Catch up on previous 2022 opponent previews!
There are a ton of hard jobs in college football. Vanderbilt is a smart-kid school in the most talented college football conference in the country. The military academies have to deal with under-talented, lighter-weight players who then have to turn around and serve in their branch of the military for another five years of active duty (and three years in the reserves). Eastern Michigan has no successful history to speak of and very little financial support.
And then there’s New Mexico State. Where do we start?
Lack of historical success? Check. Since the Aggies got rid of Warren B. Woodson - architect of an undefeated 1960 season and a 63-36-3 career in Las Cruces - in 1967 for “reaching retirement age” and “needing to step aside”, the Aggies have had four (4) winning seasons. FOUR WINNING SEASONS! SINCE 1968!
Lack of natural recruiting base? Check. Las Cruces is about an hour from El Paso and Juarez and...that’s it. The last census had the state of New Mexico at barely over two million people and, while NMSU is super close to Texas, the actual football talent in Texas is located on the east side of the state - a whopping 10-hour drive away, which is somehow only an hour shorter than driving from Las Cruces to Los Angeles. As an added benefit, the small “international” airport features mostly private planes and has not had a commercial passenger flight since 2005. So there’s very few in-state recruits worth investing in and it’s natural 8-hour recruiting radius has little else to offer with no easy, quick transportation out.
Lack of financial support? Check. Since the crumbling of the WAC and their ousting via the Sun Belt, New Mexico State has existed as an FBS independent, featuring no conference financial support or television revenue dollars coming its way. That means New Mexico State needs to take on a constantly unfavorable schedule with FBS programs that will pay a ton to have them lose a road game with no promise to return. There isn’t enough money to support the NCAA-allowed ten assistant coaches and their head coach is making less than $600,000 per year.
Here’s what New Mexico State’s SP+ performance looks like since 2005. As a reminder, that line with the years on it represents an “average” college football team...and yes, New Mexico State’s SP+ rankings are below that line...by a lot:
Four winning seasons in 55 years is awful and the SP+ graph backs that up. Since 2005 they’ve played 26 P5 programs and have gone 1-25 with a lone win at Minnesota in 2011. The average score of their P5 beat downs: New Mexico State 14 - Opponent 49. Against SEC foes in that time frame: 0-13, average score of NMSU 13 - SEC Team 51. They’ve scared a few P5s in that time - Boston College won by 14, Arizona State won by 6, Kentucky gave up 42, and, of course, Minnesota lost by 7 - but for the most part NMSU shows up to get sandblasted and cash the check to keep their excellent basketball team churning (and the entire athletic department operational, of course).
Twice in the past 17 years the Aggies have had an SP+ rating of -10.3 or better with all the other teams of the era finishing at least 17-points worse than the average college football team. The Aggies have one bowl win in 2017 that they can proudly hang on to forever but it’s been a massive decline since then.
Here’s what New Mexico State did last year:
Hey, at least they beat UMass handily! And even held off an upset bid from one of the worst FCS teams in the country! I want New Mexico State to do well so badly but...well, it’s just one of the toughest gigs in the sport and certainly isn’t getting any easier.
Jerry Kill - 1st Year - 0-0 (0-0)
Doug Martin did everything he could in his eight years at the helm - including getting that bowl win and a winning season - but his time was done and the administration decided not to renew his contract. So they went with an older coach in the twilight of his career with plenty of experience that operates well with an underdog-mentality: former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill.
You all should remember Coach Kill: if you followed Missouri high school football in the 80s you knew him as the guy who kickstarted the Webb City high school football dynasty. If you were a Tiger fan in the mid-aughts you remember his Golden Gopher squad as Citrus Bowl foils to the the 2014 Tiger squad that won the East with one of the best defenses ever crafted.
So why is Jerry taking on the challenge of the hardest build in the sport? Well, Coach Kill was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2005 (since in remission) and has battled a series of seizures since the 2011 season. After suffering three seizures in three years during his career with the Gophers, Kill decided to resign as Minnesota’s head coach. He tried a comeback as Rutgers’ OC in 2017 but had the same medical issues during the season and resigned once again. Since then he’s been acting as a true assistant coach, mostly as an advisor for staffs from Virginia Tech to TCU. Whether he is actually healthier or just at the point where he’s looking to try again, he is tasked with pulling the Aggies out of several lifetimes of ineptitude. Most importantly, lets hope that he is healthy enough to take on this task with no further medical scares.
Tim Beck - Offensive Coordinator: Since 1987 Coach Beck has worked at two schools: Pittsburg State and TCU, the latter of which was a one-year stint as an offensive analyst. Beck’s career hasn’t taken him too far from the Gorillas of southeast Kansas, starting as a GA, then assistant, then defensive coordinator, then offensive coordinator from 1994-2009 before becoming the head coach up until 2019. Much like his boss, he is incredibly experienced and used to making the most out of nothing but doesn’t know the area well and only has one year of experience at the FBS level.
Nate Dreiling - Defensive Coordinator: Missouri fans have actually seen Dreiling before as he was SEMO’s linebackers coach last year. At 31 years old Dreiling is incredibly young and inexperienced as a DC since his only experience as a coordinator was with Beck at Pittsburg State for one year. The good news for him is that any slight improvement he can craft will be noticeably good and he (should) have as long of a leash as necessary to implement his vision.
Melvin Rice - Co-Defensive Coordinator/Safeties
Ghaali Muhammad-Lankford - Running Backs
Tony Sanchez - Wide Receivers
Tyler Wright - Tight Ends
Andrew Mitchell - Offensive Line
Cliff Odom - Defensive Line
As bad as the offense was last year at least they had an identity! That identity: throw the dang ball. The Aggies had one of the worst run rates in the country in both standard and passing downs and were fully committed to the forward pass. Unfortunately they weren’t very good at it (79th in passing success rate) and suffered from quarterback inaccuracy and wide receiver dropsies (three receivers targeted more than 30 times had a drop rate of 6.3% or worse...yes, that’s really bad). And while NMSU was slinging 516 passes (not counting sacks/scrambles) the run game only had 328 attempts, 91 from quarterback Jonah Johnson. They didn’t move quickly, they gave up a ton of havoc plays, couldn’t convert on 3rd down...and benefited from a +3 turnover margin, 40th in the nation. If passing was an actual strength or just a necessity will be moot this year as Kill and Beck are attempting to overhaul the roster with JUCOs and hoping their overlooked high school recruits can make an immediate impact.
Quarterback - Diego Pavia - Junior
The JUCO infusion starts with the signal caller, as local product Diego Pavia - who led New Mexico Military Institute to a national championship last year - ended the spring sessions as the favored starter from a scrum of four quarterbacks. Last year’s promised quarterback savior, Weston Eget, had some game experience last year but seems like the clear #2. The fact that a JUCO QB came in and won the job so quickly doesn’t say much about the quality of the quarterback room but Pavia is an interesting weapon that could help buoy a new offense with his improvisational abilities.
Running Back - O’Maury Samuels - Redshirt Senior
Jawaun Price was, essentially, the only running back last year as he earned 692 yards and 10 touchdowns on 135 carries. He’s gone, as is last year’s second-leading rusher, quarterback Jonah Johnson, with 91 carries, 394 yards, and 4 touchdowns. So NMSU’s leading returning rusher is O’Maury Samuels and his 202 yards and 1 touchdown over 65 carries. Additionally, the Aggies will be looking to replace their center and right side of the offensive line. But, again, NMSU is the college football version of “Last Chance U” and has loaded up on JUCO reinforcements. Specifically, JUCO transfer Jamoni Jones and TCU transfer Ahmonte Watkins will have plenty of opportunities to split starter-level reps at running back while JUCO center Canaan Yarro impressed the staff during spring ball.
Wide Receiver - Terrell Warner - Graduate Student
As I said in the intro, NMSU wasn’t good at passing but it was the one thing they were willing to do over and over again. So its a good time for an offensive philosophy overhaul as the Aggies lose six of their top seven receiving targets from the 2021 season. The lone returner from that group is Warner who caught 38 passes on 65 targets for 334 yards. Tight end Thomaz Whitford also returns, for what its worth, with his 19 catches on 27 targets and 206 yards. And former Mizzou receiver Dominic Gicinto is still on the team, though he was rarely used last year (16 targets, 9 catches, 95 yards). Once again its JUCOs to the rescue as Laney College product Ta’ir Brooks was a revelation in the spring game, as was the lightly used senior Justice Powers. Coach Kill was effusive in his praise of the receiving corps, saying it was the best unit of spring which is certainly what you’d want to hear from a unit that lost nearly every productive member.
There were 130 schools playing FBS-level football in 2021. That’s 130 offenses and 130 defenses to choose from...and New Mexico State’s defense ranked 129th. They were the absolute worst defense in the country in limiting explosive plays and the second-to-worst defense in passing down situations. But that only mattered so much as they ranked 125th against the rush and 115th in standard down situations. There was simply nothing they did well and, outside of some havoc-y linebackers, not much to build around. Good thing Coach Kill and Nate Dreiling will have six years to figure things out!
Defensive Line - Donavan King - Senior
Kill and Dreiling are transitioning the Aggie defense from a 3-4 hybrid to a straight-up 4-2-5 alignment but, in an effort to continue to utilize the roster of rush end specialists that they inherited, Dreiling is using a similar 4-2-5 scheme that Ryan Walters utilized in his last years at Mizzou, with three down linemen and a rush end as the four-man front. King is more of a traditional defensive end that can play the run and rush the passer equally but will be looked to for production against both as he lead all lineman last year with 11 pressures and 2.5 sacks. Mike Edwards (no relation) didn’t see much playing time last year but impressed as a rush end during spring practices.
Linebacker - Chris Ojoh - Senior
New Mexico State’s linebackers were the best unit the team fielded last year and might be again this year (assuming the wide receiver praise is mostly talk at this point). Chris Ojoh and Trevor Brohard (whose picture you should absolutely look up on the football roster) combined for 8 sacks and 19 TFLs while ranking second and third in leading the team in tackles. They weren’t always the most accurate in their tackles but they were aggressive, disruptive, and basically the only thing the defense had going for it. The fact that both return is a massive positive but they’re going to need a few other individuals to step up around them to assist.
Defensive Back - D.J. McCullough - Senior
McCullough played almost every defensive snap possible from his corner spot, logging 28 total tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBUs, and 3 INTs. Michigan transfer Andre Seldon should immediately become one of the starting safeties while some rotational pieces and, of course, an influx of JUCO prospects will round out the five-man secondary. Last year’s pass defense was an absolute liability so a.) don’t expect too much here, and b.) it’ll be super easy to improve since it’ll be, literally, impossible to rank any worse!
So what does it all mean?
Look...Missouri wins this game 99 times out of 100. They have better resources, better athletes, and are playing at home. Can the Tigers lose? Yes, absolutely, it’s college football, anything can happen. Will it be damning on the Drinkwitz staff and a massive cause of concern if they lose? Also yes, and you all know I don’t take those types of stances ever. If New Mexico State were to improve by 3 touchdowns - a feat so incredible, so immaculate, it would be considered one of the greatest one-year improvements of all-time - the Aggies would still be a full field goal worse than the average college football team and six points worse than last year’s Missouri team. Missouri should be able to roll out their D-level game and win (not handily, mind you, but win). You sign up to play (and pay) the worst program in college football history to get yourself an easy win and if you don’t then you have royally effed up. I love New Mexico State and hope they find success eventually in their lifetimes but this should be a one-week tune up before Missouri takes on the Dark Horse SEC West contender six days later.