By Albert Luna
Saturday, April 16.
NMSU football is holding its annual Crimson and White Scrimmage, with the conclusion of yet another set of spring practices in the books. The players play hard, the fans come out in pretty decent numbers, yet there’s still something that seems like it doesn’t fit.
It has been on the field for the past two seasons but has an expiration date of just two years more, and on this Saturday in April, the Sun Belt Conference logo remains part of NMSU football.
Obviously by now, most people know that the Aggies’ time in one of the worst Division-I FBS conferences is limited as the Sun Belt has essentially told NMSU (and Idaho) they are no longer welcome to play football in their conference beyond 2017.
Not too surprising, considering NMSU’s reputation as the school with the longest bowl drought. And it was generally expected that not a lot, if any, of FBS conferences would be lining up at the school’s doorsteps to invite the Aggies into their league—which is exactly what has (not) happened.
NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers has been fairly mum on the subject, so there is a whole lot of uncertainty for NMSU’s conference future.
A conference in college sports can mean almost everything. Not only do conferences have direct impacts on recruits and home attendance (household-name universities attract bigger numbers), but also their brand as a whole. A school can gain instant respect and prestige simply from slapping on a particular conference’s acronym next to their name.
NMSU knows this and they know that to get into a somewhat respectable conference going forward, especially in the cash cow sport that is football, they need to perform. That performance can no longer be a long term, exponential plan for growth: it has to happen quickly, and it has to happen in this next season.
Two years can be an enormous amount of time in the conference realignment world. If you need any evidence of this, just go back to the crazy shuffle in 2013 that left NMSU as the odd-school-out and stuck in the now football-less WAC. That being said, so much in college football can be decided on-the-fly in terms of where which schools are going, essentially making a program’s momentum everything. Because of this, NMSU, where traditionally success has been hard to come by, will likely struggle to achieve the kind of success they need to remain in the Sun Belt Conference.
The Aggies must have a winning season this fall and they must make a bowl game in order to keep their chances of staying at the top level of college football. Make no mistake: this next season will have a lasting impact on not only this school but the community for the foreseeable future.
But everything I’m saying is not something that the program doesn’t already know and isn’t preparing for. The face of the program, All-American running back Larry Rose III, says he thinks there certainly is pressure to make a bowl game.
“We don’t think of making a bowl simply because of conference and things like that, but that is a nice added pressure because everyone here wants to make a bowl at the end of the day,” he says. “It’s self-inflicted pressure, if we had to pinpoint it.”
To have a good season, NMSU needs a good start to the season, and the way to do that is to improve the team’s defense.
To accomplish this, the program brought in a new defensive coordinator in Frank Spaziani. And during the spring game, Spaziani’s influence was already apparent, in that the defensive side of the ball had more confidence.
Another important factor in the Aggies’ defense is Jaden Wright, who says the new coach has established a new culture.
“Coach Spaziani is such a good teacher of the game. He’s been right in everything because if we don’t do it his way, we’ll get beat,” he says.
Wright says that players are aware of the situation regarding the school’s conference future but that the coaching staff likes to keep it in the moment.
“We’re just trying to take it one game at a time, one season at a time, and however we do this year, that (conference decision) really is not up to us,” he says.
The third-year defensive back was named the Sun Belt player of the week on one occasion last year and has accepted his leadership role on the team now.
“I tell the guys that nothing that we do will be able to affect tomorrow,” he says. “We all came here to win, that’s one thing people might not get: none of us came here to lose.”
He echoes the same goals as Rose.
“Our biggest thing is that we need to just make a bowl game,” Wright says. “That’s what it comes to.”
Spaziani and the defense certainly seem to have a groove. Rodney Butler, a senior linebacker heading into his final year, says the former Boston College head coach has challenged his players.
“It’s not only in practice, but it’s also in the film room and he’s pushing us into the best we can be,” he says.
If this Saturday in April is any indication of what is to come defensively, Wright and Butler seem to have their side of the ball well in check headed into the summer.
With the defensive revival seemingly already taking place, the team really has all of the weak spots from a year ago basically covered up, at least from a fundamental standpoint as the season continues to get closer and closer.
With these factors, there can be no more, “Next season we’ll get better” attitude, which Las Cruces has heard since 1960. Coaches need to judge their players on bowl success, and in turn, Athletic Director Mario Moccia needs to judge his coaches on this same criterion.
The time to win is no longer in the future for the Aggies, it is now and it’s more important than ever. The only question that remains: Will this team step up to the challenge?
Sports Editor Albert Luna may be reached at ALuna32@NMSU.edu
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