USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
New Mexico State's latest defensive coordinator, Larry Coyer, began his coaching career when Aggies coach Doug Martin was in diapers – and Martin, 51, is the fifth-oldest coach in the Sun Belt Conference, the Aggies' new home after a year spent as an independent, fending off a demotion to the Football Championship Subdivision.
For Coyer, a career that began at Marshall, his alma mater, has gone through Bowling Green, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Iowa, East Carolina, the USFL, the NFL, Houston, UCLA, Ohio State and now, a couple of decades later, New Mexico State. If experience counts, his charge will be to lift a historically inept defense into the range of respectability.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Sun Belt Conference
You'd call Coyer's task Sisyphean, but at least Sisyphus had a rock. In comparison, the Aggies' defense had four players start all 12 games of last season; none return. Of the team's top six tacklers, five must be replaced. Three total sacks return, along with four interceptions, 12 tackles for loss, one forced fumble and six pass breakups.
The Aggies' most recent depth chart includes nearly three times as many freshmen and sophomores, 13, as seniors, five. While February's recruiting class yielded 15 prospects headed for the defensive side of the ball, only one came from the JUCO ranks – meaning this group's impact, if it ever comes, will be felt down the road and not in 2014.
But the good news is that it can't get any worse than last season's full-on meltdown. Case in point: New Mexico's 66-17 slaughter on Oct. 5, when the Lobos gained 541 rushing yards on 56 carries to send the Aggies head over feet into the Gulf of California, or thereabouts.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Any progress New Mexico State makes under a first-year coach will be tempered by the schedule this team will face in its lone season (hopefully) as an FBS independent. The Aggies commonly played two automatic-qualifying teams during non-conference play as a member of the WAC, but this year's schedule includes four: Texas, Minnesota, UCLA and Boston College. In addition, the Aggies will face another two clear bowl teams in Louisiana-Lafayette and San Diego State and a pair of potential bowl teams in Rice and New Mexico. Add in improved opponents like UTEP and Florida Atlantic and you have the recipe for another season of nine or more losses.
In a nutshell: Another 10-loss season for NMSU, though the program played out the string knowing that a move to the Sun Belt Conference – and not the FCS – stood in the near future. That the Aggies struggled wasn't surprising, obviously, and for two reasons in particular: one, the Aggies always struggle, or have since opting to jettison Tony Samuel more than a decade ago; and two, the team was thrown for a loop late in January, when DeWayne Walker opted for a positional spot with the Jacksonville Jaguars with less than two weeks left until signing day. Enter Martin, the former offensive coordinator, and prepare for the worst. Among the lowlights were the worst defense in school history, a weak running game, a 45-point loss to Florida Atlantic and the general disarray we've come to expect from one of the bottom programs in college football.
2014 COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
High point: Beating Idaho in the season finale. The loss doubles as Idaho's low point, as you might expect.
Low point: It doesn't – and won't ever again, if Martin has his way – get any worse than the rivalry loss to New Mexico.
Tidbit: New Mexico State hasn't pitched a shutout at home since Oct. 25, 1975, when it blanked Texas-Arlington. Only nine times in the years since have the Aggies held a home-field opponent to less than 10 points, and only once since 2001, when the program began its first stint in the Sun Belt. NSMU's last shutout altogether? A 31-0 win at Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 29, 2001.
Tidbit (non-conference edition): If we exclude FCS competition – and count every FBS-only game of last season, if that's fair – NMSU is 7-34 in non-conference play since 2005. Of those seven wins, three have come against New Mexico, two against UTEP and one apiece against Idaho and Minnesota.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Bottom five teams in the NFC
1. Tampa Bay
5. St. Louis
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: NMSU's receiver corps is senior-heavy – a very good thing – but lacking in a go-to option, a role held last fall by Austin Franklin. To replace Franklin, the Aggies need one of the projected starters to claim a larger role within an offense titled somewhat to the pass, though Martin and coordinator Gregg Brandon do attempt to provide a nice run-pass balance, often to the detriment of the offense as a whole. Here's what we know: NMSU will be able to cobble together production from a group of Jerrel Brown (33 receptions for 484 yards), Jordan Bergstrom (30 for 206), Adam Shapiro (35 for 431), Joseph Matthews (23 for 313) and Joshua Bowen (39 for 33) – all seniors with the exception of Bowen, a junior. What's lacking is a security blanket, though Brown's certainly reliable, and a big-play threat. When it comes to the latter, the Aggies hope sophomore Teldrick Morgan can fit the bill.
Come August – and hopefully sooner – this Aggies' front will be embarking on its fifth positional coach in four years: Jason Lenzmeier in 2011, Brad Bedell in 2012, Bart Miller in 2013, Steve Marshall from January through late May and Marshall's as-yet-unnamed replacement. After a year of tremendous improvement – the Aggies cut down on penalties accrued and sacks allowed – I wonder if this group can rediscover this momentum with a new coach and a slightly tweaked cast. For example, while the line remains intact from guard to guard, with junior Isaiah Folasa-Lutui and sophomore Abram Holland flanking steely center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, there's trouble on the edges. Perhaps a healthy Andy Cunningham can help matters, likely at right tackle. That still leaves an enormous void on the blind side, one NMSU could fill with converted defensive tackle Matt Ramondo or redshirt freshman Thomas McGwire – a well-regarded prospect who seems unready for such a high-profile position.
When combined with his surprisingly hard-charging running style, Xavier Hall's strong close to last season – he was particularly impressive in a loss to Boston College – sets the sophomore as the Aggies' lead back in 2014. He'll have some company, however. One likely contributor is senior Brendon Betancourt (415 yards), should be remain healthy. NMSU has also tried out safety Jermichael Selders and will add in a pair of true freshmen during the summer, giving depth and options to the running game. It's not a great group, but Hall could develop nicely as the full-time starter.
Defense: The question isn't whether freshmen will play but how many; the question isn't whether NMSU's defense will be awful but how awful, and whether Coyer can unite a troubling combination of neophytes and non-producers into a near-competent attack. In terms of nuts and bolts, look for two changes: NMSU will transition to a 4-3 base set while the secondary leans away from more man-to-man coverage, a nice move for a group lacking athleticism. Not that it'll mean much for this defense, which was atrocious a season ago and might, with some solid coaching and development, be merely terrible in 2014.
Changes are afoot throughout the defense. Consider the line, for example, which lost Ramondo but gained a pair of former offensive linemen in Houston Clemente and Alexander Trujillo. Both will be counted on for snaps along an interior short on size, joining holdovers Jay Eakins, who moves inside from end, and Mason Russell. In fact, don't count out Clemente and Trujillo sharing starting snaps at nose tackle. Senior Clint Barnard (67 tackles) will move from middle linebacker to end, giving the pass rush a boost; the Aggies hope to team Barnard with JUCO transfer Josh Gibbs, a nice addition, and a trio of untested sophomores.
The Aggies will be noticeably quicker on the second level, though the quest for speed comes at the expense of size – an equitable tradeoff, I guess, though this run defense will be shredded to bits should the converted offensive linemen not occupy blockers and create pressure inside the box. Again, look for movement: Samuel Oyenuga has moved from cornerback to the weak side, Dior Moore has moved from the weak side to the strong side and Rodney Butler from the strong side to the middle. While this might not stick in August – six freshmen could alter the lineup – it is clear that NMSU wants more sideline-to-sideline ability from its linebackers. It's a work in progress.
After spending his first three seasons trying his hand at quarterback, running and wide receiver, senior Travaughn Colwell will cap his career at cornerback, where he has a leg up in the race for a starting role. Aiding Colwell's transition into the new position is senior Winston Rose, a clear starter if he remains healthy; if not, Colwell would be teamed with either junior Kedeem Thomas-Davis or a redshirt or true freshmen – and yes, another five rookies set for the backfield arrive this summer. There are more options at safety, though none inspire confidence. One potential starter at the beginning of the spring, Selders, seems destined for running back – though a move back to defense is always a possibility. If Selders does remain on offense, however, the Aggies' top four on the back end could end up being freshmen, sophomores and converted quarterback King Davis III. If Rose is healthy, NMSU needs to use Thomas-Davis at safety.
Special teams: Nowhere is the Aggies' talent level – or lack thereof – more evident than on special teams. NMSU has little punch in the return game, though you'd think one of the many receivers would be able to find more creases on kickoffs; NMSU has even less in reserve in coverage, where even a solid punter and kickoff specialist do little to stem the tide of poor field position. It's a major issue that could be amended with another two or three 25-man recruiting classes.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: NMSU attempted 407 passes last fall; of those 407 attempts, none return to the position in 2014. So it's a good thing Martin and the Aggies inked six – yes, six – quarterbacks in February, with one, JUCO transfer Tyler Rogers, joining the team in time for spring drills. As expected, Rogers holds the edge: NMSU will reopen the competition in August, but the transfer's steady play, growing familiarity with the offense and quick release gives him a leg up on the remaining five newcomers – while pushing Davis III to the defensive backfield, as noted. It's still too early to give Rogers the starting nod. For one, Martin understands the importance of the competition itself: NMSU could use another look at its options, newcomers like Nick Jeanty and others, and it's possible that two quarterbacks share snaps throughout fall camp and even the early season, though that's not a totally palatable scenario. So what's the bottom line? Rogers leads, but this isn't over. And banking on similar production through the air without Andrew McDonald throwing to Franklin isn't a safe bet.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
New Mexico: The rivalry has waffled in recent years, though the Lobos hold the decided all-time advantage. Given the early-season slate, a win against UNM would leave the Aggies in good shape heading into the end of September; NMSU opens with Cal Poly, Georgia State and UTEP, so this could be a smoke-and-mirrors 2-2 team prior to a trip to Baton Rouge on Sept. 27. In all, it's difficult to imagine an easier schedule: NMSU isn't very good, but you couldn't ask for a better way for an in-progress team to boost last year's win total.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: The number of changes – on the field and on the sideline – are matched by the number of holes dotting the two-deep. In the long run, change is good: NMSU needs to bring in fresh blood to reverse this tide, even if we're looking at a multiple-year process before the Aggies are viewed as preseason bowl contenders. At the same time, this specific team has a number of issues to address throughout the roster before the opener; few positions are settled and even fewer secure, so the Aggies are clearly headed toward another losing season.
Let's consider what NMSU does well. For one, the receiver corps is experienced even if there's a clear lack of a go-to target – as of today, at least. The offensive line is strong from guard to guard, which should help the running game. Anything else? There's a new quarterback, whether or Rogers or a rookie, and a major hole on the blind side of the offensive line. The less said of the defense the better, so let's be quick: NMSU's defense is going to be terrible. Overall, this is a younger team that lacks proven production on offense and anything close to an answer at any position on defense. It's a bad combination. It's not a good team.
Now, the schedule will paint a prettier picture. It's safe to call this the smoothest in the country: NMSU takes on one FCS team, one FBS newcomer, one team entering its second season in the FBS, one team new to the Sun Belt and a reigning 10-loss team while drawing New Mexico, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette at home – not that the friendly confines will help the Aggies against the Ragin' Cajuns. By and large, even a team with rampant issues with youth, depth and overall talent should be able to squeeze out three or four wins against this schedule.
Dream season: NMSU goes 6-6 on the back of the nation's easiest schedule.
Nightmare season: The Aggies find no answers on offense and continue to struggle defensively, leading to the program's sixth season with 10 or more losses in seven tries.
Who's No. 114?The closest Bronx-style deli to this university is located on a street named after a state that houses a program that won its final two BCS bowls.