ATHENS, GA - NOVEMBER 5: Kenny Turner #3 of the New Mexico State Aggies scores a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on November 5, 2011 in Athens, Georgia. Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Five Decades. Fifty-two years to be exact. That's how long it's been since New Mexico State last played in a bowl game. The 2012 season represents its best chance to end that drought. Unless the Aggies can make it to a bowl this season, it may be many more years before they get another realistic shot.
The Aggies find themselves in a difficult position, because this season very well may be the last season the storied Western Athletic Conference, former home of BYU, plays FBS football. What began with Boise State's departure after the 2010 season continued with Fresno State, Hawai'i and Nevada, and will culminate with Texas State, UTSA, San Jose State, Utah State and Louisiana Tech's departures after this season. This will leave the WAC with just New Mexico State and Idaho as football playing members.
With certain football independence (at least short-term) looming for the Aggies, it would appear that 2012 is do or die for the team with respect to a bowl appearance. The schedule features an FCS opener, a rivalry game at home against New Mexico (one of the worst teams in the FBS over the past couple of seasons under former head coach Mike Locksley), plus games against first-year FBS schools Texas State and UTSA. On paper that gives the Aggies four games in which they'll likely be the favorite. Should they win all four of those games, they'd need to win just two of the remaining eight to be bowl-eligible.
Working against the Aggies is the loss of 19 players who started games last season, including their best three offensive producers in quarterback Matt Christian, running back Kenny Turner, and wide receiver Taveon Rogers. NMSU is also working with its fifth-different offensive coordinator in five seasons and fourth-different offensive coordinator under head coach DeWayne Walker. Jerry McManus takes the reins as offensive coordinator. The good news for the Aggies is that he is an understudy of last year's offensive coordinator Doug Martin who was hired away by Boston College. The Aggies do return last year's opening day starting quarterback Andrew Manley, who went down in the third game with an ACL tear, and stud sophomore wide receiver Austin Franklin will be relied on to fill the shoes of Taveon Rogers.
The Aggies are also breaking in a new defensive coordinator in David Elson. The secondary appears to be the weak link on the defensive side of the ball with four starters gone from last year's squad. The front seven should actually be a strong point for the Aggies this season, and they'll need to be while the secondary figures things out.
There were glimpses last season that the Aggies were ready to turn the corner. A road win over Minnesota, the program's first-ever win over Fresno State, and a general competitiveness that had not been there the previous two seasons under Walker lead many to believe that this is the year the Aggies will end the bowl drought.
The big questions are: can the Aggies overcome the challenge of breaking in two new coordinators? And can the newcomers (and returnees) fill the shoes of the starters who have moved on? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then 2012 could be a special season for the school and its beleaguered fanbase.