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's offense has roots in a previous century of college football – no, not the last century, but the one before that. All that's missing are the leather helmets.
Last year's team attempted 177 passes, the fewest of any non-service academy. In 2012, the program's first season under former Notre Dame coach Bob Davie, the Lobos made 154 attempts, fewer than Air Force and Navy. During the last six years, no Football Bowl Subdivision program outside of the Cadets, Falcons and Midshipmen have been so averse to the forward pass.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Mountain West
Or, thought another way, no program outside of the three academies has been as dedicated to grinding out yardage on the ground. Last year's offense gained 3,706 yards on the ground, seventh-most in the FBS, a total highlighted by a made-for-message-boards 541-yard, seven-touchdown performance in a satisfying rivalry win against New Mexico State.
But part of the Lobos' identity was born from necessity. The program Davie inherited two years ago wasn't just broken but nearly nonexistent, with fewer players on scholarship than any roster in the FBS – and exactly zero players with winning experience. In many ways, UNM's lone hope of competitiveness was to turn back the clock; back went the clock.
Two years later, a deeper roster could stand a slight upgrade. To be more than competitive – to reach the postseason – UNM might need to blend more balance into this run-heavy offense, giving the opposition another look from a physical attack. Then again, that doesn't help address the Lobos' biggest concern: defense.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Here's what I'm thinking: UNM again starts strong, winning as many as four of its first six – or three, or at least two – but again falters down the stretch as a tougher schedule of opponents meets a team still not deep enough to handle the rigors of an entire season. What's the best-case scenario? UNM starts 4-2 and wins two conference games against teams like Wyoming, Utah State, Air Force and Colorado State, reaching bowl play. Worst-case? The Lobos' lack of offensive ingenuity and extremely questionable defense leads to a drop back into the 10-loss range.
In a nutshell: The season was lost early, in my opinion, after the Lobos failed to make hay against the winnable stretch of the schedule. UNM went into the season knowing any postseason goals hinged on a solid start; rather than take advantage, however, the Lobos opened 2-6, losing to UTSA, UNLV and Wyoming along the way. It was over by that point: UNM lost three of its last four, allowing a total of 180 points in the three defeats. As you might imagine, the defense was an issue throughout. The Lobos ended the year ranked 121th nationally in total defense, second-to-last in interceptions, 122nd in stopping the run and 120nd in scoring. The defense was bad as any seen during the failed Mike Locksley era – so it was pretty terrible, obviously.
High point: Giving New Mexico State the business on Oct. 5.
Low point: Either the Lobos' inability to start strong or the utter collapse of this defense in November. Take the early-season stretch, as the defense might not collapse with some confidence under its belt. The defense sill would have collapsed, I guess.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
Tidbit: For the first time in the league's history, a team other than Air Force led the Mountain West in rushing yards per game. The Lobos averaged 308.8 yards per game, well ahead of Air Force (262.67) and the fourth-best average in the FBS. UNM also scored 40 touchdowns on the ground, the eighth-most in the country and the second-most in school history, trailing only the 42 rushing scores in 1971.
Tidbit (solid edition): What are a few signs of good coaching? Try these: Last season, UNM finished third nationally in penalty yards, fifth in penalty yards per game, seventh in turnover committed and 10th in red-zone offense. Those are positive signs.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Linebackers taken in the 2000 NFL draft
1. Brian Urlacher, Chicago
2. Julian Peterson, San Francisco
3. Lavar Arrington, Washington
4. Keith Bulluck, Tennessee
5. Marcus Washington, Indianapolis
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse's system does one thing, and does it well. Would it be nice if UNM could blend a touch of the pass into this run-centric attack? Of course. But the Lobos know how they butter their bread, on the ground and with heavy strokes, and any shift in 2014 will be felt only subtly, if at all. The first step toward matching this recent production: New Mexico needs to find a running back to replace the void left by Kasey Carrier, a major producer as an upperclassman. With Crusoe Gongbay's position with the program in doubt, expect UNM to look further down the depth chart and suffer little decline in production – one of the beauties of this system.
The running game will turn to some combination of junior Jhurell Presley (273 yards), sophomore Teriyon Gipson (220 yards), junior David Anaya (103 yards), redshirt freshman Romell Jordan, JUCO transfer Jakari Johnson and true freshman Tyrone Owens. Yes, it's a long list – but it's an offense with room to spare for as many as six potential options. And with Carrier gone, UNM will almost certainly take a by-committee approach to replace the lost production. Better yet, these running backs will get a helping hand from the Lobos' quarterback and the receiver corps. This running game loses a star but won't lose its stride.
One receiver who bears a word or two is junior Carlos Wiggins (13 receptions for 131 yards), a score-three-ways athlete with the explosiveness to stretch the field in the slot, on the perimeter or coming out of the backfield. As we'll note below, Wiggins is particularly dangerous in the return game. But in the passing game – such as it is – the Lobos' most reliable targets are senior Jeric Magnant (19 for 294) and junior Marquis Bundy (19 for 261). Magnant in particular makes the most of his limited opportunities as a non-blocker, giving UNM a clear go-to focus when the offense does opt to pass.
The losses up front are a little concerning, but again: UNM has a style – think of the offspring of a marriage of the option and the pistol – that allows for players to shuffle into the lineup without a significant hiccup, should the newcomers use proper technique. That's the case up front, at least, where the Lobos replace three veterans with a few holdovers with limited starting experience. The most game-tested returning linemen are at guard, where the Lobos bring back LaMar Bratton and Jamal Price; at right tackle, UNM also returns junior Johnny Vizcaino, a 10-game starter in 2013. Sophomore Garret Adcock, an eight-game starter in 2012, seems like a logical fit at center after taking a redshirt last season.
Defense: It's hard to take the Lobos seriously as a potential bowl participant until this defense fulfills its end of the bargain – and don't look for that to occur in 2014. Issues abound: UNM houses a one-man pass rush, which isn't optimal; will be extremely reliant on JUCO transfers to fix a woeful run defense, which is a boom-or-bust way to address an issue; is playing musical chairs at linebacker in search of aggressive production; and if experienced, the secondary is still lacking in consistent production. There's no solid area, in other words, and several soft spots capable of exploitation.
The line needs the JUCO additions to take charge in the middle. Three will be counted on from the start: Taylor Timmons, Cole Juarez and Jack Ziltz. Each has size, which is a start; now each must grasp the system, giving the Lobos another trio of wide bodies – four if we count true freshman Aaron Jenkins – to team with returnees Nik D'Avanzo (23 tackles) and Dominic Twitty. At end, the Lobos revolve around senior Brett Bowers (30 tackles, 6.0 sacks), that one-man wrecking crew responsible for the lion's share of the team's pass rush. A few new faces could conceivably lend a hand: Garrett Hughes is a really nice prospect, Randy Williams has played, William Udeh can be used in a pinch and junior Paytron Hightower and redshirt freshman Sam Mabany are poised to contribute. But Bowers cannot – absolutely cannot – be relied upon for the entire pass rush.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove – new to the job after two seasons as a positional assistant coach – has tweaked the linebacker corps to help fill two open spots. The first was shifting two outside linebackers: Javarie Johnson (31 tackles) moves to strong side, replacing Richard Winston, who assumes Johnson's former role as the Lobos' hybrid edge rusher. It's now or never for Johnson, a former four-star recruit with the skill set to excel in space. Inside, Cosgrove will team returning starter Dakota Cox (75 tackles) with JUCO transfer Ryan Langford, an early enrollee. Don't envy Langford, who takes on the task of supplanting Dallas Bollema, one of the program's defensive bright spots during an otherwise dreary five-year stretch. In total, the front seven has much to prove.
In comparison, the secondary is in good shape. Only one cog in last year's rotation, Dante Caro, must be replaced; the Lobos return not only most of the two-deep but add a number of first- and second-year contributors aiming for an uptick in playing time. Given how many defensive backs UNM shuffles in and out of the lineup, there's a good chance that youngsters Jadon Boatright, Isaiah Brown and Ricky Bennett see the field in 2014 – and there's a chance that one or two break into the starting lineup with a set of strong showings in reserve. But the top five or six seems fairly set: Cranston Jones and SaQwan Edwards top the depth chart at cornerback, hopefully forcing more turnovers, while David Guthrie – the best of the bunch – Devonta Tabannah, Jamal Merritt and Brandon Branch lead the charge at safety. This isn't going to be a dynamic group, but UNM is only a pass rush away from solidly defending the pass.
Special teams: After scoring three times on kickoff returns last fall, Wiggins enters 2014 as an All-American candidate in the return game. While UNM can rely on the junior to shift field position, the Lobos' special teams will take a step back without punter Ben Skaer and kickoff specialist Justus Adams, two of the best in the Mountain West.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: There's no debate over the starter, seeing that Cole Gautsche (777 yards rushing) continues to stand as the Lobos' strongest option under center. The issue is health: Gautsche battled concussions last fall – though he showed no lingering effects during the spring – so UNM must have a few trustworthy options in reserve. One is senior Clayton Mitchem, a former JUCO transfer who showed a smidge more production in the passing game as Gautche's injury replacement but lacks the mobility and pocket presence to be a full-time answer under center. In limited doses, however, and in certain situations, Mitchem can be a useful asset. If Gautsche does miss extended time, UNM is more likely to turn to one of two redshirt freshmen, Lamar Jordan and Caleb Kimbro; come the fall, the Lobos will add in another pair of options in freshmen JaJuan Lawson and Patrick Reed.
Outside of staying healthy – and don't look for him to change his running style – Gautche's biggest challenge is in the passing game: UNM needs him to take another step forward, following the growth between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Now, Gautsche is never going to be pinpoint, and Davie and DeBeese understand that. He can continue to make the most of his opportunities, however, drawing defenders toward the line of scrimmage and dropping passes over the top. Last fall, the Lobos tied for 35th nationally in yards per attempt despite ranking 122nd in passing yards per game; Gautsche could be even more per-pass productive this fall.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
UTEP: Once again, the Lobos must get off on the right foot. And once again, the schedule presents that opportunity: UNM opens with games against UTEP, New Mexico State, UTSA and Air Force – and the Lobos need to take three of four to reach bowl play. November isn't terrible, what with UNLV and Wyoming on the docket, but the final month does include three road games.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: It's hard not to admire how Davie has slowly developed New Mexico's offense, identity and overall depth since stepping back into coaching, first reversing the Lobos' awful mentality – a team totally broken by the previous regime – and then addressing the lingering issues and concerns dotting the roster. To say this isn't evident would be ridiculous: UNM is miles better today than before Davie's arrival, and has now created enough of a foundation for this program to eventually turn the corner and return to the postseason.
But I don't see that happening in 2014. One reason stands out above all others: New Mexico's defense isn't up to snuff. If you look at the big picture, this clearly remains a byproduct of prior mismanagement. For two years – and now three – Davie and DeBesse have been able to out-scheme a lack of horses with an unorthodox, often unstoppable offensive attack with roots in college football's past. On defense, however, UNM has been unable to locate a similar approach, leaving the Lobos lagging in comparison to this powerful offense. Better days are ahead, but I simply don't see the personnel Davie and Cosgrove need to bring this defense up to speed.
Other issues are in play, like the still-growing nature of the passing game, but the defense looms larger than the rest. Which is unfortunate for two reasons: one, because the offense is just about ready to charge toward six wins, and two, UNM deserves to return to the postseason. Davie has done all the right things; the program isn't built softly but powerfully, with a core sense of self-confidence and a matching identity. Six wins are coming, but I think the Lobos come up short in 2014.
Dream season: New Mexico grinds out seven wins on the backs of a punishing offense and an improved defense.
Nightmare season: The Lobos' defense again comes up short, leading to the program's first 10-loss season under Davie.
Who's No. 109? This university is named after a philanthropist who born in the North but gave generously to South during the Civil War.