Bailey Gaither and the Spartans ranked no. 22

Thursday, Dec. 31 at 11 a.m., the undefeated San Jose State University (SJSU) Spartans football team will take the field for the final time in 2020 to face Ball State (6-1) in the Arizona Bowl. The Spartans are the lone undefeated team west of the Mississippi and have rolled to 7-0 on the strength of their offense that is averaging 30 points per game.

Two years ago, the SJSU offense ran through former Paso Robles Bearcat Josh Oliver, who was eventually drafted in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. This season the Spartans are again led by another legendary Bearcat as Bailey Gaither leads the team in receptions and has climbed his way close to the top of all the school’s major receiving records.

While playing his home games at War Memorial Stadium, Gaither recorded more than 40 touchdowns and amassed more than 3,000 yards receiving and has continued the prolific output at the Division I level and has helped SJSU rise to the no. 22 ranked team in the nation, the first time they have been inside the top 25 since 2012.

Gaither committed to SJSU in 2015 and paid his dues while making his way up the depth chart. The former Bearcat standout showed flashes of the speed that made him such a nightmare in high school during his first few years but revealed his blazing acceleration to the nation his junior year, hauling in 52 passes for 812 yards and six touchdowns. Gaither finished the season as a Mountain West Honorable mention, but, unfortunately, the Spartans finished only 5-7 in 2019.

2020 brought the Spartans a new quarterback in former Texas A&M gunslinger Nick Starkel, who, after bouncing around, has found a home in San Jose, that has made a habit out of targeting Gaither early and often.

The Spartans opened the season against the Air Force Academy, but Starkel and Gaither controlled the skies connecting for eight receptions and 110 yards. SJSU would win the game 17-6.

In the second game of the season, Gaither etched his name in the records books. Playing at home in an empty stadium, the six-foot-one-inch 180-pound redshirt senior brought in 10 catches for 208 yards against New Mexico, the eighth-most in a single game in school history. The former Bearcat also added a touchdown, and the Spartans rolled to 2-0 with a 38-21 victory.

Gaither recorded three more touchdowns over the next three games as the Spartans began to enter the media discussions as one of the only remaining undefeated teams. The stage was set on Dec. 11 as SJSU faced off against undefeated Nevada in a nationally televised game on Fox. In a game that featured several Central Coast stars, it was Gaither who shone the brightest with seven catches for 156 yards in a tremendous come-from-behind victory.

The Wolfpack jumped out to a 20-7 lead at halftime but were held scoreless by the Spartan defense in the second half as the offense caught fire, scoring 23 points. SJSU punched their ticket to the Mountain West Championship game with the 30-20 victory.

Two weeks ago, on Dec. 19, the Spartans played Boise State for the Mountain West Championship and remained undefeated, rolling to a 34-20. SJSU’s offense was too potent through the air. Gaither finished with five catches for 98 yards while his partner on the other side, Tre Walker, finished with seven catches for 137 yards and a touchdown to lead the way.

This Thursday, the Spartans have a chance at history and perfection in what has been the best season in school history. SJSU is 7-0 and has won each of their games by double digits, but Ball State (6-1), the MAC Champions, stand in their way.

On Dec. 15, the Mountain West revealed their All-Conference teams, and Gaither earned First-team honors. With just one game remaining for the redshirt senior, he needs 88 yards to make this season his most prolific in terms of yards, albeit his 812 yards in 2019 came in 12 games, not eight.

The former Bearcat is currently second all-time in receiving touchdowns at SJSU with 18, fourth all-time in receiving yards with 2,227, and 11th in career receptions at 135.

The Ball State Cardinals have never won a bowl game in nine tries but are also looking for their best season since 1978. Like the Spartans, the Cardinals have a talented receiving core and should sling the ball around the yard all afternoon as their star running back, Caleb Huntley, has opted out of the Arizona Bowl.

Fans of college football, offense, or local boys playing on the big screen should tune in to CBS on Thursday morning for what has all the makings of a fun bowl game. Check local listings for details.

Getting through this together, Atascadero