With 10 starters returning to a defense that ranked 40th nationally and an offense that runs the ball as well as any team in the Sun Belt, this could be the year that New Mexico State wins its first conference championship since 1978. The Aggies just need to hang on to the football, as turnovers led to a dreadful 2-5 record in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Sound familiar? It should because it's practically the same scenario NMSU faced heading into last season. Coach Tony Samuel's team can look to a handful of plays that made the difference between challenging for the Sun Belt title and its eventual 3-9 ledger. Execution will be the theme in Las Cruces this fall.
OffenseThe players may change, but the New Mexico State offense remains the same. Once again, the Aggies will line up in the Power I, even though they must replace their leading rusher and three offensive linemen. With Tony Joseph, who rushed for 712 yards last season, the transition in the backfield should be seamless. He skipped most of spring practice with a broken hand but will be at full strength in the fall. Joseph's absence made it possible for freshman Justine Buries to play his way into the rotation.
The offensive line will lean heavily to the right where guard Steve Subia and tackle Nick Cole reside. Subia was a unanimous first-team all conference selection in 2003 and is an All-America candidate heading into his final season.
Quarterback Buck Pierce was second in the Sun Belt and 14th nationally in pass efficiency and set a school record for best completion percentage. Paul Dombrowski is a capable and battle-tested backup, having won the Sun Belt's Newcomer of the Year award in '02. The receiving corps is thin, and top returnee Jared Quick missed spring practice with an injury.
DefenseTen starters return to a defense that ranked second in the Sun Belt and 40th nationally, allowing 350.7 yards per game. Aubrey Dorisme tied for the conference lead with six sacks and was named the league's Newcomer of the Year. His running mate at end, Chris Sneed, had five sacks and a team-high 11 tackles for a loss as a freshman. Tackles Chase Spicer and Jared Naylor are stout and tested.
Two starters return at linebacker. Richard Glover has started 23 of his last 24 games on the weak-side, while Jimmy Cottrell, the team leader in tackles the last two seasons, is back in the middle. Letterman Sean Dade and newcomer John Howell will battle for the vacant spot on the strong side.
Free safety Matt Griebel missed four games last season but was still the team's third leading tackler. Strong Safety Dominique Jacobs, the only senior in the secondary, led the team with three interceptions.
SpecialistsSteven Smith proved to be a dependable punter after winning the job early in the season. He averaged less than 40 yards a kick but dropped four inside the 20 and had zero blocked. Redshirt freshman Ryan Guardia inherits the placekicking chores. The Aggies will try to put some life into a return game that allowed four touchdowns and generated little field position.
Final AnalysisOffense is never a worry at New Mexico State as Samuel always finds a way to pile up the yardage. So, even with eight new starters, there's little reason to doubt the Aggies' ability to move the chains.
It's the stout defense that has folks in Las Cruces believing that the Aggies can make a run for their first conference title since '78. If the defense maintains the status quo, and the offense keeps turnovers to a minimum, New Mexico State will be in the hunt for the conference championship. And there's no better time than the present to collect a Sun Belt trophy; New Mexico State departs for the WAC next season.