The outline of these opposition previews is intended to gradually move toward what applies to Notre Dame. Discussing last season broadly before diving into the specifics of what the Irish should expect from each opponent makes sense chronologically and allows a foundation to be laid to explain changes or roster developments. Let’s throw that out the window today.
For the first time ever, a former Notre Dame head coach will lead an opponent into South Bend. Before discussing New Mexico’s four-headed quarterback competition, before pondering the benefits of bringing in 13 junior college transfers, before wondering how two new coordinators could lead to success, let’s discuss Lobos head coach Bob Davie.
Frankly, it is a surprise Davie is still around to create this occasion. Back-to-back 3-9 seasons never do much for job security, even less so when a new athletic director is in charge of your job status. Add in a 30-day suspension in the spring of 2018, right between those dismal years, and Davie returning for 2019 was not expected by all that many.
Those interested in that suspension already know its details. They are unsavory, at best. Davie may not have attempted to exert influence in cases of sexual assault alleged against his players, but the allegations he did cast enough doubt to at least prompt that suspension.
More than a year in the past, that will not be the reason New Mexico eventually dismisses Davie. Unless he finds some recipe for success this season, poor on-field performance will lead to his firing.
Then again, it was always a surprise just to see Davie land with the Lobos. He spent a decade in the television booth after coaching the Irish, and he was inarguably good at that job. Moving to the Southwest may have made familial sense, but to spend eight years coaching a lower-tier Mountain West program is not what is expected from a former Notre Dame head coach.
Davie did not originally find success in Albuquerque, either, failing to crack four wins in each of his first three seasons there, but the program was coming off three consecutive 1-11 years upon his arrival. 4-9 was, simply put, improvement. When New Mexico went to consecutive bowl games in 2015 (7-6) and 2016 (9-4), Davie had seemingly brought the program through its struggles. The Lobos even won that latter bowl game, 23-20 against UTSA in the New Mexico Bowl.
But aside from those two seasons, it has not been an impressive tenure, and there is little reason to expect it to last much longer. Given the trip to Notre Dame is New Mexico’s second game of the year, it is safe to presume Davie will have his chance to see his old stomping grounds, but anything worse than 5-7, and even that, could spell the end of his head coaching days. For context: Bookmakers peg the Lobos’ season win total over/under at 4.5.
The optimist looks at New Mexico’s second 3-9 season in a row as the result of injuries, but they alone do not explain going 1-7 in the Mountain West, the sole victory against rival New Mexico State. To continue to lean on bookmakers for context — this is not a program with many common reference points — the Lobos went 4-8 against the spread last year, including 1-6 to close the season.
More to the point, all seven of those were losses.
WHAT NEW MEXICO LOST
Most of its defense. The Lobos return just two starters on that side of the ball, only one of which was full-time. Their top-eight tacklers are now elsewhere, and 10 of their top-11. Not all of those needed to leave: Safety Marcus Hayes (51 tackles with two interceptions and five more pass breakups) transferred to Kansas State and outside linebacker Rhashaun Epting (43 tackles, including 5.5 sacks and three more for loss) transferred to Tennessee State.
New Mexico also lost its top rusher in Tyrone Owens (687 yards and six touchdowns on 186 carries) and receiver in Delane Hart-Johnson (507 yards and five touchdowns on 33 receptions).
WHAT NEW MEXICO GAINED
The headlines point to the Lobos bringing in 13 junior college transfers to fill out the roster, the second consecutive year of a notable influx. Either that is a needed salve or a foreboding sign of desperation. The pros of a junior college transfer focus on immediate eligibility and more physical maturity implying better chances at quick contributions. The cons are it is a short-term fix; junior college transfers are not going to stick around and influence a locker room for four seasons.
Perhaps offering more of an impact, New Mexico will also return two defenders who were expected to start throughout 2018 if not for injury. Georgia Tech transfer defensive end Trent Sellers was knocked out in the preseason and linebacker Alex Hart’s season ended in the third game, by which point he already had 19 tackles.
The Lobos averaged 26.6 points per game last year, No. 85 in the country, and that was with a slightly quicker offense than in years past (which worked to the defense’s detriment to some extent). New offensive coordinator Joe Dailey, formerly in the same position at Liberty, who hung 52 points on New Mexico last year, will theoretically continue that offensive quickening.
He and Davie hope to find a way to utilize the triple-option within a spread offense, the broad scheme necessary to showcase some skill position speed, particularly at receiver, and the triple-option wrinkle required to counteract a talent deficit long-acknowledged by Davie.
It remains a question who will lead that system. Junior quarterback Tevaka Tuioti started last season, relying on a strong arm and quick feet, before a collarbone injury ended his season. This summer, he only joined preseason practices over the weekend after spending time with his ailing grandfather.
Senior Sheriron Jones, a former Tennessee quarterback, took over when Tuioti was injured, but his 12 interceptions against 13 touchdowns hardly inspired confidence. A junior transfer and a sophomore who saw no action last year are also in the preseason position competition, at least nominally.
Whoever emerges as the starting quarterback will be throwing to a decent receiver corps, led by senior Elijah Lilly (21 catches for 375 yards and five touchdowns), though he may suddenly face slot competition from junior Emmanuel Logan-Green, a Central Florida transfer by way of junior college.
That quarterback will also have the luxury of four returning starters along the offensive line, though that was a line that gave up 27 sacks last season.
Is it good news or bad news when only two starters return from a defense that allowed 36.2 points per game? Is it a sign of misguided expectations or bad breaks when the defense Davie expected to be the best of his Lobos tenure instead finished No. 113 in scoring defense?
Either way, that is the cupboard new defensive coordinator Jordan Peterson has to work with, and it is one he is familiar with having previously served as New Mexico’s defensive backs coach. About those defensive backs … The Lobos lost their top seven players from the secondary.
If there is a strong spot for Peterson to build a foundation upon, it is the defensive line. Lining up Sellers alongside senior tackle Aaron Blackwell, the only returning defender with 12 starts last year, should lead to an improvement on giving up 217 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry.
Bleak. Charitably, injuries made New Mexico worse last year, but it is still unrealistic to think it would have won more than one of its last six games, five of which came by at least 18 points. Four of those five are on the schedule again this year. Chalk those up as losses along with Davie’s return to Notre Dame.
Despite that loss to Liberty a year ago, predict that as a win, as well as a victory in the opener against Sam Houston State.
These likelihoods make New Mexico 2-5 with the five games to be determined vs. New Mexico State, at San Jose State, vs. Colorado State, vs. Hawai’i and at Nevada. The Lobos would need to win four of those five to reach a bowl game. Going by S&P+ projections, they should win just two of them.
Finishing 4-8 would be an improvement on the last two seasons, but one would think not enough of an uptick to save Davie’s job.