Life as a major college independent football program can feel like being alone on an island.
In this case, going solo is exactly what life is like for New Mexico State.
The Aggies are the only team from the Football Bowl Subdivision to be playing a spring schedule, joining a number of teams from the sport’s lower levels in an attempt to make up for what was lost in the fall due to the pandemic. Still a team without a conference affiliation, NMSU canceled its 2020 season in the wake of the coronavirus, opting for what amounts to a two-game exhibition slate that begins Sunday against Tarleton State. Because New Mexico’s health guidelines prohibit large college sports gatherings, this weekend’s game has been moved from Las Cruces to El Paso’s Sun Bowl, about an hour’s drive from the NMSU campus. The game was supposed to be Saturday but has been pushed to 3 p.m. Sunday.
No fans will be allowed in the stadium and NMSU didn’t officially announce its deal with the University of Texas-El Paso to use the Sun Bowl until Friday afternoon. NMSU will also use the stadium for a March 7 game against Dixie State.
The Aggies had a four-game spring slate. That included a game next weekend against New Mexico Highlands. With Highlands unable to get the required COVID-19 testing for its players, that game has been canceled.
Aggies coach Doug Martin said he would treat this spring as a pair of scrimmages.
“What I was concerned with was, you know, we haven’t been on the field in a year,” he said. “Just to jump back out there — I don’t care how hard you work in the weight room and conditioning and all that — there’s a different conditioning when it’s just football. It’s different movements, it’s quick twitch, it’s changing direction, and that’s when kids tend to pull muscles, you know, hamstrings, groins, things like that, and we have seen a little bit of that.”
Tarleton State is one of four schools from the Southland Conference making the transition to Division I and the Western Athletic Conference next season. One of the top teams in Division II’s Lone Star Conference, Tarleton will be part of the WAC’s entry in the Football Championship Subdivision, one level below NMSU’s status as a Football Bowl Subdivision independent.
The Texans are in the midst of an aggressive eight-game spring schedule that started last weekend with a 40-37 loss at home against McNeese State. Whereas the team is clearly trying to make up for what would have been a farewell tour in Division II, the Texans are facing an Aggies program just trying to keep busy until the 2021 FBS season kicks off in August.
Martin said his roster has just 25 players who previously suited up for the Aggies. NMSU hasn’t played since the 2019 season ended with a loss at Liberty, a span of 447 days. Dozens of players have joined the team since, but none of the mid-year transfers in the last two recruiting cycles will play Sunday.
Martin said the goal is to get as many players onto the field as possible over the next four weeks.
“It’s kind of like an NFL preseason game,” he said. “You want to evaluate everybody, you want to put everybody in game situations and try to improve for the fall.”
Martin said Tarleton State has talent to make waves in the FCS. He said the Texans have a roster good enough to win six games in the Sun Belt Conference, a total that would land them a possible FBS bowl bid.
“Most of their team would play for us right now,” Martin said. “We won’t be taking them lightly.”