Friday, July 27, 2012

A look back: 2012 WAC Football Preview

First off, a list of stories generated from the 2012 WAC Football Preview, held on Thursday in Las Vegas, Nev.:

We look at the league's respective preseason polls from the WAC coaches and media members.

WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd doesn't sound optimistic in terms of the WAC playing football in 2013.

For a video interview with quarterback Andrew Manley, click here.

As far as a 2013-14 Olympic sports model for the conference, that seems like something that can be pulled off.

Lets hope so. The Aggies playing independent football is bad enough — we've written before that if they scheduled appropriately it could be done. But what gives you any reason to think they are in the process of building a quality independent schedule for 2013 at this point? I hope I'm wrong, but I'm just sayin….I really hope it's being done. Like, now.

Anyway, lets not ask coaches such as Marvin Menzies and Mike Jordan to put together an independent schedule. Simply put, it wouldn't be fair, and might not be doable at all. The Aggies need to get into a league for their Olympic sports, although I think the WAC will find a way to hold together with this for 2013 — really, it has too. If not, NMSU should just drop athletics all together.

One quick note on the football side — while the WAC will likely not sponsor the sport in 2013, it could bring in some FCS members to help fill the void in 2014 (the league would need six such members to fill the FBS-required number of eight or more football programs per conference). Well, such additions would have to be additions in all sports, not just football-only affiliates. If and when the WAC got back to the number of eight football members, then it could add football-only affiliates. There has been discussions of some schools in the east — a Jacksonville State, or an Appalachian State, for instance — being considered for WAC membership, although this would seem problematic. Traveling to these schools just for football wouldn't be ideal, let alone for Olympic sports as well. Clearly, when looking at possible FCS programs, the Big Sky conference would likely hold more feasible candidates in terms of moving up to the WAC.

Yes, the WAC is currently below the FBS threshold of eight football members — this year they drop to just seven, and will begin a two-year waver period with the NCAA. When considering next year the WAC currently has — and most likely will continue to have — just two members (NMSU and Idaho), it would mean they have to get back to eight for the 2014 season if they want to remain an FBS-eligible conference. Either that, or commissioner Jeff Hurd said the league would try to extend the waiver.

Some takeaways from the WAC media conference:

• In the coaches poll, the fourth-place Aggies were just two points behind San Jose State for third in the league. The Aggies really want/need to make a push in 2012. I like the way head coach DeWayne Walker and his players — in this case quarterback Andrew Manley and defensive lineman/linebacker Donte Savage — carry themselves at such a conference.

• Utah State is loaded offensively. Yes, they lost running backs Robert Turbin and Michael Smith, who were two really special players, but don't sleep on this year's starter Kerwynn Williams. Chuckie Keeton really stood out as a freshman quarterback last year, they have wide receiver Matt Austin, and a veteran offensive line. They should score points, but will they be able to stop anyone? A tough team to predict, because it would seem they can conceivable finish anywhere from first to third in the league.

• Some possible key scheduling points this year. San Jose State — picked to finish third — hosts the preseason's top-two teams in Louisiana Tech and Utah State. This is a big deal and could allow the Spartans to make a push for top-two in the conference. And, with that being said, Utah State has to travel to SJSU and Louisiana Tech. Tough.

• Love Idaho coach Robb Akey's transparency on issues, including the real possibility his team will be playing independent football in 2013: “….Could be one of the possibilities. The word is, we could see reallocation again in two more years. If that were to end up being the option, hopefully it wouldn't last much longer than that.” In other words, independent football for a year, two years tops, and hope another massive realignment shift happens that could open the door for the Vandals into a football-playing home. Willing to bet NMSU is thinking/hoping for the same thing, if independent football does in fact happen at the school.

• NMSU head coach DeWayne Walker on playing independent football: “Is it two years, three years if that's where we end up?” he said when asked about maintaining an independent football model. “I think the only thing that we would focus on is just, who's on our schedule, and lets just go play football. If we get to that point, that's something we'll worry about later. We're just really focusing on ’12.”

• WAC interim commissioner Jeff Hurd on if the Aggies and Vandals will be independent programs in 2013: “I think it's much more likely than not, that New Mexico State and Idaho, if they're going to maintain FBS status, will play as independents in ’13….From a practical standpoint, that is the most likely outcome.”

Classic quotes

“It's one of those deals, you look back now as a coach and say, ‘what was I thinking?’ I must have had some sort of a drug binge or something.”
Louisiana Tech head coach Sonny Dykes on having senior quarterback Colby Cameron as a backup for the start of the 2011 season

“Can I see the schedule you've got in front of you?”
Idaho head coach Robb Akey when it was suggested that his team had a favorable schedule in 2012

“You're not supposed to say, ‘every day I've gone to class.’ You go to class every day.”
Texas State head coach Dennis Franchione joking to running back Marcus Curry

“I'm going to have a little more input in terms of what we're doing. It's pretty obvious as a defensive coach I want to play good defense. I think I'm going to kill myself or somebody if we don't play good defense this year. That's something we want to improve on for sure.”
NMSU head coach, and former UCLA and USC defensive coordinator, DeWayne Walker

“I got it on my left shoulder. It was a promise to these fine young lads, and I got it for them. It's there, but only they have seen it. I'm not going to show it today, trust me.”
Utah State Gary Anderson on getting a USU tattoo after his team went to a bowl game in 2012

“We have, I think 43 sophomores on our team, and I think 23 freshmen. We have only six seniors — we had one senior last year, we have six this year. I guess you could say we're a veteran team this year.”
Texas-San Antonio head coach Larry Coker

“We noticed that….We're excited about having them at our place.”
San Jose State head coach Mike McIntyre on hosting Louisiana Tech and Utah State in 2012

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A projected preseason poll for WAC football

(Photo of Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton provided by USU athletics)

Most everyone knows that this is a big year for New Mexico State football.

The Aggies could do themselves a big favor by going to a bowl game in 2012, and beating the opposition once they get there — even then it doesn't seem to guarantee them any sort of conference affiliation in 2013, but at least it gives the decision makers something to consider.

Still, while on the surface it looks like their schedule is one they can win with, it's actually tougher upon further inspection.

Putting Louisiana Tech and Utah State above NMSU at this point is just a move that has to be done, and San Jose State looks to be a surprise team in the WAC this year as well.

Even the University of Idaho — a team the Aggies will face in Moscow — will not be a pushover in their own backyard.

Yes, a bowl game is a possibility. But the Aggies are also going to have to step up their play in order to get it done. In other words, they have to beat their WAC competition — along with their regional rivals along the way — teams that appear to be either equal to NMSU, or at this point better.

With the WAC set to unveil its preseason polls Thursday, we give our rankings going into the 2012 season.

1. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Head coach: Sonny Dykes (third season)
Last year: 8-5 overall, 6-1 in WAC (league champions). Lost in Poinsettia Bowl to TCU 31-24.
The rundown: It's tough not the put the Bulldogs atop the poll, simply because the defending WAC champions return the best team on paper, with the top overall talent. Quarterback Colby Cameron played very well down the stretch for Louisiana Tech last year and will have to do so again — this time for a whole season, while remaining healthy — as last year's promising freshman Nick Isham has since transferred to the University of Arizona. The Bulldogs seem sure of themselves and are likely to be atop the official preseason polls — such an attitude that can lead to overconfidence, and a potential danger.

2. Utah State Aggies
Head coach: Gary Anderson (fourth season)
Last year: 7-6 overall, 5-2 in WAC. Lost in Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to Ohio 24-23.
The rundown: The UtAgs had a crazy season last year — they let a handful of games slip away early in the year, lost their star freshman quarterback Chuckie Keeton to injury, and then ripped off five-straight wins to close out WAC play and go to a bowl game. The team did lose some firepower this offseason — two special running backs in Robert Turbin and Michael Smith, along with middle linebacker Robert Wagner, a threesome that all were selected in the NFL Draft. Still, Keeton is back, and running back Kerwyn Williams is not slouch himself — both have WAC Offensive Player of the Year potential — while head coach Gary Anderson has done a nice job here. Similar to Louisiana Tech, their Qbs health — in this case Keeton's — will be a key factor in their run to the top of the WAC.

3. San Jose State Spartans
Head coach: Mike MacIntyre (third season)
Last year: 5-7 overall, 3-4 in WAC
The rundown: Although conventional wisdom has the WAC's top teams as Louisiana Tech and Utah State, the Spartans can make a push for second-place in the conference. Mike Mcyntyre has done a good job at SJSU — the WAC has its fair-share of good head coaches — and scheduling is on their side, as the Spartans host both Louisiana Tech and Utah State this year, which is huge. In general, San Jose State has the potential to be a scary program. Why with their geographic location — the bay area, where population, and talent, are nearby, SJSU doesn't have to search far for players, and can attract castoffs from nearby BCS programs such as Cal and Stanford. An improved team last year, and one to be wary of in 2012.

4. New Mexico State Aggies
Head coach: DeWayne Walker (fourth season)
Last year: 4-9 overall, 2-5 in WAC
The rundown: Tough to put the Aggies here, who need to put a winner on the field in 2012. But let the facts remain, this is a team that lost a great deal from a season ago in terms of talent and leadership — Matt Christian, Kenny Turner, Taveon Rogers, three starters on the offensive line, and an entire starting secondary that was filled with good players. That and offensive coordinator Doug Martin did a wonderful job last year, and is now gone. A big key to the Aggies season will be protecting their sophomore quarterback Andrew Manley — last year he took too many seven-step drops and was knocked out for the season in the third game of the year. That, and look no further than their schedule: if NMSU can sweep its rivals — UTEP and the University of New Mexico — and/or take two of three games against Louisiana Tech, Utah State and San Jose State, than a bowl game should be granted. Both of these tasks won't be easy.

5. Idaho Vandals
Head coach: Robb Akey (sixth season)
Last year: 2-10 overall, 1-6 in WAC
The rundown: The Vandals were awful last season, although head coach Robb Akey returns some players from a season ago and Idaho could surprise. The Vandals and Aggies will lock horns on Oct. 6 in Moscow — another key contest on the schedule, and a possible swing game in the standings for two teams desperate for a bowl berth.

6. Texas State Bobcats
Head coach: Dennis Franchione (fourth season)
Last year: 6-6 overall as a member of the FCS
The rundown: Dennis Franchione could be building something here, and there is some talent. Still, the Bobcats are the equivelant of an expansion team. Once again, when they meet NMSU it will appear to be a big game, and possibly a scary one, for the Aggies. In the final week of the season, Dec. 1, in San Marcos, Texas State won't lie down for the opposition.

7. Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners
Head coach: Larry Coker (second season)
Last year: 4-6 overall as a member of the FCS
The rundown: This team could get out of the gates quickly — just look at the schedule, which begins at South Alabama, vs. Texas A&M-Commerce, at Georgia State, and then vs. Northwest Oklahoma State. Still, while their future potential is evident, they're a young and inexperienced team — just eight seniors make up the roster — and are in similar style to Texas State in terms of being a first-year program on the FBS level in 2012.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

For the Aggies, key games for 2012 campaign

(Photo of Aggie quarterback Andrew Manley vs. UTEP taken by Mark Lambie of the El Paso Times)

We estimate the key contests for NMSU football during the 2012 season:

1.Sept. 15, @ UTEP: If the Aggies want to be a bowl team this year, sweeping their rivals — that being New Mexico and UTEP — would seem like a logical first step. The Miners have had NMSU's number in recent years — last season the Aggies really could have beaten UTEP, but a goal-line fumble and special teams blunders were the difference. The Miners were somewhat in rebuilding mode a season ago and should be ready to go this year at the Sun Bowl, in a rivalry game that can go either way.

2.Oct. 6, @ Idaho: A key swing game in the standings between two teams that figure to be desperate for wins in 2012. The Vandals were an awful team last year although hope to be improved — last season Idaho was beaten by NMSU and freshman quarterback Travaughn Colwell 31-24 on a last-second goal-line stand by the Aggies. Things are never easy for New Mexico State in the Kibbie Dome, and this one figures to be a must-win for both sides.

3.Oct. 20 @ Utah State; Oct. 27 vs. Louisiana Tech; Nov. 10 vs. San Jose State: We know, we know, we're clumping three games into one here. But the reason is simple — we're going to look at it as a block. If NMSU can win two of these three games, they should be a bowl team in 2012. Going to Logan to play Utah State is going to be a tough one, as will hosting Louisiana Tech, the preseason favorites in the WAC. That, and San Jose State figures to be an improved team once again. Even if the Aggies can take one of these games, they can at least keep their postseason hopes alive.

4.Dec. 12, @ Texas State: This is a scary game to be ending the season with for NMSU — although one the team figures to win. Still, consider: The Bobcats could be searching for one of their few wins on the year in this one, and perhaps their lone conference victory to close out their schedule. Perhaps NMSU will be playing for their postseason hopes, or worse yet, nothing at all. The bottom line? Texas State is going to come out hard in the season finale at home, and won't lie down for the opposition.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Friday, July 20, 2012

Big Sky could help the WAC. But why?

With news coming out that the Big Sky Conference could merge with the WAC — essentially, the Big Sky would dump some athletics programs in the WAC to keep the league alive — we ask the simple question, why?

Why would the Big Sky be interested in keeping the WAC afloat? Just to be nice? Not likely. Upon further review, a couple ideas come to mind.

For one, there is the opportunity for the Big Sky to assist some of its current athletics programs — the ones they’d consider moving into the WAC — in opening up another automatic qualifying bid for NCAA Tournaments by moving into the league.

Who would the WAC get? Here’s a list of Big Sky schools for the 2012 year (13 total):

Cal Poly (football only)
Eastern Washington
Idaho State
Montana State
North Dakota
Northern Arizona
Northern Colorado
Portland State
Sacramento State
Southern Utah
UC Davis (football only)
Weber State

Would the Big Sky give up Montana or Montana State? I think it’s safe to say the answer would be no.

Eastern Washington or Weber State? Perhaps, although not likely either.

Northern Arizona or Northern Colorado? Now those would seem to be realistic options.

Geographically, those schools could work. As we know it, the WAC right now is made up of New Mexico State, Idaho, Denver (non football), and Seattle (non football). This alignment goes on the assumption that Boise State will in fact pull its Olympic sports out of the league.

And now this: lets just say right off the bat, the Big Sky/WAC scenario is currently for Olympic sports. Is it the best alternative? No, it doesn’t look incredibly appealing for NMSU if the Aggies were in fact involved in such a move. With that being said, it’s a league, and a league is better than no league at all. And, yes, these Olympic sports do need conference affiliation — independent men’s basketball or women's volleyball at NMSU would be daunting, if doable at all.

Down the road, however, could the WAC act as a football league for Big Sky programs — a league that currently is FCS in football — looking to make the jump to the FBS level?

This has been talked about on the Cruces Sports Blog for some time, and perhaps that would be one benefit for the Big Sky as well in this whole deal.

Not in the immediate future, mind you. The belief here is that the Aggies will be playing independent football in 2013, perhaps 2014 as well. Just read this quote from WAC interim commissioner Jeff Hurd, which appeared in Jason Groves’ Las Cruces Sun-News story the other day.

“In this specific model, I would say the WAC would be operating as a non-football league. We are exploring every conceivable option and this is one of those options....I always think there is hope, but to be realistic, the odds are difficult, certainly at the FBS level.”

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Working the polls: Notes and opinion, as we power rank for 2012 WAC football

(Aggie quarterback Andrew Manley)

Some notes as I'm currently doing homework on my WAC football preseason poll.

The media poll is due next week, and will be released, along with the coaches poll, on July 26.

• On paper, Louisiana Tech is the premier team in the conference, coming off a 2011 WAC championship.

A look at preseason All-WAC members on the league's respective teams according to college football guru Phil Steele, who's preseason magazine is out of this world: Louisiana Tech (21), Utah State (14), Idaho (14), San Jose State (13), New Mexico State (9), Texas State (8), Texas-San Antonio (5).

The biggest surprise here for me here? Idaho, with 14 players on the list.

• I really think some things need to break the Aggies way if they want to push the .500 mark this season — or be bowl eligible.

One of these things is to sweep their rivals in 2012. I think the University of New Mexico will be better this year — they should be better coached — although that would still figure to be a very winnable game for NMSU in Las Cruces.

UTEP was, in many respects, rebuilding last year yet somehow won in Las Cruces — that fake punt/special teams made all the difference in the Aggies 16-10 loss.

Winning at the Sun Bowl won't be easy for NMSU this season, but it's a rivalry game and anything can happen here.

Another scenario would be the Aggies winning two of three games this season against three teams in particular — Louisiana Tech, Utah State and San Jose State. No, this won't be easy, actually quite difficult.

Again, Louisiana Tech is the WAC's premier team on paper, and NMSU gets them in Las Cruces.

The Aggies also host San Jose State, a team that was much improved last year and could make a push atop the WAC standings this season.

And Utah State, another good team, will host the Aggies — this should be a tough game in Logan.

• The No. 1 key to the entire Aggies season could very well be the health and production of quarterback Andrew Manley.

Manley tore his ACL last year as NMSU did a very poor job protecting him — too many seven-step drops for the big-armed passer, and he was out for the season by the end of Week 3.

A healthy Manley has the ability to be a difference maker for the Aggies.

This actually falls in line with some of NMSU's WAC foes — look no further than Louisiana Tech and Utah State, who have signal callers Colby Cameron and Chuckie Keeton under center. Both of these players' health could very well hold the keys to their two teams' respective seasons. Cameron played very well down the stretch last year for the Bulldogs, while Keaton was a spectacular early-season player for the UtAgs before getting hurt. Both have to be out on the field for their clubs.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Monday, July 9, 2012

Independent football: is it possible at NMSU?

Question, and uncertainty, persist about the New Mexico State Aggie football program and their conference affiliation.

One thing I can say: I really believe the Aggies — barring them getting lucky and falling into the Mountain West Conference — will be playing independent football in 2013. Just my thought. Obviously the WAC can’t hold together as a football-playing league with just NMSU and Idaho in its membership. That, and if the conference was to add some FCS programs to the mix in hopes of sustaining its football model, I think the turnaround is too soon to get it done by the 2013 season. Could the Aggies go independent in 2013, maybe 2014, and then hop back into a revamped WAC the following season? Perhaps. It’s one option they could look at. Yet the Aggies have to win no matter where they are — in the WAC, in another conference, or as an independent program. They just have to, or else Division I football here could be in peril.

So the question becomes, could they win as an independent? Well, they’d have to schedule with the intentions of winning, which means playing too many money games is something that can’t happen — two would seem like the number to play, and those would have to be balanced out by two winnable games, perhaps against FCS competition, on the schedule. Another issue with this is the financial component — NMSU received money from being in the WAC. Just think about when Boise State or Hawaii would make a BCS Bowl game, and the Aggies would rake in around $500,000 simply for the respective schools appearances in such contests. So, more than two money games to balance such costs? It might be necessary, but also costly for your football team in other ways.

There are also necessary requirements in scheduling, one of which is to play 60 percent of games against FBS competition, five of which must come at home. Getting such teams to play in Las Cruces could be challenging, although setting up a scheduling agreement with another league — one in which the Aggies would agree to play three or four of the respective conference’s teams on the road, in exchange for three or four return games in Las Cruces from the league’s remaining schools — would seem necessary. That, and the University of Idaho could be in the same boat as the Aggies, so perhaps a home and home with the Vandals could be in order. That, and hopefully getting a rivalry game with UNM and UTEP at home would still be in the cards.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be as bad as advertised — again, with the right schedule in place. Perhaps a more regional schedule could be in the offering. And, while recruiting surely isn’t being helped by the Aggies current situation, do players really care about conference affiliation? To a degree, yes. But, it's also a bit overrated. Players care about competing on the Division I level, and being bowl eligible. And, again, if the Aggies set up a winnable docket, both those things are still attainable.

As stated on the Cruces Sports Blog before, an independent program would only be a short-term solution to the greater issue — finding the Aggies a conference for football. A stop-gap of one year, two years tops. But it’s also doable, if done correctly.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg

Friday, July 6, 2012

Centennial: a new school, and its impact

How much of an impact will Centennial High School have on the Las Cruces sports scene?

It would be absolutely naive to say none. But time will also have to tell much of this story.

Us at the Cruces Sports Blog will try to quantify what it will mean, less than two months before the start of the high school sports season begins.

Lets just start by getting this out of the way — building an athletics program from scratch is hard. Very hard.

Centennial is playing a varsity-sports schedules this year, while competing on the Class 4A level without seniors on its respective athletics rosters. Shortly, they’ll be looking to move up the Class 5A level — the biggest classification in New Mexico.

For all intents and purposes, such moves can be daunting ones.

As far as how much such an addition to the local sports community impacts the other “big three” — Mayfield, Las Cruces High and OƱate — in town?

In the short term, it wouldn’t seem like much.

As far as upper-classmen transfers to Centennial, it doesn’t appear like stalwarts MHS and LCHS lost much in that regard. And those schools have a great deal of tradition and success — those roots run deep in town.

In sports such as football — where, once again, Las Cruces High and Mayfield carry with them a great deal of history — expect the level of play to be comparable to the past, and for their to be minimal affect in 2012. Both should be good teams, playoff teams, perhaps championship teams.

Down the road, however, such a scenario could change.

Freshman classes will now be dispersed to four schools going forward, as students — along with rosters and talent — will be further divided.

For sports like volleyball or basketball? Give a team five good players out of those respective classes — completely doable — and a competitive product is more than attainable.

Of course, football is a much different animal. It’s a sport where a program needs, not just numbers, but quality numbers — as in 25 to 30 players coming from such a class, and that might even be on the conservative side.

In other words, long term, there could be an impact on the gridiron — one where the local excellence from our local programs levels off or is diluted, even for a period of time. No, not this year, or the next, or even the one after that. Five, six, seven years from now? Such a scenario would seem possible, even realistic.

But, again, we go back to history. Good programs — along with good coaching — should remain stable. If they do drop off for a period, they should recover.

Yes, winning will still matter — for this year when the new school officially opens its doors, and the years that follow.

And that goes for all the schools and programs in town. From the ones that have been here, and for the ones that are still to come.

Follow me on Twitter @TeddyFeinberg