SAN DIEGO — After stumbling to a 1-3 start, including big losses at Cal and Penn State, and a mystifying one to South Alabama, the San Diego State Aztecs found their comfort zone in winning eight straight games in Mountain West Conference play.
Their reward — good and bad — is hosting Air Force in the conference title game Saturday night.
The good, of course, is playing at home on Saturday. The bad is having to face Air Force's option.
"We're really excited about playing it here in San Diego," said Rocky Long, voted the Mountain West Coach of the Year. "Because of our record, we thought we deserved it and we're glad it worked out the right way."
SDSU (9-3, 8-0 MWC, West Division champion), and Air Force (8-4, 6-2, Mountain champ), didn't meet in the regular season. In some seasons, the Aztecs might face two or even three option teams, so they spend time in summer camp working against the option.
This year they faced none, therefore spent zero time practicing against it.
"It's almost impossible to prepare for the option in one week," Long said. "It's going to be tough on us getting ready for what they do."
On the other hand, SDSU has outscored its MWC foes 289-90.
"I think anytime you win by an average of 25 points per game and every game is a double-figure win, it's quite a tribute and I think it accurately reflects how strong San Diego State is," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.
Here are some things to watch for when Air Force faces San Diego State in the Mountain West title tilt:
LONG TIME COMING: Air Force is looking for its first outright conference championship since winning the Western Athletic Conference in 1998.
San Diego State has been waiting a big longer. Its last outright crown was in 1986, also in the WAC. The Aztecs shared the 2012 MWC crown with Boise State and Fresno State.
BOWL PICTURE: The MWC isn't locked into a certain bowl for its champion.
The Aztecs will play in a bowl for the sixth straight season. Most projections have them playing in the Hawaii Bowl in Honolulu on Christmas Eve.
Air Force could be headed for the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth on Dec. 29.
CORNERING THE MARKET: SDSU won four of the five major MWC awards. Besides Long winning Coach of the Year, Junior Donnel Pumphrey was named Offensive Player, cornerback Damontae Kazee was the Defensive Player and Rashaad Penny was the Special Teams Player.
Pumphrey has rushed 268 times for 1,464 yards and 16 touchdowns. He's had eight straight 100-yard games, a MWC record. Kazee has 66 tackles, including 51 solo, a team-best seven interceptions, 4 1/2 tackles for loss, seven pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Penny averages 32.5 yards per kickoff return, with touchdowns of 97 and 100 yards.
NEW QB: With Maxwell Smith going down with a torn ACL in the first quarter of the regular-season finale against Nevada, the Aztecs are forced to turn to redshirt freshman Christian Chapman. Chapman will make his first career start. He enters the game having thrown 24 career passes, completing 12 for 120 yards.
"We've got a lot of confidence in Smith," said Long, who added that the Aztecs can't just rely on Pumphrey. "For us to be successful, our quarterback's going to have to throw the ball to keep them honest."
CLASSIC MATCHUP: Air Force is second in the MWC in scoring at 34.4 points per game. SDSU is first in scoring defense at 16.6 per game. San Diego State averages 31.8 points, third in the league, while Air Force holds teams to 22.9 points, third in the league.
The Falcons average 323.5 yards on the ground, tops in the MWC, and SDSU holds teams to 95 yards rushing, also tops.
Six different Falcons players have had 100-yard games, including three by Jacobi Owens, who's rushed for 857 yards and six touchdowns.
Long said the Falcons run the option six different ways. The key guy to keep an eye on will be quarterback Karson Roberts.
Only about six or seven Aztecs are decently versed in playing against the option, Long added.
"It's unique, it's baffling. You ought to watch practice. They don't know where to go. ... It's very difficult to get ready for in three days. And they run it very, very well."
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