for five field goals on seven total scoring drives.
The Falcons have surrendered only one offensive touchdown over their last 10 quarters of football, dating back to a 45-21 victory over South Alabama in the 2016 Arizona Bowl. Jack Flor and Marquis Griffin have helped set the right tone this season, combining for 35 tackles through two games.
Such stinginess is not a new development for Air Force. In each of the last three seasons, the Falcons have ranked third in scoring defense among Mountain West teams. Air Force also ranked second in the conference in total defense a year ago.
3. Who will control the ball?
Both Air Force and San Diego State have a knack for holding onto the ball for long stretches. The Aztecs lead the nation in time of possession (37:21). The Falcons rank third among Mountain West teams in that category (32:53) and 25th among FBS teams.
San Diego State strung together eight drives of 10 or more plays in its first three games. Three of the Aztecs' four scoring drives against Stanford lasted at least 11 plays and collectively shaved more than 18 minutes off the clock.
They will have to find a way to do more of the same against Air Force, to counteract a triple-option offense that thrives on grinding down defenses with long drives. The Falcons had drives of 12 and 16 plays that took more than 13 total minutes off the clock against Michigan.
“I hated it as a defensive coach, but I think that it’s the best offense that has ever been designed,” San Diego State head coach Rocky Long said of the triple option. “I’ve said that many, many times, because you don’t have to block everybody. Decisions by the quarterback eliminate defenders without them even being touched, so that allows other people on the offense to block other guys.”
This is the only true challenging road game that remains for San Diego State. Air Force has a habit of controlling the ball and making teams scrap for every yard. The problem for the Falcons is that the Aztecs are just as good at keeping opponents out of the end zone. It will be low-scoring and ugly, but San Diego State has enough playmakers to make it seven in a row over Air Force.
Prediction: San Diego State 20, Air Force 17
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.