San Diego State entered the season as the favorite to win the Mountain West Conference and a potential front-runner for the Group of Five bid in the New Year’s Six bowl games. Everything was running smoothly for Coach Rocky Long’s squad through the early portion of the season as they upset Stanford and Arizona State on their way to a 6-0 record and a #19 ranking in the Top 25 heading into last weekend’s match-up with Boise State. Then, things came apart for the first time this season.
The Aztecs fell behind quickly as the Broncos jumped out to a 21-0 lead thanks to a punt return TD, fumble return TD and a passing TD from Brett Rypien. They never recovered, falling 31-14. Particularly surprising was the Aztecs running game, which had entered averaging 228 yards per game behind star back Rashaad Penny, before putting up just 83 yards on 39 carries last week. After that loss, the MWC now seems to be wide open with four teams currently undefeated in conference (Colorado State, Boise State, Wyoming and Fresno State).
To get some perspective on the MWC and whether or not that SDSU lost knocked them out of NY6 contention, we spoke with CBS Sports Network analyst Aaron Taylor. The former Green Bay Packer and San Diego Charger offensive lineman is also part of the committee that presents the Joe Moore Award for best offensive line in college football each year. He gave his thoughts on which teams have had the best offensive line play so far this season.
CBS Local Sports: A tough loss for SDSU last week that knocks them from the ranks of the unbeaten, what did you see that was the biggest cause for the loss?
Aaron Taylor: It was what I didn’t see from the Aztecs in that game a week ago against Boise State that was so concerning: the lack of physicality. I was shocked at how un-physical they looked and how dominated they were at the point of attack particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, they played well in the first half and then kind of wore down as the second half came to an end. But, I think they got shell shocked by being down two touchdowns so quickly and non-offensive touchdowns at that in a special teams touchdown and a strip six. It was hard for them to recover.
But, if you take those two early touchdowns away, it was a 17-14 game and they were more than in it. They for whatever reason, were not ready to play that night and they paid a dear price for it.
CBS Local Sports: They turn around this week and welcome an undefeated in conference Fresno State team to Qualcomm, how do they rebound against a good Bulldogs team?
Aaron Taylor: Coach Rocky Long will have their attention this week for sure. When I put the tape on and was watching Fresno State I can see why they’re 3-0 in conference play. They’re playing outstanding defense compared to a year ago when they were minus nine in turnovers to this year where they’re plus seven. Five of the last six games they’ve had a plus-two or better turnover margin in terms of takeaways.
They’re physical, they’re fast, they’re running to the football, they’re tackling extremely well. Their defensive line is well-coached, an active group with their hands and leverage. They’re a fun bunch to watch and they present very similarly to what Boise State showed SDSU a week ago. That’s a match-up that’s really interesting to see is how well San Diego State, particularly on the offensive line, will respond to what I think is a very underrated defensive front seven.
CBS Local Sports: Looking at the conference as a whole, it seems to be wide open with four teams that have undefeated conference records. In the end, who do you think comes out of on top?
Aaron Taylor: That speaks to the strength and the parity of this conference. Going into the preseason everybody assumed it was going to be San Diego State and Boise State out of the West and Mountain divisions respectively, but it’s proven to be a little bit different than that. Fresno State has emerged, Colorado State has emerged on the Mountain side, there’s some parity there. It’s going to be an interesting year from that standpoint because it’s going to come down to possibly to the very end with all of these undefeated teams playing each other.
That’s going to make for, not only an interesting watch, but hopefully, for a team that has a chance to make some noise at the end of the year being the Group of Five representative in the New Year’s Six. Although, with San Diego State’s loss, being nineteen at the time and undefeated, it’s going to be really hard for another team to be able to climb out of that because they were undefeated across the board not just in conference.
CBS Local Sports: On that note, if it isn’t SDSU that emerges from the conference and it’s one of these other teams, do you see them as still having a shot at being the Group of Five representative in the New Year’s Six considering the strength of teams like USF and UCF out of the American Conference?
Aaron Taylor: The American certainly seems to be the leader of the pack right now for that bid. USF and UCF are both undefeated and ranked at the moment. Scott Frost has done a magnificent job at UCF. It’s going to be hard for a Mountain West team to overcome that, they’re going to need some help. The good news is UCF and USF play each other at the end of the year so one of those teams is going to be eliminated.
The best case scenario is that everybody has a loss and then San Diego State coming out of the Mountain West as a champion has a really good, compelling resume with wins over Arizona State and Stanford out of the Pac-12. Especially when you consider the way Arizona State and Stanford have been playing the last couple of weeks. Those wins are going to look better and better. Then, if Boise finishes strong, a one-loss Mountain West champion with their loss to an eight or nine win or even ten win Boise team, that’s a compelling resume to potentially to outweigh what’s coming out of the American if they were to have a one-loss champion as well.
CBS Local Sports: You’re part of the group that gives out the Joe Moore Award each year to the best offensive line in the country, which team or teams have impressed you so far with their offensive line play?
Aaron Taylor: It remains to be seen who has the best line in the country because I think, a lot like last year, teams are just starting to hit their stride. We just released our mid-season honor roll and there were 21 teams on there. All of them did something well, but none of them did everything well and the teams that did certain things better than the others didn’t do it as consistently as they will need to to earn this award.
It takes time for offensive lines to come together. A year ago, we saw an Iowa team come out of nowhere the last three games of the season and put three games back-to-back against Top 25 competition that was as good a film as we had seen all season and they ended up winning the award as a result. This year, it remains to be seen. Ohio State is quietly getting better. Notre Dame plays with some power and they’ll have a great test with USC. Clemson has looked good at times. Of course, Alabama coming out of the SEC is a team to keep your eye on. Auburn was looking good for awhile but they didn’t look as good against LSU.
The thing that’s going to separate this year’s winner is how they play in November. Football is won and lost when it matters most and these offensive lines have to be at their best when it matters most, which is these next four weeks when we enter the final third of the regular season.
CBS Local Sports: Among those offensive lines that you’ve studied this year, is there a team that doesn’t get talked about as much that has really impressed you with their film?
Aaron Taylor: There were several. If you put on Western Kentucky, they’ve got something to them now. They come off the ball, work extremely well as a group and you can tell that they’re well-coached because of their footwork and hand placement and their recognition of stunts and twists in games. They’re a well-coached group.
SMU, believe it or not, even with their style of up-tempo, spread, hurry-up offense, still has some physicality to them. I like to say that they swing the lead pipe. There might not be as much lead in it as other teams have but, they have a want-to, a tenacity there. Same with TCU. Those are some of the offensive lines from some of the non-traditional power schools and pro-style offenses that caught the attention of some people.
The Naval Academy did as well. a lot of people think that Navy, because they run the triple-option, that they’re going to cut block and not take people on. But, I can show you reels of film and play after play of them base blocking, combination blocking at the point of attack. They’re walking defenders three or four yards back because they’re coming off and running their feet and accelerating on contact. Those are some of the units that stuck out.
Every year it’s like this. There’s schools we look at and we acknowledge and we recognize, but the cream sooner or later rises to the top. That said, we value and appreciate the Western Kentuckys as much as we do the Alabamas.