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Jay Paris: SDSU is a rare local team worth watching

There’s chatter about San Diego State athletics and when did basketball sneak up on us?

But instead of hoops it’s a football team with championship hopes moving the local sports needle.

The Aztecs have been picked to win the Mountain West Conference’s West Division, thanks to a nucleus of solid players and a schedule, while challenging, it isn’t very daunting.

Give those ingredients to veteran coach Rocky Long and the short story is that his MW colleagues are impressed. Just don’t count the old-school Long among those doing cartwheels over SDSU’s prospects.

“It’s something good to talk about but it doesn’t have anything to do with the season,’’ Long said.

He’s right.

But is it wrong that a weary San Diego fan base absorbing yet another Padres rebuilding process and another season of Chargers’ uncertainty, is excited about those playing, for the most part, on Saturdays?

The Aztecs finished last year with 10 straight wins, en route to a nifty 11-3 record. While knocking on the door of the top 25 rankings, SDSU seems primed to knock down that door.

The man moving the program forward is the no-nonsense Long and it’s in good hands.

But what could make SDSU special are the gliding feet of running back D.J. Pumphrey, the closing speed of cornerback Damontae Kazee and the return yards produced by Rashaad Penny.

All are money and that was the consensus of MW coaches after naming them as preseason selections for the offensive, defensive and special-teams player of the year awards.

The vote didn’t call for a recount as that trio swept those honors for the 2015 season.

Three other Aztecs were also tabbed to be on the All-MW squad — and are the Aztecs awash in an embarrassment of riches? Good thing red is part of SDSU’s color scheme as offensive lineman Nico Siragusa, defensive lineman Alex Barrett and linebacker Calvin Munson were penciled in as conference standouts at their positions.

Bundle that package of preseason backslaps, based on past performances, and it means what to Long?


“We don’t talk about last year,’’ Long snorted. “We’re talking about this year.’’

Come on, Rocky. Not one reflection with a smile?

“It was nice and we did some things that haven’t been done around here in a long time,’’ Long said, before returning his focus. “But we have higher expectation for ourselves and hopefully we can reach them.’’

What’s left after winning the MW regular season, the conference title game and thumping Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl?

It’s finally breaking through to being ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams, despite not playing in a Power 5 Conference.

“I think that is our No. 1 goal, winning the Mountain West,’’ Long said. “But in the back of our mind we want to be in the top 25 and we would like to be the best non-Power 5 team in the country.’’

The Aztecs have proven they can climb the MW summit. But conferences with swagger and access to better bowls — Pac-12, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC — still hold more weight in the rankings.

“If we play the way we are supposed to, we should be in the top 25,’’ Siragusa said.

SDSU, who started 1-3 last season, eyes this season with promise. You can’t win them all without winning the first and the Aztecs’ opener is Sept. 3 against New Hampshire at Qualcomm Stadium.

The Aztecs are favored in that game and should be against all their rivals, save visiting California (Sept. 10) and at Northern Illinois (Sept. 17).

“We want to win all of them,’’ Long said.

Such a proclamation from a SDSU football coach once brought snickers.

But with the bumbling Padres and the last-place Chargers serving as punch lines, the Aztecs are no joke.

And it’s not even basketball season yet.

Contact Jay Paris at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at jparis_sports.