The college football season is set to kick off on Thursday August 28th, with Sean Kugler's Miners opening against the New Mexico Lobos just two days later at University Stadium in Albuquerque, NM.
The game marks the second in a two year home and home series that saw old rivals meet for the first time since 2007. The two had played every year from 1955-1999. No future games have been scheduled as of yet.
New Mexico enters the season following a 3-9 campaign in 2013 that saw them win games against only the Miners, New Mexico State, and Air Force. That game against the Miners also happened to be the season opener, and the two teams needed overtime to decide a winner, before the Lobos finally prevailed 42-35.
Bob Davie enters his third season at the helm in Albuquerque, and he's hoping to rebound from a somewhat disappointing second campaign that saw his team win just those three games, compared to four in year one.
If the Lobos are going to see any sort of improvement in 2014, it will have to start on the defensive side of the ball. A year ago that unit gave up 7.42 yards per play, ranking them 122nd in the nation. That happened to be just one one hundredth of a point better than the Miners who ranked 123rd in the nation at 7.43 yards per play.
Those 7.42 yards a play added up to a total of 516.2 yards a game, including 259.4 through the air and 256.75 on the ground. The Lobo defense also gave up nearly 43 points a game, and managed to force just 10 turnovers on the season, ranking 124th in the FBS.
Starting on the line, the Lobos will have to replace a pair of departed seniors, but bring back budding star defensive end Brett Bowers. As a junior, in 11 games, he tallied 37 total tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 6 six sacks, and 3 forced fumbles.
Sophomore tackle Nick D'Avanzo will likely slide into a full time starting role, after compiling 31 tackles in 12 appearances during his freshman campaign. He had career high with 7 tackles in last year's opener against the Miners.
Much is unknown about the line beyond those two. Three others Lobos return with experience, but they combined for less than 20 tackles in 2013, and 0 tackles for loss.
The middle, a year ago, was filled by a tandem of Dallas Bollema and Dakota Cox who combined for nearly 200 tackles on the season. However, Bollema has graduated, leaving Cox to carry the load with a pair of fairly unproven seniors, and a couple underclassmen.
In 2013, as a freshman, Cox had no problem carrying the load as he totaled 99 total tackles, including 49 solo. However, someone will have to help him fill the void by the departed Bollema.
The secondary looks to be an area of strength for the Lobos in 2014, as they return three of four starters, to go along with a slew of capable reserves who have plenty of game experience.
Corners Cranston Jones and SaQuan Edwards, who combined for nearly 100 tackles and 9 pass breakups, will likely fill the starting roles on the outside, while David Guthrie, the leading returning tackler in the secondary should fill the strong safety spot. The only spot to be determined is free safety.
Offensively, the Lobos will look to maintain, and potentially improve on a 2013 campaign that saw them rank 4th in rushing yards per game at over 300, but 122nd in passing offense. The team did however, average 32.8 points a game, a feat that allowed them to at least remain competitive in most contests.
Both senior Clayton Mitchem and junior Cole Gautsche split time under center in 2013, but Gautsche seems to be the one that fits the system better. Appearing in just 9 contests, he turned in 777 yards on the ground on 118 carries, and 8 touchdowns.
Mitchem proved to be a bit of a better passer, completing nearly 60% of his tosses for 661 yards, a touchdown, and a pick, but Gautsche wasn't too far behind tossing for 639 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. Considering this is a squad that averages more than 50 rushes a game to less than 15 passes a year ago, I'd expect to see Gautsche take the reigns here, or at least take a majority share.
In the backfield, the Lobos will have to find a replacement for 2nd team All-MWC selection Kasey Carrier. Carrier averaged nearly 6 yards a carry, and tallied 1122 yards and 9 touchdowns before going out for the remainder of the season due to injury with still a pair of games to play.
Senior Crusoe Gongbay took over the majority of the workload following Carrier's departure, and averaged 6.1 yards per carry for the season. Look for him to take over the #1 role, and for sophomore Teriyon Gipson and junior Jhurell Pressley to see plenty of action as well.
While the receiving corp hasn't played a huge roll under coach Davie, the Lobos will return their top three receivers from a year ago. Marquis Bundy and Jeric Magnant each had 19 grabs a year ago, and will look to assume to top receiver roles once again.
Perhaps something of note, is where this team stands in the trenches. A veteran line a year ago will have to be rebuilt as they graduated their right guard, left tackle, and center, leaving huge holes along the line.
Senior left guard Lamar Bratton returns as the most experienced player of the group with 37 starts under his belt, but only one other player has more than 10. That should be something to keep an eye on if the Lobos are going to have anywhere near as much success as they did on the ground a year ago.
Special teams for New Mexico are anchored by kick returner Carlos Wiggins who averaged 29.9 yards per return a year ago. He comes in as a preseason pick for first team all conference. Beyond that though, special teams are a mystery as the Lobos will need to replace both their punter and placekicker from 2013.
One thing that has become a certainty with this squad is that they will be running the ball a ton. And, they've developed themselves into one of the better rushing teams in the nation.
In 2013, the Miners ranked 119th in rushing defense, giving up nearly 250 yards a game. That simply can't happen against a team like New Mexico.
All things considered though, this is still a team that will have to find itself defensively, and is going to have to be rebuilding a bit on offense, especially on the line and in the backfield. Should be an interesting matchup for the Miners.