The New Mexico State Aggie football team was picked to finish eighth in the nine-team Western Athletic Conference by league coaches and media members at the WAC football media conference.
Of course, preseason polls mean little. Did voters select Idaho to finish top-four in the WAC last year? No, more like bottom-two, only to see the Vandals surprise just about everyone by going 8-5 overall, 4-4 in WAC play and qualifying for the Humanitarian Bowl.
The polls simply gauge how fellow WAC competitors view the opposition with the season just a month away. Much of it is based off how the team fared the previous year.
Case in point: San Jose State is coming off a dreadful season — 1-7 in WAC play — and hired a new coach in the offseason, former Duke defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre. Naturally, they were picked to finish last in both polls, simply by default.
Utah State was chosen to finish seventh in both coaches and media polls last year. After going 3-5 in conference play in 2009 and winning two of their final three games on the schedule, coaches selected them to finish fourth in the standings this year.
Really, who knows where any of these teams end up, after the pads are strapped on and the reality of the season sets in?
The one constant for the Aggies is annually residing near the bottom of the preseason polls. The highest NMSU has been ranked since joining the WAC six years ago was No. 6, entering the 2007 season. There was optimism and excitement as Hal Mumme was going into his third year as head coach. The Aggies were coming off a promising finish to close out the previous year, pulverizing Utah State and Louisiana Tech in consecutive weeks. Offensively, NMSU had young talent across the board and there was legitimate talk of a breakthrough bowl berth possibly on the horizon.
“They’re on the verge,” said former San Jose State head coach Dick Tomey when the 2007 poll was released. “They’re a scary outfit, they’re a veteran team and obviously (quarterback Chase) Holbrook’s a terrific player....I won’t be surprised if they’re a team that really makes a move this year.”
Of course, NMSU went 4-9 overall that year, 1-7 in conference and finished in eighth place.
Three years later, new head coach DeWayne Walker enters his second season at New Mexico State, and he continues to build the Aggies from the ground-up.
Despite ranking No. 103 in the country last year in total defense, the Aggies showed flashes of being a tough-minded unit on that side of the ball.
Offensively, the team figures to be improved, simply with the addition of Mike Dunbar at offensive coordinator. Last season, the Aggies couldn’t move the ball — literally. NMSU was last in the NCAA, averaging 229.31 yards per game, recording just over 12 first downs per contest. Dunbar, who has been coaching college football for over 20 years, will bring veteran savvy to the coaching position and there’s really nowhere to go but up.
But there’s no denying that plenty of holes remain.
Injuries to any of the three starting linebackers — Frank Padilla (strongside), Boyblue Aoelua (middle) and B.J. Adolpho (weakside) — will spell trouble for the entire group. Same at defensive end, where Pierre Fils and Donte Savage somehow managed to play virtually every snap last season and put up productive numbers. There just isn’t a whole lot behind these guys.
Offensively, the team has some depth at running back. But what quarterback will emerge? Jeff Fleming, Matt Christian, Tanner Rust, Andrew Manley? Whoever does will need to step up and deliver once the bullets start flying. And, in the game of football, without a quality quarterback, it’s tough to field a quality team.
Who will catch passes? Last year’s top receiver was Todd Lee, with an uninspiring 28 grabs, while Marcus Allen had 308 receiving yards. Good quarterback play and production from wide receivers go hand-in-hand.
The Aggies are in the middle of a big rebuilding effort, and much of the same expectations that were in place last year — playing hard for all four quarters, stealing a game or two that they shouldn’t and remaining competitive for all 12 contests on their schedule — will remain as the barometer.
The point is that eighth place in the WAC is a fair prediction for NMSU. They still have a lot to prove and will need to earn their respect on the field.
And you never know how things will ultimately shake out as the season moves along. Just ask Idaho.
That’s why they play the games.