Tom Craft is careful with his words regarding San Diego State's chances of competing for a conference title. The Aztecs' third-year coach prefers to let others make that prediction.
It's hard to blame him for the cautious approach. The Aztecs have been bowl participants just three times in the past 34 seasons. That's pretty embarrassing when you consider the current bowl landscape that has nearly half the Division I-A teams playing in a postseason contest.
Things could be different this season. The Aztecs return the core of a defense that ranked eighth nationally last season. Some of their best offensive players are back as well. Factor in that the Mountain West Conference isn't exactly the nation's fiercest conference, and it's reasonable to think that the Aztecs' bowl drought will end this December.
OffenseJunior quarterback Matt Dlugolecki did more playing than watching last season, and the unexpected dose of experience should come in handy this fall. Forced into action when Adam Hall suffered an injury in the opening game of the 2003 season, Dlugolecki ended up starting five games. He was prone to bouts of inconsistency, but he also led the Aztecs to a near-upset of then No. 2 Ohio State in his first college start.
Dlugolecki threw twice as many interceptions (eight) as touchdown passes (four) and will receive competition from redshirt freshman Kevin O'Connell.
Running back Lynell Hamilton rushed for 1,087 yards and earned first-team all-conference honors. But his freshman season ended two games early after he suffered a broken ankle. The expectation is that he'll be 100 percent by the season opener.
Junior Jeff Webb (55 receptions) is the best of the receivers. Senior Devin Pitts and junior Robert Ortiz figure to be the other starters. Senior Jeremy Justice will be the tight end.
The Aztecs will have three new starters on the line. Senior tackle Mike Kracalik and junior center Jasper Harvey are back to anchor it.
DefenseThe Aztecs are loaded at linebacker and strong in the secondary. That bodes well for a unit that ranked eighth nationally in total defense last fall.
Senior middle linebacker Kirk Morrison, the MWC Defensive Player of the Year in '03, is the leader. Morrison had 115 tackles (17 for a loss) last season and forced four fumbles. He vows that his best football is still to come.
Linebacker Matt McCoy led the Mountain West in tackles per game (10.4). Two other productive players (Stephen Larsen and Heath Farwell) share the other outside linebacker post.
Free safety Marviel Underwood heads the secondary. Strong safety Josh Dean and cornerback Jacob Elimimian also are returning starters. It will be a chore to replace cornerback Jeff Shoate, a three-year starter. Senior Hubert Caliste is the favorite. Another possibility is moving Marcus Demps from safety to cornerback.
Sophomore tackle Jonathan Bailes is the lone returning starter on the defensive line. Freddie McCutcheon will eventually be the other tackle, although he'll miss the first four games over an issue with his qualifying test score from two years ago. Blake Lobel and Va'ati Maka are candidates to open the season. Robert Miller will likely start at one end with promising youngsters Antwan Applewhite, Nicholas Osborn and junior college transfer Martin Miller also in the mix.
SpecialistsThe Aztecs have no proven commodities to handle placekicking and punting duties. Redshirt freshman Michael Hughes will take over the punting. Another first-year player, Garrett Palmer, is the favorite to handle the kicking.
The Aztecs desperately need to spruce up their return game. Redshirt freshman Brandon Bornes will be one of the kick returners, and senior Kyle Conerly will be the punt returner for a third consecutive season.
Final AnalysisIt's contention time for San Diego State. Craft is in his third year and the Aztecs have a veteran team for the first time during his tenure. The Aztecs feature one of the nation's stingiest defenses. If the offense can become more productive -- improved play at quarterback and a quick rebuilding of an offensive line that lost three starters are the key factors -- the Aztecs could find themselves near the top of the Mountain West race.