San Jose State preview: Conference title hopes
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2012 record: 11-2 (5-1 WAC), No. 21 in final AP Poll

Top returners: QB David Fales, Sr.; WR Noel Grigsby, Sr.; WR Chandler Jones, Sr.; WR Jabari Carr, Sr.; OL Nicholas Kaspar, Sr.; OG Ryan Jones, Sr.; DT Travis Raciti, Jr.; LB Keith Smith, Sr.; CB Bene Benwikere, Sr; DL Anthony Larceval; K Austin Lopez

Key Losses: LT David Quessenberry; DL Travis Johnson; RB De’Leon Eskridge; DL David Tuitupou; DB Cullen Newsome

Games to watch: A year after nearly shocking then No. 21 Stanford -- the Cardinal needed a fourth-quarter field goal to win by three -- the Spartans won’t sneak up on their South Bay neighbors on Sept. 7. It’ll be the final matchup in the Bill Walsh Legacy Game for the time being as SJSU decided not to renew the series. In conference play, late-season games at Nevada (Nov. 16) and home vs. Fresno State (Nov. 29) could hold bowl implications. Also of note: at Minnesota (Sept. 21) and homecoming vs. Wyoming (Oct. 26).

Reason for optimism: David Fales might be the best college quarterback on the West Coast and has a definite NFL future. NFLDraftScout.com ranks Fales the No. 5 draft eligible quarterback in the country, sandwiched between Heisman favorite A.J. McCarron of Alabama and Texas A&M’s Heisman winner, Johnny Manziel. A one-time backup to Colin Kaepernick at Nevada, Fales has the physical and mental make up -- and the receivers -- to have another big year in new coach Ron Caragher’s West Coast offense.

Reason for concern: Vince Buhagiar, a 2012 First-Team All-WAC selection at middle linebacker, will likely miss the entire season with a shoulder injury. Buhagiar was slated to move to outside linebacker after starting 29 of 38 games over his first three years with the Spartans in the 4-3 defense employed by former coach Mike MacIntyre.

Forecast: It took just three years for Mike MacIntyre to shape a downtrodden SJSU program into one of college football’s feel good stories in 2012. For the first time in school history, the Spartans, at No. 21, finished ranked in the AP Top-25 -- a list that did not include the likes of USC, UCLA, Cal or Washington. The turnaround netted MacIntyre a 5-year contract worth $2 million per year at Colorado, but he left behind a talented team for his successor, Ron Caragher.

Caragher’s West Coast offense is good fit for David Fales, who will have his top three wide receivers back and four-fifths of the starting offensive line. For Fales, expectations are to build off of last season as the team moves from the WAC to the Mountain West Conference.

“We want to win the Mountain West, go to the Mountain West championship and go to a bowl game,” said Fales, who needs to pass for 3,355 yards and 26 touchdowns to break school records.

What would have seemed laughable a year ago no longer seems far-fetched, even with the jump in conferences.

“It is different, but I still feel like we still are coming in under the radar because they kind of downplay the WAC and it wasn’t as good of competition as the Mountain West is going to be,” Fales said. “We’re still kind of the underdog and we like that.”

The Spartans have a tough stretch following Thursday’s season opener against Sacramento State with Stanford, Minnesota and Utah State lined up after that. They’ll be happy with a 2-2 mark headed to Hawaii on Oct. 5 as conference schedule heats up.