Well, my friends, it's been a long off season, but by God, we made it.
With new players, a new coaching staff, and a fancy new indoor practice facility, Florida begins their climb back to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game, and their first trip to the College Football Playoff. (ESPN said so!) The Gators open up their 2015 campaign against the New Mexico State Aggies, who, in their own way, are in the process of rebuilding towards what their program believes to be its peak.
NMSU finished its 2014 season with just two wins, failing to pick up a single win after starting the year 2-0. Why is that? Who is this team Florida will be lining up against on Saturday, and will they look any different (or more challenging) than the squad they strutted out last year? These are the questions, and I'll attempt to give you the answers.
NMSU head coach Doug Martin took the program over in 2013 after the Aggies finished just 1-11 in 2012. I'm sure Martin knew the situation he was getting himself into: Since then, it's been all about a rebuild. The plan is simple, but it has also been somewhat painful as a fan. The Aggies have been building their program through the high school level, taking a limited amount of transfers since 2013 and planning to really take their shot as a Sun Belterella team in 2016 or 2017. A four-year plan in college football seems like an eternity, but it seems like Martin's plan all along.
One problem with that: New Mexico State is ranked 115th over the last five years when it comes to recruiting.
As you would expect, they're mostly working with two-, and, when they're lucky, three-star recruits. However, their curse of being a low-ranked school also gives them an advantage with certain recruits: Instant playing can be a nice pitch, and it's always available in Las Cruces. Running back Larry Rose III rushed for over 1,000 yards as just a freshman in 2014, and Teldrick Morgan became the team's No. 1 receiver as just a sophomore. There are signs of life with this group as the young recruits come into their own, but experience is scarce, which usually means consistency is as well.
When stacked up against the national average (60.0 percent), NWSU runs the ball just slightly more than average at 60.2 percent. They also have a higher-than-average percentage of running plays in garbage time, both during victories and while staring at a loss. The Aggies had what little success they had in 2014 by riding Rose III, and with another year under his belt, I doubt we see that change.
When it came to the progression of games, NMSU didn't really have a period of catching fire. The Aggies' offense was ranked 117th in the first quarter, 89th in the second quarter, 112th in the third quarter and 88th in the fourth quarter. As their offense got into a rhythm and defenses wore down, their success ticked upward from rare to occasional, but, once again, the team's youthfulness made it difficult to keep the same production for an entire 60 minutes. Downs didn't really matter, either: The Aggies were ranked in triple digits nationally on first, second and third down.
So let's get into some of the practical previews and where we could see New Mexico State have some success (if any), and where UF could be a good counter.
Aggie QB Tyler Rogers is going into his junior year, and quick-tempo passing as his strength. New Mexico State likes to get the ball out of his hand and into the hands of their playmakers as soon as they can. This allows them to control the pace. The problem is, against better secondaries, Rogers has some turnover issues; he finished the 2014 season with 19 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, and threw multiple picks in nine of his 12 games last year. The bottom line is that "Vernon Hargreaves and His Boys" are going to have a field day. I assume NMSU is going to try to play damage control in the early stages of the game, rarely testing the DBs and playing as conservatively as it can, but that won't last. I think two or three interceptions is a possibility, even with a conservative game plan.
In Bill Connelly's preview of New Mexico State, he notes their offensive line may actually be the strength of the team. He writes:
The size and experience here are impressive. Six players return with starting experience (90 career starts), five are at least 6'3, and four are at least 295 pounds. Ume-Ezeoke is a tough player to replace, but the left side looks strong, and it does appear that Rose is adept at taking advantage of the holes he's given. With Rose carrying more of the load, I would assume NMSU will improve on last year's No. 120 ranking in Rushing S&P+.
However: The starting offensive line's recruiting rankings look like: Two-star (LT), two-star (LG), N/A (C), two-star (RG), two-star (RT). Jonathan Bullard and Cece Jefferson have more stars on their own. On paper, that's not great, Cotton.
But going back to what Connelly noted, it's a group that has experience together, if nothing else. They know what they do well, and actually had a lot of success in short yardage situations and a phenomenally low sack rate (No. 1 nationally!) for a team that poor on offense. The right side of the line shows two true sophomores in Candelaria and McGwire. That leaves Bullard and Caleb Brantley the green light all game long; we might even see Jefferson and Cox Jr. get fed. Plus we'll see a decent amount of corner back blitzes from Poole to prove how well that offensive line can communicate.
And you've heard the term "bend, but don't break," right? Well, that's all New Mexico State's defense tried to do in 2014. With hardly any playmaker types and a squad full of freshmen and sophomores, the defense was ranked 128th against the run and 116th overall. The Aggies run a standard 4-3 look and try to get pressure, well, anywhere they can ... but that's the problem. New Mexico State has trouble forcing offenses out of their comfort zone, and every FBS team that played the Aggies in 2014 gouged their defense for better than five yards per play, with seven topping six yards per play.
The starting defense is young and the depth chart is even younger, so don't expect this team to hold Florida to less than 50 points no matter who's at quarterback. Unfortunately for us, that means we won't really learn anything from either Treon Harris or Will Grier lighting up the stat sheet. On the flip side, given that New Mexico State gave up 108 runs of 10 or more yards in 2014, second-to-last nationally, Kelvin Taylor might just run for 200 yards.
So that might be fun.
And that's a wrap on week one. If you followed Alligator Army last year, you know I did comprehensive film breakdowns of each Florida opponent featuring an interview with a beat reporter for the opposing team, but I was pretty limited for this first one as there's not much on NMSU out there. Moving forward, you can expect more of what you're used to, especially as we get more game tape from this season to evaluate.
Also: I'm always open to what you all wish to see from this blog. If the Xs and Os are fun to read, I'll keep doing them, but if there's something else or a different type of preview/breakdown that tickles your fancy, be sure to let me know and I'll do what I can! I'm also looking into the feasibility of recording those conversations I have with opposing team's beat reporters, so they can be more accessible and audible.
Finally: I can't wait to kick this season and Florida's new era off. If you like reading football tweets in ALL CAPS, give me a follow @TrevorSikkema and we'll get through this season together!