Last year, the New Mexico Lobos made their first bowl appearance since 2007, a 45-37 loss to the Arizona Wildcats in the New Mexico Bowl.
Entering the 2016 season, most of the nation expects the Lobos to veer from their 2015 form and finish fifth in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference behind Boise State, Air Force, Utah State and Colorado State. However, while expectations may be low for New Mexico in a lot of people’s minds, the Lobos are in great shape to make back-to-back bowl games. (The last time UNM pulled off the feat: 2006 and 2007 in the New Mexico Bowl.)
New Mexico had a solid offense last year. It averaged 29.9 points and 388 yards per game. In 2016, the Lobos’ offense could be even more potent.
The red and gray return dual-threat junior quarterback Lamar Jordan.
Last year, Jordan completed 51.7 percent of his passes for 1,045 yards, five touchdowns and eight interceptions while adding 940 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. This offseason, Jordan’s main focus was to improve his passing game. If he does, he could resemble a poor man’s Colin Klein (who finished third in the 2012 Heisman Trophy voting), which would be a great scenario for New Mexico.
While Jordan has been working on his passing skills, he will have the luxury of having a reliable receiver from last year.
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Dameon Gamblin returns to Albuquerque after recording 424 yards and two touchdowns on 35 receptions. However, while Jordan does have the comfort of knowing Gamblin is back, he will be miss his big-play threat from 2015.
Last year, 6-foot-4, 210-pound Delane Hart-Johnson was a home-run hitter for the Lobos. He recorded 327 yards and two touchdowns on only 11 receptions. That gives Hart-Johnson an average of 29.7 yards per reception. This year, the vertical route runner is redshirting due to injuries he suffered in a car accident this offseason.
Not having Hart-Johnson hurts, but it should not be too big a blow — the Lobos have a run-oriented offense.
New Mexico had the No. 9 rushing offense in the nation last season. The Lobos ran for 252.2 yards per game. Their top back from last year, Jhurell Pressley, has graduated. However, they do return Teriyon Gipson, who rushed for 848 yards and six touchdowns. The depth behind Gipson is solid, too.
Richard McQuarley is expected to be the main backup behind Gipson. Last year, McQuarley was primarily a goal-line back who tallied 232 yards and seven touchdowns. His 5-foot-11, 218-pound frame gives the Lobos a needed change-of-pace option behind the speedy Gipson. Behind McQuarley will be Daryl Chestnut, who had some quality runs last season including a 64-yard rush against Mississippi Valley State.
While New Mexico certainly has the talent to create a high-octane offense this season, the major key for its offense is to limit its mistakes.
The Lobos were the most penalized team in their division last year, collecting 89 penalties for a loss of 849 yards. New Mexico also turned over the ball 21 times. If its offense wants to be effective, both of those statistics need to decrease for UNM in 2016.
Last year, the Lobo defense was vastly improved under third-year coordinator Kevin Cosgrove.
Only one starter is lost–corner Cranston Jones–from a 2015 unit that allowed opponents 28 points per game and 81.4 fewer yards per game than 2014.
New Mexico returns the whole front six of its 3-3-5 scheme. The linebacker corps of Dakota Cox, Kimmie Carson and Donnie White is one of the best units in the Mountain West.
The front three is deep. It allows the line to stay fresh and create pressure on opposing quarterbacks throughout the entire game.
With the amount of experience coming back to Albuquerque, the New Mexico defense should keep improving this season under Cosgrove.
While the offense and defense both seem capable of leading the Lobos to another bowl game, their schedule will determine if that is possible or not. Looking at New Mexico’s slate, it seems pretty favorable. It’s the kind of schedule which should enable the Lobos to make back-to-back bowl games.
New Mexico doesn’t play an overly strenuous non-conference schedule: South Dakota, New Mexico State and Rutgers outside of MWC play. Three of its hardest MWC games–San Jose State, Boise State and Air Force–are at home or on a neutral site, which gives the Lobos a slight advantage. Last year, New Mexico did beat Boise State on the road and Air Force at a neutral location, so the Lobos’ 2016 schedule does work in their favor to make back-to-back bowl games.
After flying under the radar in coach Bob Davie’s first four seasons, New Mexico made a splash in 2015 by making a bowl game. If Davie and the Lobos want to keep the upward trend going, the offense needs to cut down on mistakes and the defense needs to keep playing solid.