New Mexico State Trying Their Own Version of Trial by Fire

In college basketball, there are a number of teams that do their best to create a non-conference schedule that is significantly harder than their conference schedule.
In some instances, like Texas Southern or Mississippi Valley State, this is a poor school from a weak conference filling their coffers, but has the fringe benefit that the hard work they had to put in to play those games made conference play a whole lot less intense.
Other schools don’t need the money, but still schedule aggressively as a means of “breaking in” their team by the time conference play rolls around.
In college football, you only get a maximum of four games to do that, so the effect is much less pronounced, and since the talent gap is often wider the jump in competition can often only have so much value.
In the case of New Mexico State, there is no conference play to get rounded into shape for, but that doesn’t mean that the opportunity to challenge your team early on no longer has any merit.
Also in the case of the Aggies, they may push this concept to an extreme in the early going of the next couple of seasons.
For each of the next two seasons, NMSU will open with back-to-back road games.
For this coming season, they’ll start off by making a 2,900 mile round-trip to Pullman, Washington, to face off against a Washington State team coached by some dude named Mike Leach.
They’re no unstoppable juggernaut, but the Cougars have gone 37-15 in the last four seasons since Leach’s recruiting and offensive system have taken root. In New Mexico State’s favor is that of Wazzu’s three home losses in that span that weren’t Apple Cup matchups against Washington, two were season-opening losses to FCS teams.
That said, the Cougars lost a stud quarterback and are still a borderline preseason Top 25 team.
They follow that up by making a 2,250 mile round-trip to Tuscaloosa to face an Alabama team that has only lost four home games since Nick Saban’s first year in charge, none of which have come in the last four years.
Oh, but don’t worry, it will get something resembling easier the following season.
The Aggies will begin the season by making “only” a 1,500-mile trip to Los Angeles to face UCLA, who is no longer an elite program but is still a substantial number of steps above NMSU in talent, resources and so on.
After basking in the glow of the Rose Bowl, the team only gets four days off before turning around for a 2,600-mile round trip and a Thursday game in Birmingham against UAB.
While it’s certainly one of the most winnable non-rivalry games they’ll have the next couple of seasons, it’s still a long road trip on a short week against a well-coached program.
It’s not all doom and gloom. In both seasons those early struggles and strains are followed by a month where the only road trip is a short shot to either Albuquerque or El Paso and some more realistic opponents.
That said, there’s a certain balance to be struck between a number of competing interests here. Getting money games for your program, getting winnable games to reach bowl eligibility, getting attractive road destinations that recruits will be excited about (ala Tuscaloosa or the Rose Bowl), and getting games that will challenge your players to excel but not overwhelm them so badly it stunts their growth.
Hopefully these next couple of seasons achieve that, so that by the time 2021 rolls around and the Aggies are playing damn near a Mountain West Conference schedule, the bar will have been raised.
Got to look good when you’re always auditioning for a new conference.

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