UC Davis faced lofty expectations in the offseason. Its quarterback Jake Maier was looked at as the Walter Payton Award favorite. Nine of the top 10 pass catchers were back along with the two most productive running backs and four starting offensive linemen. The defense had seven starters coming back who started five games or more. All of this returning talent off of a team that was one Eastern Washington last-minute quarterfinal drive away from probably playing in the national championship game.
The Aggies were looked at as a legitimate national title threat entering this season. And after three weeks of games and a 2-1 record (the lone loss being against FBS Cal), they're ranked No. 4 in the STATS Media Poll. Yet it seems the hype has cooled off a bit for UC Davis. And the reason why is a narrow 38-35 win at San Diego, a good program out of the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League.
The debate is whether that near-loss was a sign that the Aggies aren't ready to compete for a national title, or that maybe it was just that "off" game every team has in a season. The good news is people will stop talking about that USD game by Saturday night. UC Davis travels to take on No. 1 North Dakota State.
This is where the Aggies reveal what kind of team they are.
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Every national championship-winning team has had that "off" game. Last year's NDSU team, which is in the discussion for the greatest FCS/Division 1-AA team of all time, didn't look all too impressive in a 17-7 November win against Youngstown State. YSU took the 2017 Bison team to overtime and ended up not even making the playoffs. The 2016 James Madison team edged William & Mary, who finished 5-6, by a narrow score of 31-24. Hell, NDSU lost to South Dakota in 2015 with Carson freakin' Wentz starting at quarterback.
So is the win against San Diego, which was a fumble on the goal line away from being a Toreros win, one of those games? Or is UC Davis and USD on a level playing field? Because let's be real, San Diego is a great program that can beat above-average Big Sky teams in the first round of the playoffs. But the Toreros are not a national championship contender.
Keep in mind that the Aggies beat USD 54-21 last year and have a ton of starters back off of the 2018 squad.
UC Davis can erase doubts surrounding its team with a competitive game or a win at NDSU. The Bison are favored to win by 25 points, so even the oddsmakers may be looking at that USD game as a red flag.
But there's a reason why this game was circled in the preseason.
The Aggies have the type of spread offense with a good running game that can give NDSU fits. Let's not forget Ulonzo Gilliam is a preseason All-American running back. He complements an explosive passing attack.
It'll be key for the experienced offensive line to keep Maier clean against an aggressive Bison defense. He's by no means a statue back there at 6-foot and 200 pounds, but Maier doesn't pose the running threat like an Eric Barriere, Taryn Christion or Bryan Schor. Including lost yardage on sacks, Maier had -21 rushing yards in 2017, -17 rushing yards in 2018 and -40 rushing yards this season.
The biggest question is whether the UC Davis defense can match NDSU physically for all 60 minutes. That will be the difference in the game.
In the summer, this matchup was looked at as one of the best in the FCS. Now, not many are giving the Aggies a chance of winning. They'll either show why that USD game was a sign of things to come, or they'll prove they're still a threat in the national title picture.
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