Opponent: San Jose State University Spartans.
Record: 4-8, 3-5 Mountain West (2016).
Head Coach: Brent Brennan, first season as head coach.
Famous alumni: Dick Vermeil, Bill Walsh, Amy Tan, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham.
Date/time: Aug. 26th, 7:30 p.m. EDT.
Spread/total: USF -20, over/under 66.
Last season: All the pieces seemed to be in place for the San Jose State to make a stand in the easier of the Mountain West’s... West division (yes, the conference really did that). Coach Ron Caragher seemed to have acquired some talent, and won the 2015 Cure Bowl over Georgia State for only their fifth postseason victory ever. He returned a quarterback, a top-flight receiver and some other pieces, and it looked like the Spartans were about to achieve some memorable harmony just as these two SJSU alums did 20 years ago at MTV Unplugged.
But much like The White Witch and Buck’s romance, it went wheels up pretty quick. Neither the offense (100th) or defense (112th) could crack triple digits in S&P, and they finished 4-8. SJSU told Caragher “You can go your own wayyyyyyyy,” and he got the axe.
By hiring Brent Brennan they stayed somewhat in-house as he was an assistant under Dick Tomey (remember him?) and Mike McIntyre for the Spartans from 2005-10. The UCLA grad was also born in San Jose, and spent the last six seasons at Oregon State as a wide receivers coach.
Perhaps his most interesting assistant hire is 28-year-old Andrew Sowder as offensive coordinator/tight ends coach, who spent last season as a quality control coach for... Charlie Strong & Sterlin Gilbert at Texas. Prior to that Sowder spent four years under Dino Babers at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, so it’s likely he’ll want to throw the ball all over the place because Dino Babers has three quarterbacks throwing to next-level windows right now and I’m writing this at 1:45 a.m.
Sophomore Josh Love & redshirt freshman Montel Aaron are battling to start at quarterback next Saturday. Love was 31-60 with 2 TD’s and 5 INT’s in limited action last year. No starter has been named yet, but Aaron is considered more of a dual-threat.
All five offensive line starters return, as do two receivers in Justin Holmes (613 yards) and Tre Hartley (572 yards) who both averaged over 15 yards per catch last year. There’s also some three-star depth at running back in Malik Roberson and Zamore Zigler, who both were backups last year.
A new coaching staff with some fresh energy might be the kick this roster of slightly-better-than-average Group of Five recruits needs, and there seems to be depth. Against the Bulls likely-better-but-still-not-lights-out defense, they could find some success moving the ball.
The dynamic between Sowder, calling plays for the first time in college football, and Bulls defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary will be fascinating. Both likely have an idea of each others tendencies from being on the same staff last year.
It could be really, really bad.
The Spartans finished 112th in S&P defense last year. They were 118th in Stuff Rate. And they return very few starters from a front seven that got gashed ad nauseum in 2016.
They also conceded a godforsaken 5.66 points per drive when an opponent got inside their 40, finishing dead last out of 128 FBS schools. The offense who finished #1 in Points+40? USF at 5.52. So if the Bulls get slightly over midfield, start warming up Emilio Nadelman; your PAT services will soon be needed.
All four starters in the secondary return, including possible NFL’er Andre Chechere, which is a good thing since most of the yards conceded last year were on the ground. A team that was this bad defensively actually finished 19th in pass defense by the NCAA’s metric, and 2nd in passes defended/incomplete ratio.
But they allowed a monstrous 244.6 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry against a not-quite AAC schedule. Linebacker Frank Ginda (22 career starts) will lead the returnees at Mike, but he’ll need a lot of help and it’s hard to see where it’s coming from.
Of course USF returns Quinton Flowers (1609 yards rushing, 18 rushing TD’s, sometimes he throws the ball too), is loaded from D’Ernest Johnson on down at tailback, and has freakish play makers all over the perimeter. The Bulls offense should be drooling on the bus to the stadium.
If Marlon Mack hasn’t cashed any of his NFL checks yet, he could leave Colts camp and hang a quarter-mile on them himself.
They’ve got a good punter (Michael Carrizosa) and a good kicker (Bryce Crawford) returning, so likely won’t give any away here. But not a lot of breakaway play makers in the return game either.
USF won’t want to get in a shootout, but should be able to score almost at will, especially if they can keep the ball on the ground. The Bulls weakest unit offensively (offensive line) shouldn’t struggle too much with the Spartans, and USF should be able to dominate when in possession.
This is also a good test to see how much the Bulls defense has improved. The Spartans have some talent, though a huge question mark at QB, and how fast to the ball the defense is as a unit could be a leading indicator for strides made in the offseason. Jean-Mary will also want to see many less broken tackles than the 2016 team conceded.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling vs. Andre Chechere should be a fun matchup of two potential NFL guys, but “Interstate 11” might not get as many looks because USF is likely pounding the ball out of zone read all night.
It’s also a first game for two teams with new coaching staffs and new systems. The Bulls kept a lot of the same concepts from the Gulf Coast Offense, but the play signaling and verbiage are different. Jean-Mary is also much more intense than his predecessor. Fortunately he also seems pretty competent, putting him miles ahead of said predecessor.
Keep an eye out for big mistakes by both teams. You can practice all you’d like, but sometimes it all goes out the window during certain moments when the lights are on.