USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
It's been a decade since Greg Robinson's first run as Texas' defensive coordinator, a stretch that came full circle in Robinson's return to the position midway through last season. As in 2004, his impact was immediate: Robinson took over after Brigham Young – that unmitigated disaster – and led the Longhorns' defense through its best stretch since the final month of 2011.
That stint helped rehabilitate an image ravaged by the period between Texas and Texas. First came Syracuse, where Robinson won three league games in four years; then came two years at Michigan, one worse than the next, before being relieved of his duties along with Rich Rodriguez's entire staff.
But after watching Robinson remake UT's defense last fall, San Jose State believes Robinson can create a defensive resurgence. The Spartans' debut under Ron Caragher saw a slight decline on offense, true, but the onus for a five-win decline falls on the back of the defense: SJSU allowed an average of two additional touchdowns per game, a fact that helps explain a 34-30 loss to San Diego State and a 58-52 loss to Navy – not to mention a 62-52 win against Fresno State.
Given the potential for another step back on offense, Robinson and this defense hold the key to the Spartans' hopes of making noise in the Mountain West. It's sink – more of the same, a losing season – or swim – improvement, and SJSU could be a factor if the West Division.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
This is still a bowl team. The schedule is tougher, yes, but don't forget that SJSU has played teams like Nevada, Utah State, Hawaii, Fresno State and many others as recent as the last two seasons – so there's familiarity, basically. While the defense reloads, look for the offense to carry the torch and lead the Spartans back into bowl play, giving the program back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in more than 20 years.
In a nutshell: Caragher was the program's first coach since Ron Turner in 1992 to post a non-losing finish in his debut, but let's remember: Caragher's predecessor, Colorado's Mike MacIntyre, won 11 games in his final season. It was never easy, not when SJSU's defense – then run by Kenwick Thompson, now at Vanderbilt – found itself scrambling and clawing for stops against offenses good and bad. The defense was pummeled by Minnesota, giving up 353 yards rushing in a 43-24 defeat. The defense was ripped to shreds by Utah State, which rode a balanced, 520-yard attack to a 40-12 victory. The defense was helpless against Nevada and hopeless against Navy, and bailed out against Fresno State only by a virtuoso performance from the passing game. Six wins are fine, but SJSU had the offense to battle for the West crown.
High point: Topping Fresno State in the finale. SJSU might have cost the Mountain West Conference a few bucks, but whatever.
Low point: A nail-biter to San Diego State, an ugly loss to Nevada, a triple-overtime heartbreaker to Navy. All in November, all in a row.
Tidbit: In one major category, last year's offense was the finest in program history: SJSU averaged 493.25 yards of offense per game, a new school record. In terms of scoring, the Spartans' 389 points were the sixth-most in program history, trailing 1949 (477 points), 2012 (452), 1990 (435), 1987 (417) and 1986 (397).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Back-to-back coaching hires since 2007
1. Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, Stanford
2. Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich, Oregon
3. Brian Kelly and Butch Jones, Cincinnati
4. Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren, Northern Illinois
5. Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: This offense has a great problem: SJSU has too many backs for too few carries. Seeing that this team will struggle replicating last year's production in the passing game – this is an understatement – the Spartans' wealth of options in the running game should help coordinator Jimmie Dougherty put together a competent attack between the tackles; in turn, this will help the new quarterback find his footing during the season's opening month. A pair of sophomores, Jarrod Lawson (788 yards) and Thomas Tucker (338 yards), top the two-deep, with Lawson the projected leader. But a dedicated ground game – a likely development – should yield carries for sophomore Osirius Burke and senior Alvin Jenks, the latter a former JUCO transfer whose lack of production a season ago can only be termed a disappointment. Add in redshirt freshman Brandon Monroe – a nice talent who could also move to the defense – and SJSU has enough bodies to squeeze substantial yardage from this running game.
But the Spartans' ground attack does hinge largely on the play of a reworked offensive front. At least the two returning starters come at crucial spots: Wes Schweitzer is a major asset at left tackle, perhaps vaulting the junior into the all-conference mix in 2014, and senior center David Peterson ranks in the upper crust of the Mountain West. For one, Schweitzer gives the new quarterback a sense of protection on the blind side; for another, Peterson could be the anchor of an altered interior. Questions remain. After spending last season as the backup at left tackle, is sophomore Evan Sarver ready for a starting job at right tackle? If not, will JUCO transfer Kyle Wright be up to the task? How much faith can SJSU really have in redshirt freshman left guard Jeremiah Kolone and senior right guard Keith Bendixen – and can Bendixen stay healthy? With only unproven underclassmen in reserve, this starting quintet is under immense pressure to deliver.
One thing the backfield does very well is contribute in the passing game: Lawson and Tucker combined for 43 grabs, giving the Spartans another pair of reliable security blankets. But the most impressive pass-game grouping stands at tight end, where sophomore Billy Freeman (27 receptions for 427 yards) should quickly assert himself as the league's best. Joining Freeman are sophomore Jordan Thiel and redshirt freshman Andrew Vollert, another pair of promising young talents – meaning, basically, that SJSU will give its new starter at least four commendable targets in the intermediate game. The bigger issue is at wide receiver, where SJSU needs further development from all-conference sophomore Tyler Winston (58 for 858) to recoup Chandler Jones' lost production. Think positively: Winston is a good one, for starters, and SJSU also returns sophomore Tim Crawley (22 for 197), senior Jabari Carr (25 for 173) and juniors Tyler Ervin and Hansell Wilson. The Spartans will bring in another four freshmen by August.
Defense: Robinson will shift the Spartans' defense into a 4-3 look, but that's not an overly drastic change: SJSU ran the 4-3 as recently as 2012, for example, before Caragher's first squad ran out of a 3-4 base set. The transition shouldn't be too painful up front, where you'll see the typical game of musical chairs – bigger ends moving inside to tackle, beefier outside linebackers moving down and so on down the line. Along the interior, SJSU will start senior Travis Raciti (37 tackles) and junior Nate Falo, the latter last year's nose tackle; in reserve, the Spartans will lean heavily on senior Foloi Vae (22 tackles), one of the last season's starting ends, and sophomore Keenan Sykes. On the outside, SJSU will use senior Adrian Blake, a former JUCO transfer, and converted linebacker Sean Bacon (32 tackles). Blake's a far better fit in the 4-3, so look for his production to increase exponentially, and Bacon and sophomore Eugene Taylor – another converted linebacker – could be particularly useful on passing downs. Another name to watch: JUCO transfer Vic Vernon could quickly grab a starting role on the outside.
The pass rush could be a strength, in fact. In addition to Bacon and Taylor, SJSU has a proven edge-rushing weapon in sophomore linebacker Christian Tago (90 tackles, 10.5 for loss), the most promising disrupter in the Mountain West. Consider the possibilities: SJSU can use Tago either behind Bacon, essentially putting two heat-seekers to work off the same side, or float Tago inside or behind Raciti, allowing him to slide between, behind or around a more sizable, block-occupying down lineman. No matter how you cut it – or how Robinson plans to use him – Tago is a difference-making talent.
Tago is one of two clear starters on the second level, joining senior Vince Buhagiar, an all-conference producer who missed all of last season due to injury. Buhagiar's return will help SJSU's defense survive the loss of Keith Smith, a program great, while giving this entire defense an irreplaceably experienced voice along the front seven. In terms of replacing Smith, the Spartans won't have would-be starter Jared Leaf, a junior whose career has been jeopardized by severe burns suffered while escaping an April apartment fire. Sophomore Moses Saucedo (23 tackles), another in a line of impressive underclassmen on this defense, should hold down the position well in Leaf's absence. Remember that Robinson has moved a number of former linebackers down to end – Bacon, Taylor, Garrett Guanella, Isaiah Irving – so second-level depth can be created in a snap.
In total, it'll be extremely difficult to replace Bené Benwikere's impact at cornerback; in terms of replicating his opportunism, it'll be a hair shy of impossible. But SJSU will attack this void by moving Jimmy Pruitt (52 tackles) from strong safety to cornerback, putting the junior alongside senior Dasheon Frierson (36 tackles) on the outside. Both need to attack the football, playing aggressively in concert with what looks like an underrated pass rush. Meanwhile, the back end will feature senior free safety Forrest Hightower (63 tackles), a returning starter, and senior Akeem King, who replaces Pruitt at strong safety.
Special teams: Redshirt freshman Zach Steinberg will replace punter Harrison Wald, the feistiest specialist in college football. At kicker, Austin Lopez is a just behind Colorado State's Jared Roberts as the best in the MWC. The Spartans' biggest issue is in the return game, where SJSU could really stand to upgrade its overall burst and explosiveness.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: The race to replace David Fales centers on a pair of options, senior Blake Jurich and junior Joe Gray, with a combined 24 career pass attempts – or fewer than Fales' single-game pass attempts in each of his 25 starts but one, a 47-7 laugher against New Mexico State on Nov. 10, 2012. A slide in production is in the cards; the steepness of the decline hinges entirely on how ably either Jurich or Gray can step into Fales' all-conference shoes. But say two things about both options: Jurich and Gray are big, strong and skilled, if short on enviable game-day experience, and SJSU will surround the to-be-named starter with helpful contributors in the backfield, at wide receiver and along the offensive line – at left tackle in particular, and that's important. In Jurich's corner is a touch more experience: SJSU has used the senior as its primary backup in each of the last two years, with Gray earning scant playing time in 2012 and not seeing the field a season ago. They're co-starters today, but I see Caragher pulling the trigger on the starter by midway through fall camp – and I see Jurich getting the nod, at least for the opener.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Nevada: The Spartans will lose to Auburn and should lose at Minnesota, though the latter is far from a sure thing. At worst, however, a win against Nevada would even SJSU's record at 2-2 heading into dates with UNLV, Wyoming and Navy. The schedule turns nasty in November: SJSU will play four bowl teams, three on the road, during the season's final month. Beating Nevada is of vital importance.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: San Jose State is a quarterback, a solid offensive line and a passing game away from being one of the surprise teams in the Mountain West. Now, let's not gloss over these issues: SJSU's quarterback situation is dire, the offensive line situation in flux and the potential for an unbalanced offense very much an issue for Caragher to address – because the running game might hum along fine behind this solid backfield, but the Spartans absolutely must find some degree of competitiveness under center to match wits with the top half of the conference.
The defense, on the other hand, could – and maybe should – be pretty good. The shift to the 4-3 doesn't concern me at all: SJSU might be young at several spots, but the majority of the two-deep played in this scheme as freshmen and sophomores. All that the Spartans need to do is locate pressure off the edge, identifying two or three reserve ends – perhaps one or two who serve as pure edge-rush specialists – and find another two trustworthy cornerbacks. If so, and if Robinson finds that pass rush, SJSU's defense is one of the best in the MWC.
But I can't ignore the issues on offense. If unresolved, it's very possible that SJSU stumbles short of even six wins, thanks in significant part to this schedule. Check it out: UNLV, Nevada and Colorado State at home, and Auburn, Minnesota, Navy, Fresno State, Utah State and San Diego State on the road. It's entirely unforgiving. So is the room for error offensively, meaning the Spartans can't afford to lag behind the curve and expect to match or exceed last year's win total. I think SJSU does get to six or seven wins, topping out at eight – this would be a bit surprising – due to the nastiness of the schedule.
Dream season: SJSU goes 9-3, losing to Auburn, Navy and Utah State.
Nightmare season: The Spartans' offense sputters, leading to a slide to 4-8.
Who's No. 75? This program hasn't won five or more games in a row since 2001.