Ranking the opponents for 2017, this isn’t a prediction of where each opponent will end up at the conclusion of the season, rather ranking them by how hard they should be to defeat at the point in the season when the Red Wolves face them.
#12. UAPB. The Golden Lions went 1-10 last year and were outscored by 28.5 points per game. Their lone victory was a three OT affair on ESPNU over Alcorn State who won the SWAC East, while they lost 41-7 to 1-10 and last in the SWAC East Mississippi Valley State. SWAC West champion Grambling State beat UAPB 70-0. The Lions also lost to Division II Oklahoma Panhandle State.
The third game of the season will be an opportunity to work on a few things, then let the inexperienced guys get some game experience.
#11. Texas State. I’ve run this exercise three times since the schedule was announced. I’ve dropped Texas State down. Head Coach Everett Withers is why I’m not sold on the Bobcats. A first-year head coach is a mystery for opponents so the first part of the season other teams are guessing what you are doing which is an advantage but it’s gone by mid-season. After that mid-point, if things are going okay, the players are starting to buy in.
Texas State went 2-4 the first half of the season, they not only went 0-6 down the stretch they didn’t play anyone within 21 points. NMSU rolled them by 40 and Texas State was down 41 before they ever scored. That doesn't look like the player bought in.
What sealed it for me was out of the blue at their spring game, Withers told the media he did not like the 2016 squad. He added this team has less talent but he likes the players more. Last time a coach told me that a 4 win AState team turned around and again only won 4. Just to add to my distrust, James Madison won four more games after he left than he did his last year and they were worse at home than on the road under Withers.
The Bobcats have a favorable schedule and catch the Red Wolves the week after what is likely a tough battle at South Alabama. If Mississippi State transfer QB Damian Williams excels, then I’m going to miss this one. Until proven wrong, I’m skeptical of Texas State.
#10. New Mexico State. The Aggies went 2-6 in the Sun Belt and 3-9 overall last year. It is the last season of Sun Belt play for NMSU, the Aggies will have Doug Martin back as head coach. The 3-9 record last season matched the best under Martin who was 3-9 in 2015 as well but they won one fewer Sun Belt game in 2016. NMSU was 2-2 in games determined by a touchdown or less but 1-7 in games decided by more points.
Larry Rose III is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. Tyler Rogers was granted an extra year medical redshirt so they may be in better shape at QB than last year. The problem for the NMSU offense is it is built on two guys who couldn’t stay healthy. If they stay healthy, the Aggies could improve a good bit.
Defensively the Aggies were
The core problem at NMSU isn’t that the first 11 on each side is out-classed, it’s depth. Look at punt and kickoff returns. The Aggies gave up big yards on returns but couldn’t muster anything for their returners. Special teams often give you a big clue about depth and that looks to be the biggest issue.
If Larry Rose III is healthy after an injury-plagued season in 2016, this may be underestimating NMSU but I don’t think they have the horses. The schedule is awful for them, they could come into the game winless while AState gets a long week after playing the Cajuns.
#9. Coastal Carolina. Last year as an FCS independent transitioning to FBS, the Chanticleers seemed to have played QB by committee, a better committee than you normally see. That may not be an improved situation in 2017 with Syracuse transfer Austin Wilson joining the team. The Chants could be in a situation where the QB situation is unsettled.
The Chanticleers finished rated #18 in FCS last year with a 10-2 record and their only losses coming to ranked FCS schools, both losses by one point.
The Red Wolves will be coming off a long week after a mid-week game at Georgia Southern while CCU is coming off a home game against Georgia State. If Coastal is competitive off the bat they could have a lot of confidence. They start with UMass at home, a game they should have a decent shot to win. Take a week off and play at the renewed UAB Blazers, host a middling FCS team in Western Illinois, go to ULM, then host Georgia State. That’s a schedule that gives them a chance to come into AState thinking they can compete. Their schedule situation is nearly the complete opposite of NMSU where the Aggies don't get much of a chance to build confidence.
#8. ULM. I’m going to talk coaches again. Everyone seems high on Viator, color me skeptical. He never won a playoff game at McNeese State, a place where winning playoff games used to be taken for granted. None of their four wins were surprising except for the home win over USA but USA was a mess in conference play.
ULM has the potential to be dangerous. They return 7 starters on offense including QB Garrett Smith who missed half of last season. They’ve added depth at RB and OL via FBS transfers.
Defense might be the grand mystery. They return 9 starters so they should be better but they were one of the ten worst defenses last year. The unknown is whether experience was the issue or they just weren’t good enough athletically. Safe to bet with more experience they will improve.
The schedule works out fairly well. If ULM runs through the season as expected, they will have clinched a losing season at least by the Auburn game which is the week before AState. The bad part is the AState game will be their senior day as it’s the season ender for them while the Red Wolves have Troy to look forward to the next week.
I expect AState to be better than ULM but this a game built for trouble falling on the Saturday of Thanksgiving, the same schedule slot that ULL used to beat AState and save their hopes to get bowl eligible.
#7 South Alabama. I nearly put USA at the #6 spot, the schedule led me to put them at 7. USA will be coming off a home game against the Cajuns while AState travels to USA after an open date.
USA ended up 6-7 in 2016 and lost four games by a TD or less but they also won four by a TD or less. Statistically speaking they probably ended up exactly where they should have. The problem is you would expect more from a team that beat Mississippi State and MWC champion San Diego State.
It’s a Joey Jones team, that means the defense will be tough again. They lose a good pass rusher but add back DE Jimmie Gipson and DT Tre Alford, two expected starters who missed all of the 2016 season.
On offense… well it’s a Joey Jones team. The four-game run to end the season made the offense look good but they did it against a bad FCS team, NMSU, ULM and Idaho. Of them only the Vandals made a bowl but they gave up a lot of points most of the year.
Graduation hit the receivers hard. Dallas Davis was inconsistent at QB, looking good at times, then showing poor decision making. To be fair, he was pressured a lot with USA giving up 31 sacks. The running game wasn’t very good and doesn’t look to be much better. Without a credible rushing attack, defenses are coming hard for Davis again.
The extra time will be a positive for AState. The Red Wolves had to come from behind to win in Mobile in 2015 and 2013.