With college football right around the corner, it would be easy and predictable to kick off the BASG coverage with, well, predictions about how San Jose State is going to do in their first season in the Mountain West.
The problem is, making predictions would only be easy in the effort department — honestly sizing up this team under a new coaching regime prior to them playing a down is a whole other story.
If the man who built San Jose State from the ground up into the top-25 team they were last year, Mike MacIntyre, was still around, I would have no problem forecasting the season, and — all bias aside — I honestly think they would win a conference title in 2013. With as many starters and key contributors returning this year as they have, MacIntyre and his staff were building a team that would have peaked in his fourth year in San Jose, but alas, he’d rather take on another reclamation project (not to mention $2 million/season of Colorado’s money).
Instead, athletic director Gene Bleymaier — the man who replaced Dan Hawkins with Chris Petersen at Boise State — plucked a coach from the FCS ranks to fill the void. It probably didn’t hurt that his guy, Ron Caragher, is a UCLA alum just like Bleymaier.
The lowdown on Caragher: A South Bay native, he backed up Troy Aikman for two seasons at UCLA, then joined their staff as a graduate assistant. He was an assistant at UCLA from 1994-2002, before spending four seasons at Kentucky as their running backs coach and recruiting coordinator.
Caragher is best known for being the man who replaced Jim Harbaugh in 2007 at the University of San Diego after Harbaugh took over Stanford. He coached there for six seasons, winning league titles in three of them. He may not be following Harbaugh this time, but like David Shaw at Stanford, Caragher is tasked with maintaining the new bar set by his predecessor.
The top concern anytime a new coach takes over and brings in his own guys, at least when the team is coming off a successful season, is whether the new guy is going to ignore the old adage: “If it aint broke, don’t fix it…”
Right away Caragher shook things up by flipping the defense from a 4-3 alignment to the more popular 3-4, which will probably be more beneficial in the long term as it’s easier for teams to find talent at the linebacker position than on the defensive line. In the short term, it means there will be some important defensive players having to learn new roles. All-WAC defensive tackle Travis Raciti, who many believe has an NFL future ahead of him, could be expected to man both the tackle and end spots. Three-year starter Vince Buhagiar has been moved from inside linebacker to the outside, although there is some speculation that redshirt freshman Christian Tago played so well during the spring that he bumped the veteran out of his regular spot.
Caragher also runs a West Coast offense, meaning less shotgun, more power running and more use of the fullback and tight end than the Spartans were used to last season. This could be the change that would really make or break the team in 2013, as the Spartans lost their 1000-yard rusher and star tight end to graduation this year but return a slew of talented wide receivers who have an excellent rapport with quarterback David Fales, the team MVP in 2012 who led the nation in passing efficiency.
While the new coach clearly intends to implement his style of offense — already he signed a few players that could be fullbacks in college and has a verbal commitment from a three-star fullback for 2014 — all indications coming out of fall camp are that Caragher is sticking with what the team is currently built for. While he flipped a few linebackers across the ball to fill voids at fullback, the team is still lining up in plenty of three- and four-wide receiver sets in practice, and although the pistol formation has been scrapped Fales mostly lines up in the shotgun.
As far as his coaching staff goes, there appears to be some star power, but not a ton of experience.
Star power in the form of two former NFL players, offensive line coach Hank Fraley and receivers coach Greg Lewis. Both of them arrive with all of one season of college coaching experience under their respective belts. Fraley played 11 years in the NFL, and most 49er fans will recognize Lewis as the guy who made the soul-crushing catch of Brett Farve’s 2009 desperation endzone heave in Minnesota, one of many times the 49ers stole defeat from the jaws of victory under Mike Singletary.
Defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson was the assistant head coach at Cal last year, which may or may not be a highlight on his resume, but does have a decent amount of experience. This will be offensive coordinator Jimmie Dougherty’s first time in that role, after spending the previous four years coaching wide receivers at Washington. Aside from some graduate assistants, only two coaches remain from the staff of 2012.
Ultimately, I could go either way with a prediction on this team. I could see them winning nine or 10 games and making it to the championship game just on the strength of their experience alone. The MWC is a tougher conference to be sure, but one they have performed well against the last two years, including wins over Hawaii, Colorado St (twice), San Diego State and Fresno State in that time.
Then again, if the new coaching staff allows inexperience to affect games and can’t adjust to the change from FCS competition to FBS, a regression could be on the horizon. By regression though, I mean a six or seven-win season. As elusive as sustained winning has been the last quarter-century at San Jose State, the entire coaching staff would have to be a disaster to waste a season with a potential first-round pick at quarterback and the second-most preseason all-conference selections (five) in the MWC.
They could limp into a bowl game at 7-5, or they could storm into the first ever MWC championship game as a one-loss potential BCS-buster. We’ll have a good idea after they play Stanford in Week 2.