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NMSU fans will always have Tucson, but what’s next for Doug Martin’s Aggies?

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Hard jobs don’t get easier.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-New Mexico State vs Utah State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

This is my eighth year of writing lengthy offseason previews for every FBS team at SB Nation. The repetition has allowed me to develop my own narrative for each program. For NMSU under Doug Martin, that has meant checking in on a slow, impossible build.

2013:

Martin knows tough jobs. At Kent State, he came oh, so close to turning the corner at a program that hadn’t turned a corner in ages. He has fought the hard fight before, and perhaps most importantly, he wants the job. These are good things.

2014:

When you’re building a program almost from scratch, you might be tempted to load up on transfers, JUCO and otherwise. But Martin isn’t going that route. The upside is that he can develop talent over the long-term; the downside is that his team is going to continue to stink for a while.

2015:

If Martin is going to experience a breakthrough year at NMSU, it will come in 2016 at the earliest. If you’re an NMSU fan, you are the patient type. The impatient ones jumped off the bandwagon long ago.

2016:

Because I feel every fan base should have the opportunity for happiness, I’m rooting for Martin to break through this year. It only takes a couple of ifs to make NMSU a bowl contender.

2017:

The slow build is no more. Martin got a fifth year in Las Cruces, and it’s all or nothing. On National Signing Day, he announced 25 new Aggies, and 13 of them are JUCO transfers.

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. 2017 would be a great time for NMSU to be good at football.

Allow me to start my 2018 NM State preview with two videos I’ve watched about 433 times each this offseason.

In 2017, NMSU fans — who’d spent the last five-plus decades reliving the same season — finally got their cathartic moment. Martin’s Aggies scraped out a sixth win and bowl eligibility in the final minute of the final game, then won the Arizona Bowl in overtime. Aggie fans rushed the field after both games.

All of college football’s best and worst traits came to the forefront.

On one hand, the sheer nuttiness of a crowd rushing the field after beating South Alabama to finish 6-6 is my everything. I’d hopped on the NMSU bandwagon hard on Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, to the point where Twitter followers were sending me pictures of random Aggie apparel they saw in box stores or NMSU ads they saw in airports.

On the other hand, they had to wait 57 years just for an Arizona Bowl win. I mean, what are we even doing in this silly sport?

NMSU and its cousin UTEP, an hour down the road, are not in an area that’s going to produce a bounty of football talent. They are isolated in a way that will always hold them back. That both insist on playing football in the highest subdivision is an admirable affirmation of “the love of the game.” But in an environment of such ridiculous anti-parity, it’s also a quest for minimal joy.

That NM State fans still existed to rush the field is incredible. And they are due a lot more than one year of happiness. We’ll see if it continues. History doesn’t suggest it — most of the time, hard jobs don’t suddenly get easier — and a lack of a conference means the lack of a natural bowl spot.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-New Mexico State vs Utah State
OJ Clark (left), Terrill Hanks (center), and Shane Jackson (right)
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

2017 NMSU offensive radar

First, the good news: NM State has improved offensively in three of the last four seasons. From 114th in Off. S&P+ in Martin’s first season, they jumped to 101st in 2014 and 85th in 2015; after settling in at 91st in 2016, they surged to 50th last fall.

The 2017 surge happened despite an ill-timed injury at quarterback — Tyler Rogers missed the second-to-last game of the year (against Idaho), meaning backup Nick Jeanty had to lead the 4-6 Aggies to a win to keep bowl hopes alive — and despite shuffling at wide receiver and on the offensive line.

A lot of guys got important playing time, then. If you’re looking for a positive spin, you start there. Still, the Aggies do still have to replace Rogers, star receiver Jaleel Scott (now a Baltimore Raven), and running back Larry Rose III, the face and soul of the program.

It’s hard to be 100 percent optimistic about the offense after those losses, but the positive spin is indeed grounded in fact. Jeanty completed 31 of 49 passes in that Idaho win, after all (and he was pushed hard by JUCO transfer Matthew Romero this spring), and junior running back Jason Huntley averaged 6 yards per carry and 7.8 yards per pass target, better than Rose (5 per carry, 7.1 per target) on both counts.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-New Mexico State vs Utah State
Jason Huntley
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Losing Scott hurts, but the Aggies do bring back three players who caught more than 30 passes (juniors OJ Clark and Anthony Muse and senior Johnathan Boone), plus a potentially explosive option in junior Izaiah Lottie (20 catches for 312 yards). And to cover his bases, Martin brought in a trio of JUCO receivers as well, all of whom are 6’4 or taller, to offset the slighter size of slot receiver prototypes like Clark (5’7, 163) and Muse (6’0, 160).

Unless a couple of those JUCO WRs take root, this will be a smaller, quicker skill corps. Huntley’s listed at 5’9, 175 pounds, and likely backup Royce Caldwell, a converted receiver, is 5’8, 175. Senior RB Christian Gibson is a bit larger (6’1, 206) but rushed four times for just one yard last year.

Perhaps at least some of that lack of size can be offset by a beefy line. NM State has to replace guard Dezmand Candelarie but brings back seven guys with starting experience; that includes wonderfully named, two-year starting left tackle Sage Doxtater. He’s listed at 6’7, 343, and three other returning starters are listed at 300 or bigger, as is incoming JUCO Eric Pulliam. (Now that Martin is going the JUCO route, he can’t really afford to stop.)

Losing Scott’s big-play ability and Rose’s reliability hurts, but theoretically, as long as there’s a QB, there are more than enough weapons here, no matter the size. Romero pushed Jeanty in spring ball, and the competition will continue into fall camp. Depth appears tenuous at running back, but there are lots of options in the other units. That’s not something you could say a few years ago.

Arkansas State v Georgia Southern
Anthony Muse
Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

Defense

2017 NMSU defensive radar

It’s all about who you know. After spending a year as NMSU’s offensive coordinator in 2011, Martin took a job as Frank Spaziani’s OC at Boston College. He couldn’t save Spaz’s job, but when it was time for Martin to figure out how to save NMSU’s defense, it was also time for Spaziani to return the favor.

Spaz came to Las Cruces in 2016 and needed a year to organize the chess board, but the Aggies made massive strides last fall. They improved to 69th in Def. S&P+, their highest ranking since 1963 (52nd). Hell, it was their first double-digit ranking since 2004.

Believing in defensive sustainability in 2018 is pretty easy: just about everybody’s back. Last year’s top four linemen are back, as are all but one linebacker and all but two defensive backs. And while losing middle linebacker Dalton Herrington isn’t nothing, you can usually figure out how to replace one guy.

Arkansas State v Georgia Southern
Myles Vigne (99) and Cedric Wilcots II (10)
Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

For those who remember Spaziani’s best BC defenses, it’s not hard to believe that the Aggies’ best moments came in attack mode. They ranked 36th in Adj. Sack Rate, 17th in passing downs sack rate, 46th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), and 23rd in power success rate. If they could leverage you into obvious calls, they teed off.

Eight members of the front seven had at least 4.5 tackles for loss, and Herrington’s the only one gone. He did lead the team in run stuffs, but fellow LBs Terrill Hanks and Lui Fa’amasino were close behind. They should find more than enough run-stuffing opportunities as opponents try to figure out how to deal with ends Malik Demby and Cedric Wilcots II (combined: 23 TFLs, 15 sacks) and beefy tackles Roy Lopez and Myles Vigne.

Almost the entire linebacking corps is made of seniors, but if you’re looking for hints of sustainability, the line and secondary are good places to start. Demby is the only senior among those four linemen, and there might only be two senior starters (free safety Ron LaForce and corner DeMarcus Owens) in the back, too. They’re good seniors — they combined for five interceptions and 13 breakups — but in junior Shamad Lomax, the Aggies have a potential star at either cornerback or safety, and in Minnesota-via-JUCO transfer Ray Buford Jr., they likely have another keeper. (His talent is what could move Lomax to safety.)

There’s a reason why Martin added a lot more JUCO transfer on offense than defense, in other words. He added four three-star freshmen to the defense this year, too — that’s a lot for NM State. Spaz’s presence has paid off in terms of both perception and production.

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-New Mexico State vs Utah State
Shamad Lomax
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

The Aggies have been held back. They were just 107th in Special Teams S&P+ last year and haven’t ranked higher than 93rd under Martin. Huntley is an all-or-nothing threat in kick returns — he scored two touchdowns but had a lot of inefficient returns as well — and Parker Davidson’s kickoffs found the end zone half the time, but coverage units were shaky, and Dylan Brown was a little less consistent than you’d like, missing three PATs and three FGs under 40 yards. (He was 0-for-1 over 40.)

Aside from Rose in punt returns, everyone’s back. Huntley aside, we’ll see if that’s a good thing.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
25-Aug Wyoming 72 -4.5 40%
30-Aug at Minnesota 67 -11.0 26%
8-Sep at Utah State 77 -9.1 30%
15-Sep New Mexico 111 5.0 61%
22-Sep at UTEP 130 10.2 72%
6-Oct Liberty 115 6.7 65%
13-Oct at UL-Lafayette 121 3.2 57%
20-Oct Georgia Southern 106 3.3 58%
27-Oct at Texas State 123 4.4 60%
3-Nov Alcorn State NR 24.6 92%
17-Nov at BYU 76 -9.1 30%
24-Nov at Liberty 115 1.7 54%
Projected S&P+ Rk 100
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 109 / 80
Projected wins 6.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -16.0 (127)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 124 / 128
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / -3.0
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 62% (41%, 83%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.2 (-0.2)

You’re not supposed to be able to pull off this steady a building job:

NMSU S&P+ progression

Martin did. But the uphill climb doesn’t ever really stop.

Hard jobs rarely get easier, and Martin knows it. That he finally found bowl pay dirt was one of college football’s best stories, but now he has to find a way to do it again without conference bowl ties, three key offensive stars, and a full staff of assistants.

I can’t speak to the bowl ties — after how well the fan base showed up last year, I figure State will remain an attractive option for the Arizona Bowl any time the Aggies hit six wins — but I do think this team will be pretty solid. The offensive replacements have just enough experience and upside to convince you a minimal drop-off is possible, and Spaziani’s well-seasoned defense could be outstanding.

S&P+ projects the Aggies to fall to 100th, but with an indie schedule that features only three opponents projected higher than 75th (and none higher than 67th), there should be ample win opportunities.

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