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NCAA Football Preview - San Jose State Spartans

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Updated: 8/23/2013 9:23 am

This time around the Spartans produced an impressive 11-2 mark and posted five wins in six tries against the rest of the Western Athletic Conference in the final year of competition in that league. Under the direction of head coach Mike MacIntyre, the program responded to a 5-7 record in 2011 and a dismal 57-3 loss in that season's opener against Stanford, by taking the Cardinal down to the wire in the first game of 2012 before bowing by just a single field goal, 20-17.

Despite coming out on the losing end against a superior program, San Jose State was still on the right track and showed that positive direction by delivering four straight wins against UC Davis, Colorado State, San Diego State and Navy. Out to a 4-1 start, SJSU raised more than a few eyebrows, but then the team was crushed in WAC play by eventual league champ, Utah State, by a score of 49-27 at home. MacIntyre was able to bring his legions back with a vengeance, demolishing UT-San Antonio a week later, 52-24, en route to putting together a six-game win streak to close out the regular season. The program accepted an invite to take part in the Military Bowl versus Bowling Green and managed to grab a 29-20 victory which means the Spartans head into the 2013 campaign riding a seven-game win streak, tied for fourth-longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

San Jose State relied heavily on its passing attack, placing second in the WAC and sixth nationally with an average of 332.7 ypg through the air. On the defensive side of the ball, the Spartans forced the action at the line of scrimmage as they tied for sixth in the country with 3.23 sacks per outing as well.

As is often the case with a successful program, with SJSU finishing in the final BCS rankings at No. 24, other teams began to take notice of the job done by coach MacIntyre and it wasn't long before he was hired away by Colorado, even after signing a contract extension through the 2017 season less than a year earlier. With the departure of MacIntyre, defensive coordinator Kent Baer took over the reins on an interim basis for the Military Bowl, but after that the Spartans stayed relatively close to home (in-state) when finding their next coach in Ron Caragher. A native of California, Caragher has strong ties to the Golden State after playing at UCLA in the 1980s and eventually becoming the head coach at San Diego in 2007 where he led the Toreros to three Pioneer League titles and a record of 44-22 in six campaigns. With a new head coach, the Spartans also begin play in a new league in 2013, one of the latest additions to the Mountain West Conference.

"I'm very excited about the opportunity to lead the San Jose State football program. Having grown up in the San Jose area, I understand the rich tradition of Spartan Football - it's lineage of great coaches, terrific teams, and outstanding players," said Caragher of his new appointment.

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Good news for the Spartans is that there are four returning starters headed back to the offensive line for the squad. Considering San Jose State was one of the most aggressive passing teams in the country a year ago, having experienced players in the trenches to buy time for quarterback David Fales is essential. The list includes Ryan Jones and Nicholas Kaspar at the guard positions, Jon Meyer at one tackle and Reuben Hasani snapping the ball.

Fales, named to both the 2013 Manning and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award Watch Lists, came out of nowhere to become of the top passers in college football a year ago, although most fans probably missed out on his exploits since SJSU is not in a BCS conference. Nevertheless, Fales finished first in the WAC and third in the nation overall with an efficiency rating of 170.76. A native of Salinas, California, Fales set single-season SJSU records for completion percentage (.725), completions (327), attempts (451), passing yards (4,193), total offense (4,054) and TD passes (33). Whether or not the senior can come anywhere close to those numbers again in 2013 is still up in the air, but at least the Spartans have to be happy with his potential.

Making it a bit easier for Fales to light up the scoreboard, the signal-caller has his favorite receiver back in Noel Grigsby who caught 82 balls for 1,307 yards and nine touchdowns last year. A preseason All-MWC selection, Grigsby has generated at least 800 receiving yards in each of the last three seasons, so while defenses know he is a target, they still can't seem to slow him down.

Other valuable outlets for Fales include Jabari Carr (62 receptions, 639 yards, four TDs) and Chandler Jones (54 catches, 691 yards, team-best 11 TDs).

As great as the passing attack should be yet again this season, the Spartans do need to find a replacement for running back De'Leon Eskridge who departed after gaining more than 1,000 yards and landing in the end zone 11 times last year. Tyler Ervin figures to be a likely candidate to fill the void, but the team shouldn't keep him from also reprising his role as one of the top kick returners in the country.

DEFENSE: This side of the ball takes a massive hit this season with the loss of Travis Johnson, the 2012 Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year who led the program with a staggering 21.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, not to mention three forced fumbles from his defensive end position.

The unit is trying to make some changes in order to compensate for the loss of Johnson, adjustments that began during spring practice.

"For us guys who (are) back (in the defensive line), we're keeping Foloi Vae in the middle," noted Travis Raciti. "That's not too much of a difference for him. For Tony Popovich and me, we're playing as defensive ends now instead of as defensive tackles. We're trying to get adjusted to it and figure out the little things to make you great. We've been talking with Travis Johnson. He's been giving us tips here and there about what we can do to be the best we possibly can be."

While the defensive line mixes it up a bit, the Spartans still have the luxury of bringing back a trio of starters at linebacker, namely Keith Smith who led the team in total tackles a year ago with 97 and also forced four fumbles while earning all-conference honors for the third year in a row.

The secondary is locked down by Bene Benwikere who, after ranking among the nation's leaders in interceptions (seven), scored a pair of defensive touchdowns and logged a blocked kick a year ago, has been named to both the watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Ervin, named to the All-WAC Second Team as a kickoff return specialist despite appearing in only nine games a season ago, can be one of the most electrifying players on the field when he has the ball in his hands, just another reason why he will probably get plenty of opportunities to play on offense as well

Ervin has averaged 25.4 yards per kickoff return in his career, third-best in school history, a number that has been bolstered by three returns for touchdowns which is already a school record.

When it comes to kicking the ball, San Jose State has Harrison Waid returning to handle the majority of the punting and Austin Lopez coming back to take care of placekicking, although both players tried their hand, foot as it were, at the other's vocation in 2012.

Lopez, named to the preseason All-MWC squad, set San Jose State kick scoring records for most points in a season (105), most PAT conversions in a season (54) and most field goals in a season without a miss (17-of-17), en route to being named to the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) Freshman All-America team.

OUTLOOK: Even though the Spartans are jumping to a new league, after the WAC failed to field football teams following the 2012 campaign, there are a host of familiar foes on the schedule so it won't be a complete makeover for the program.

Following the season opener against Sacramento State, the Spartans hit the road but remain in-state and right around the corner with a stop at Stanford on Sept. 7. After a break in the action SJSU heads to Minnesota, before returning home to contend against another former WAC opponent and now current MWC foe in Utah State.

The second half to the schedule could be a bit tougher, despite hosting four of six opponents during the stretch. One of the two road dates is a trip to Nevada, rarely and easy test for the Spartans, while the team closes out versus Fresno State, a program that is on the rise as well.

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