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Rancho Santa Fe Sports

Jay Paris: The sky is no longer falling on SDSU football

Everything is set for San Diego State’s Saturday opener and someone will bring the matches, right? 

The Aztecs start the season against visiting Eastern Illinois, but the foe runs a distant second to the SkyShow. After SDSU prevails, someone will light a fuse and point a truckload of fireworks toward the heavens.

It’s a big deal, although we believe a bit overblown. But what isn’t overstated is how the SkyShow has become a sideshow to a football program that gives its fans plenty of bang for their bucks.

Coach Rocky Long survived the long road to respectability, with his Aztecs no longer an afterthought.

His squad won a share of the Mountain West conference and reached a bowl game for the third straight year last season. Aztecs games are becoming a happening, and if not witnessing the transformation, we suggest attending at contest at Qualcomm Stadium.

The old joke no longer applies, where a fan calls the box office and asks, “What time is kickoff?”

“What time can you get here,’’ comes the reply, with a rim shot, please.

Instead the Aztecs play an exciting and off-beat brand of football, with Long running his zany 3-3-5 defense, rolling the dice on fourth downs and now he adds Bob Toledo as his offensive coordinator.

The fun is back at Aztecs games, where the team is sound and more than echoes are heard from the stands.

“It’s a world of difference and it’s been a big change,’’ Long said. “I think it’s all about the want-to and attitude of players.

“Four years ago, the expectations or the demands on the players were drastically different than what they’ve been in the past. The ones that can handle it handled it well. And the one’s that couldn’t left. Players don’t lie to recruits to get them here. The players that like that sort of thing recruit similar players.’’

Skill is one thing. Belief is another. Mesh them together and it’s a winning connection Long serves with regularity.

“Last year’s team that won a conference championship I’m not sure had as much talent as the first team I coached here (as defensive coordinator),’’ Long said. “Because a bunch of those guys made it to the NFL and last year we only had three guys drafted. So talent level doesn’t always necessarily show what kind of team you have.”

The Aztecs return roughly 17 starters and that includes:

+ Defensive back Nate Berhe, a two-time All-Mountain West selection.

+ Linebacker Jake Fely, the Tasmanian devil via Oceanside High, with a team-high seven sacks.

+ Running back Adam Muema, after rushing for 1,458 yards. Only two Aztecs ran for more and when hanging with Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk and the Broncos’ Ronnie Hillman, that’s good hang time.

There are holes — always are. The secondary and offensive line has questions. But the Aztecs were selected for second place in the Mountain West’s West Division, and here’s hoping the media finally gets it right.

Last year the smarty-pants predicted SDSU would place fifth and boy did they mess that up.

What’s cleaned up nicely is the Mountain West. With newcomers San Jose State and Utah State, the state of affairs for a conference the Aztecs nearly bolted has never looked keener.

Fresno State, picked to finish ahead of SDSU, is loaded. The Mountain Division reveals heavyweights in Boise State and Utah State.

Then there’s the Aztecs’ schedule, which includes an Ohio State trip and a home date against Oregon State.

It’s a season that promises plenty of fireworks, and how did we get back on the SkyShow?

“I think we’re going to have a good one,’’ Long said. “You asked what the weaknesses were and there’s not very many of them.’’

SDSU fans have a soft spot for pyrotechnics and they’ll be some 50,000 of them on hand Saturday to prove it.

But while craning your neck, be content in knowing the sky is no longer falling on the school’s football program.

Jay Paris can be heard talking Chargers football on 1090 AM on Monday and Friday mornings. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter, @jparis_sports.