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For New Mexico State football, the time is now. Like, this very second. Hurry.

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With all sorts of uncertain futures, NMSU’s scrapping the patient plan.

New Mexico State v Texas A&M Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

This preview originally published February 9 and has since been updated.

From last year’s NMSU preview:

There is no short road in New Mexico, only long. And fourth-year head coach Doug Martin has acknowledged that. Though he only has a 7-29 record, Martin has attempted to lay a foundation. He has taken on few transfers, preferring to build with five-year players. And in 2016, his squad will boast experience.

The program is spending money and figuring out ways to to allay the costs of other schools traveling to Las Cruces. And the fact that the team was still young as hell last season allowed the school to say "Look at what we're building" instead of "Look at what we've built." The former doesn't require proof of success.

The Aggies' FBS membership survived the dissolution of the WAC as a football conference and a brief stint as an FBS independent. Doing so again would be dicey, but one thing is certain: 2016 would be a great time for NMSU to be good at football.

Breaking: New Mexico State was not good at football in 2016.

From basically the moment last year’s preview went up, things began to go wrong. NMSU and Idaho were voted out of the Sun Belt, leaving the school with the awkward choice of moving down to FCS (like Idaho) or setting out as an independent.

Larry Rose III, the face of the franchise, got hurt and missed the first few games. Then, after beating rival New Mexico to move to 1-1, the Aggies cratered and lost eight of 10.

NMSU went 3-9 in 2016 just as it went 3-9 in 2015. Since 2005, the Aggies have averaged 2.6 wins. They have averaged 2.5 in four years under Doug Martin.

It’s unfortunate, because Martin was attempting the patient route. That’s always commendable. He wasn’t raking in JUCO recruits like Paul Petrino did at Idaho, and he wasn’t taking on loads of transfers; he was content with slowly building. That takes a while, but you are more likely to build something sustainable when you’re pulling in longer-term pieces.

The problem is that, if the strategy fails, that also takes a while. Impatience might have been the way to go, right? Idaho did just win a bowl game, after all, right?

Regardless, the slow build is no more. Martin got a fifth year in Las Cruces — his contract expires at the end of 2017 — and it’s all or nothing. On National Signing Day, he announced 25 new Aggies, and 13 of them are JUCO transfers. Seven enrolled early.

There were a couple of reasons for doing this. The first is obvious: the Aggies needed immediate help.

Beyond that, recruiting JUCO guys meant less resistance. Other schools were using NMSU’s uncertain future against it when it comes to recruiting five-year guys. The school is sticking it out at the FBS level, presumably in the hopes that the next time Conference USA or the Mountain West gets plucked via conference realignment, it finds NMSU in good enough shape to bring aboard.

Thanks to the Big 12’s most recent decision not to expand, that appears to be a long shot. But it’s all you’ve got if you’re NMSU.

Last year, top receiver Teldrick Morgan left in the spring to take a graduate transfer to Maryland, where he led the Terps in receptions in 2016 and left a smoking crater in the NMSU receiving corps. For all we know, there could be more surprise transfers this coming spring. But barring that, the Aggie two-deep will be loaded with upperclassmen, especially if quarterback Tyler Rogers receives an extra year of eligibility as planned. (He missed almost all of 2015, plus the end of 2016, with injury.)

Rose is scheduled to return, as are the top five receivers, three offensive line starters (along with four others with starting experience and an entire lineup's worth of JUCOs), five of six defensive linemen, three of four linebackers (plus a bunch of JUCOs), the top seven defensive backs, and all kickers and return men.

Martin has more size, experience, and options than he did a year ago, and one thing is certain: 2017 would be a great time for NMSU to be good at football.


2016 in review

2016 NMSU statistical profile.

Like ULM, NMSU’s season was defined by games against lesser teams. The Aggies had nothing to offer against the better teams on the schedule, but against teams ranked worse than 80th in S&P+, they were competitive. And when you’re in the Sun Belt, you play quite a few teams ranked worse than 80th.

  • NMSU vs. top 80 (0-5): Avg. score: Opp 49, NMSU 17 | Yards per play: Opp 7.5, NMSU 5.3 (-2.2) | Avg. percentile performance: 14% (offense 42%, defense 17%)
  • NMSU vs. No. 81 and worse (3-4): Avg. score: Opp 32, NMSU 30 | Yards per play: Opp 5.9, NMSU 5.5 (-0.4) | Avg. percentile performance: 34% (offense 47%, defense 38%)

Playing lesser opponents had more of a positive impact on NMSU’s defense than its offense. The Aggies did average 0.2 more yards per play and 13 more points per game against the worse-than-80th batch, but they also allowed 1.6 fewer yards per play and allowed 17 fewer points per game.

Defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani wanted to be aggressive, especially with his linebackers, but when the Aggies couldn’t compete athletically, it backfired terribly. Spaz has more options to work with this year.


Offense

Sometimes what you’re good at isn’t what you want to be good at. Consider:

Full advanced stats glossary.

This chart tells you NMSU was quite good at running and creating downfield opportunities, especially when Rose was healthy.

After erupting for nearly 7 yards per carry in 2015, Rose labored through the first half of 2016. He missed the first three games, then averaged just 4.1 yards per carry in his first four games of action. But down the stretch, he was Rose again. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry and 124 yards per game over the final four contests, which included a 40-point romp over Texas State and a near-upset of bowl team South Alabama.

The run was still a relative strength when Rose wasn't humming, though. The Aggies ranked 41st in Rushing S&P+ and 119th in Passing S&P+. Tyler Rogers and backup QB Conner Cramer combined to rush 9.3 times per game (not including sacks) for 6.7 yards per carry. Meanwhile, back Xavier Hall wasn't explosive but rushed for at least five yards on more than 46 percent of his carries.

That chart also tells you NMSU was not very good at throwing the football. This chart, meanwhile, tells you NMSU threw the ball more than it ran.

NMSU’s rushing success rate was higher than its passing success rate in 10 of 12 games, no matter the health of Rose, Rogers, or anybody else. One can understand the general need for balance, and deficits can lead to you passing more even if the data filters out garbage time. Still, however the Aggies reached this tendency, it didn’t help them a whole lot.

Barring transfer or an unexpected decision about Rogers' eligibility, the key players are all back. When healthy, Rose is one of the most exciting backs in the country; it's unclear whether he's got a viable backup, though, with Hall gone.

Meanwhile, Rogers has a variety of weapons -- large (6'6 senior Jaleel Scott), medium (X-receiver Gregory Hogan), and small (slot receivers O.J. Clark and Izaiah Lottie) -- at his disposal even if he's asked to throw too much. And while the line has to replace a solid center in Anthony McMeans, both tackles are promising sophomores, and the JUCO reinforcements are on their way.

NMSU has ranked 88th and 91st in Off. S&P+ over the last two years, and that’s despite the iffy balance and Rose’s injury. With a little more rushing and better injuries luck, this should at least be a top-80 unit, maybe top-70.


Defense

A team with a top-70 offense can win some games as long as the defense isn’t a total liability. In 2015, NMSU ranked 124th in Def. S&P+, and Martin brought in a ringer.

After a solid run as defensive coordinator for Virginia (he was there when the Cavaliers advanced to No. 1 in the country in 1990) and the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers (two Grey Cup appearances) and Calgary Stampeders (a third Grey Cup), Spaziani created one of the most consistently sturdy defenses in the country from 1999 to 2008 at Boston College. The Penn State product crafted play-making lines and tackling-machine linebackers, and he was successful enough that he got the head coaching job there when Jeff Jagodzinski flirted with other employers too much.

Spaz didn't do as well as head man. BC's win total fell from eight to seven to four to two over his four seasons, and he was dismissed in 2012. He still has a vision for strong defense, however, and his friend Doug gave him another shot.

NMSU ranked 120th in Def. S&P+ in 2016. You still have to have the pieces, and Spaz didn't find a lot to his liking.

NMSU was active against the run, and it occasionally paid off. Linebackers Rodney Butler, Dalton Herrington, and Terrill Hanks combined for 24 non-sack tackles for loss, and linemen Kourtland Busby [Update: Busby’s no longer with the team] and Stody Bradley pitched in another 10. NMSU ranked 47th in stuff rate and 30th in power success rate and improved from 117th to 87th in Rushing S&P+.

NCAA Football: New Mexico State at Mississippi
Terrill Hanks
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

That benefits you a lot more when you can stop the pass at least a little bit. The Aggies were 126th in Passing S&P+, allowing 13.1 yards per completion and a 149 passer rating.

If you couldn't pass on NMSU, you were in trouble. In the Aggies' three wins, New Mexico, UL-Lafayette, and Texas State combined to complete just 50 of 93 passes for 531 yards, one touchdown, and six picks. Passer rating: 92.4. But in the Aggies' nine losses, the rating was an astronomical 168.7. It was all or (usually) nothing for the Aggies.

There was blame to spread. The cornerback trio of Shamad Lomax, DeMarcus Owens, and Jared Phipps did combine for 6.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, and nine breakups, while safeties Jacob Nwangwa and Jaden Wright combined for eight, five, and five, respectively. Wright was also ninth in the country with four forced fumbles.

Still, there were too many breakdowns, and the secondary got absolutely no help from a pass rush that ranked 125th in Adj. Sack Rate. No Aggies recorded more than two sacks, which is incredible. And of the only three guys who recorded even two, two are gone.

That's why a majority of NMSU's JUCO reinforcements are on the defensive side. Spaziani has quite a few new toys, and at each level of the defense.

The line welcomes three-star redshirt freshman tackles Myles Vigne and Darius Anderson [Update: Anderson’s no longer with the team], along with nearly-three-star JUCO end Tre Randle. [Update: The line does add Arizona grad transfer Calvin Allen, who’s played in 18 games.]

The linebacking corps returns Herrington and Hanks, and 2015 leader Derek Ibekwe should be healthy after getting derailed by injury in 2016. Plus, three JUCOs enter the mix, as does star freshman Jaylon Mascorro, a mid-three-star recruit who had offers from Kansas and Houston.

Everybody's scheduled to return in the secondary, and Lomax and Phipps are now sophomores. Plus, four JUCOs, including high-two-star corner Nakota Shepard-Creer, could bolster the two-deep.

As with the offense, it's easy to see the defense improving in 2017. And if there's any semblance of a pass rush, the Aggies' strength in run defense could become a legitimate weapon. But when you haven't ranked higher than 113th in Def. S&P+ since 2009, it's hard to quantify what "improvement" would consist of.


Special Teams

Special teams were also all-or-nothing. Parker Davidson was a solid kicker and kickoffs guy, but punt coverage for Payton Theisler was a disaster: Opponents averaged 15.7 yards per return and scored four touchdowns. That’s horrific. And special teams will be, at best, a wash until coverage improves.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Arizona State 58 -22.8 9%
9-Sep at New Mexico 110 -7.6 33%
23-Sep UTEP 126 3.4 58%
30-Sep at Arkansas 32 -28.0 5%
TBA Arkansas State 83 -8.0 32%
TBA Idaho 119 0.5 51%
TBA South Alabama 108 -2.1 45%
TBA Troy 79 -10.1 28%
TBA at Appalachian State 62 -22.1 10%
TBA at Georgia Southern 98 -10.5 27%
TBA at Texas State 129 2.9 57%
TBA at UL-Lafayette 112 -7.4 33%
Projected S&P+ Rk 124
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 108 / 116
Projected wins 3.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -14.0 (119)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 127 / 127
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / -3.5
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 70% (57%, 83%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 2.6 (0.4)

With no contract for 2018, the time is quite obviously now for Martin at NMSU, and while S&P+ is not optimistic -- let's just say recent history matters significantly in S&P+ projections, and there's not a lot to go by -- the combination of returning production, health, and JUCO infusion could pay off.

If it does, and NMSU is closer to a No. 100 team than a No. 125 team, wins are there for the taking. There are only three guaranteed losses (at Arizona State, at Arkansas, at Appalachian State), four games with projected win probability between 45 and 58 percent, and most importantly, five between 27 and 33 percent. Improve on your projections, and you can get awfully close to six wins.

A bowl in the last year of Sun Belt membership probably wouldn't do anything for NMSU's long-term prospects. The Sun Belt is no longer an option, and the Aggies would need a longer run of success to prove anything to the MWC or Conference USA. Plus, they probably need the MWC or CUSA to get looted for their hypothetical success to even matter.

Still, you can't have a long run of success until you have one year of it. And when you haven't been to a bowl since 1960, well, a single year of success might sound like winning the national title. I admire NMSU for attempting to press forward regardless of obvious reason for hope. Here's to hoping the Aggies are rewarded for it, however briefly.


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