Who Will Be the Sun Belt’s Surprise Team in 2017? None Other Than New Mexico State

When the 2016 Sun Belt Media Days came and went, the Sun Belt’s head coaches voted Idaho into seventh place. Seventh place in the conference usually gets you four wins for the season. However, the Idaho Vandals defied the preseason coach’s poll and finished tied for second place. The Vandals won each of their final five games and finished just a game away from sharing a conference title. There were other surprises, such as Troy’s 10 win surge and Georgia Southern’s fall from grace, but Idaho’s season served as the under-the-radar surprise story.

While media days have yet to start this year, I’m going to take a stab at identifying this season’s Idaho in the Sun Belt before the coaches get a chance to bury them in the preseason poll. So which team will quietly find its way to eight wins this year? The New Mexico State Aggies, of course.

So what exactly was it that caused Idaho to jump from four wins in 2015 to nine in 2016? Most would probably point to the development of quarterback Matt Linehan but his numbers between 2015 and 2016 are strikingly similar. In fact, he had fewer passing yards per game and only slightly improved his TD/INT ratio last year. The running game did not account for the reduction in passing yards and had nearly the exact same yards per game in 2016 as in 2015. The offense, as a result, averaged 30.8 points per game compared to 30.3 in 2015. The primary cause for the turnaround was the improvement on defense. The Vandals went from 42.1 points allowed per game to 31.3. The run defense saw a major improvement from 273.3 rushing yards allowed per game to just 144.8. The front seven created havoc, recording twice as many sacks in 2016, and the secondary nabbed 17 interceptions.

How does all this relate to New Mexico State? The Aggies are in a better position offensively to improve than Idaho was. NMSU sees the majority of its 2016 production return for this season. Like Idaho last year, the Aggies will have to replace its top receiver but have plenty of experience after him. Unlike the Vandals, NMSU returns one of the most exciting running backs in the Group of Five in Larry Rose III. If Rose remains healthy, the offense will improve behind returning quarterback Tyler Rogers.

In order to make the jump to conference title contender, the real progression must come on defense. The Aggies allowed 38.8 points per game last year, ninth in the Sun Belt. The pass rush was nearly non-existent as they only recorded 11 sacks. I was able to speak with rising junior linebacker Terrill Hanks about the steps the Aggie defense have taken in order to push the team over the hump.

“The expectation we have this year on defense is that when teams turn on the film they are going to see a different team,” Hanks said. “A bunch of hungry players pursuing to the ball violently. To develop that mindset that no matter what offenses do we cannot change our style of play and that is pursuing to the ball like an Alabama defense.”

In short, the Aggie defense will be highly aggressive this year and play ball-focus defense. This mindset worked for the Sun Belt’s surprise teams last year when Idaho and Troy turned quarterback pressure into turnovers in 2016. NMSU was plagued with giving up the big play last year, allowing 32 plays of 30 plus yards. Hanks believes that number will be much lower in 2017.

“Every defense has its vulnerability and us swarming to the ball may cut down on that. It’s the ability to make each other right no matter what by us swarming to the ball. By doing that we will eliminate errors in the defense when players aren’t where they’re supposed to be.”

While the Aggies will have to replace leading tackler Rodney Butler, linebackers Hanks and Dalton Herrington are more than ready to fill the void. Hanks had 103 tackles 12.5 TFL and two sacks last season. He was also productive in coverage, registering two interceptions and five pass breakups. Herrington had 113 tackles 5.5 TFL and a sack to go along with an interception. In the year of the linebacker in the Sun Belt, the conference’s best duo might be in Las Cruces.

While the Aggies have to play each of the Sun Belt’s top four finishers from a year ago, three of those games are at home. NMSU will also only have to play two power five opponents after playing three last season. Regardless, Hanks isn’t particularly concerned with any one opponent.

“I look at every game the same. I don’t care about the name on their shirt. I focus on the player in front of me.”

With the Aggies entering their final year in the Sun Belt, NMSU is looking to exit with a bang. New Mexico State is riding the nation’s longest bowl drought at 56 years but that could be coming to an end this year. A winning season will give the Aggies all the momentum they need when they began their independent journey in 2018.

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