Welp, Bill Connelly’s 2019 football previews have finally rolled around to the Independents, starting with our very own New Mexico State Aggies.
If you follow the team closely, Bill’s intro doesn’t tell you anything that you didn’t already know. This will always be a team that needs to catch lightning in a bottle just to get to seven or eight wins.
When the Aggies did that in 2017, we knew there would be a regression because of how much top-end talent was leaving. But then it took a month to find the right quarterback and the defense couldn’t stay healthy, and the bottom fell out.
The upside is that the particular way that NMSU struggled last season means that improvement is near certain this season. The downside is that there is still too much uncertainty (and too much difficulty in the schedule) to feel confident in getting all the way back to a bowl game.
But you know me, I’ll damn well try to stump for it anyways.
We know that Coach Martin likes to operate a pass-heavy offense. To paraphrase, Bill C. makes the point that the Aggies were “awfully pass-heavy for a team that ran more effectively than they passed.”
This is a bit of a misnomer, because first you have to separate the offensive season into three sections. “Watching Matt Romero Struggle”, “Watching Josh Adkins Succeed” and “who put this damn wall here?”
In that first phase, little went right. The Aggies were always passing because they were down by at least two touchdowns before halftime in each of their first three games. In their fourth game against New Mexico, they started off better but didn’t play better, making the switch from Romero to Adkins mid-game.
This was hardly surprising, as you had an athletic QB that maybe wasn’t as ready to run this offense as we thought going up against the best defenses the Aggies would see all season, but your other options were a senior “journeyman” who couldn’t make the throws and a freshman who wasn’t quite ready when Week 1 rolled around, either.
But eventually he was, and around the same time the schedule softened, which meant wins over UTEP and Liberty. And then the defensive injuries that had already started were now accumulating.
This meant scoring 131 points in three games but only posting a 1-3 record, because NMSU allowed 183 points in that same span. At that point, a second bye week wasn’t enough to right the ship and road losses to BYU and Liberty ensued.
It’s not so much that the Aggies were better at running than passing but decided to say “screw it we’ll pass constantly anyways.” This was a team that was constantly behind for a month while they found a QB that worked, then spent a month constantly playing catchup because the defense couldn’t get off the field, and then everyone wore down.
Here is what we know for sure heading into next season:
- The quarterback situation will be much better off. Adkins will have grown and developed, and so will Romero, which means that both starter and backup will be more successful, especially since most of the surrounding players that matter are back.
- The defense may not be 2017 successful, but they’ll definitely be much improved. They’re guaranteed to improve as long as they stay healthy when you consider all of the talent that is returning and all of the depth that got experience last season.
The schedule is awfully polarized, but opportunities are there. I would be extremely shocked if the Aggies didn’t start the season 1-4 (@ WAZZU and Alabama, home against Fresno State and SDSU). I would also be equally surprised if the Aggies didn’t reach four wins (UTEP and Incarnate Word at home, @CMU and New Mexico.
The grey area in between is the challenge.
I fully anticipate this team having little difficulty getting to 4-8, which as long as they do so and have at least a couple close losses would definitely be improvement.
However, for this team to really improve, it’s going to require either a road upset at Georgia Southern (always a challenge) or winning both contests against Liberty.
The former is not impossible, but I see the most likely scenario as a team that sneaks out a home win against Liberty to get themselves back to five-win respectability. Liberty is no Alabama, but at least on paper in the form of S&P+ projections, the Flames are anticipated to improve more this season than the Aggies, which could turn two one-possession games into none.
Part of the Aggie regression was that all these factors took a 5-2 record in one-possession games and brought it to 2-2, but one way to fix that would be better special teams.
Peyton Theisler cracked a number of booming punts last season, but he also had 16 punts that measured 32 yards or less, and only three of those were downed inside the 20-yard line, meaning that most of them were just shank jobs.
Eliminate that, and things can be a lot better.
Progress in the kicking game would be nice, though that might require a new leg. In the last four seasons, Parker Davidson and Dylan Brown are a combined 17-for-19 inside of 30 yards, which is nice, but also 33-for-52 from outside of 30 yards, which is much less helpful.
Brown (as a freshman/sophomore) has been an improvement over Davidson (at the same career point). Both are hopefully older and stronger now, but it would nice to not get worried when the offense stalls out before the red zone.
Can the Aggies get to a bowl game? Sure, but it’s going to take a little extra oomph. This season there are some clear struggles, especially early on, and we’ll have to hope that too much tilt to the field early on doesn’t demoralize the team for good.
We’ll have to hope that last year’s struggles were more defensive injuries than anything else, and that Liberty’s already good offense doesn’t become a juggernaut right away under Hugh Freeze.
Best case scenario: Josh Adkins is the real deal, and another season of growth turns him into one of the 20 or 30 best quarterbacks in all of college football. The defense makes just enough plays to keep the Aggies ahead of the eight ball, and early season litmus tests make a late season run possible so that a 6-6 Aggie squad can return to the Arizona Bowl.
Worst case scenario: Last season’s struggles were not injury related, and Josh Adkins has developmentally already peaked. The offense continues to consistently produce enough to stay in games, and the defense is unable to bail them out often enough for it to matter in the win column. 3-9 all over again.
Most likely scenario: As with all things Aggie, a mix of the good and bad that leaves them sitting at home at 5-7 but with enough progress to continue to be excited heading into the following season.