If you’re a fan of college football, last weekend had more than enough big games to keep you satiated between plates of turkey. Alabama vs. Auburn. Michigan vs. Ohio State. Florida State vs. Florida. Stanford vs. Notre Dame.
Idaho vs. New Mexico State was not one of those games. Call it the Game of the Weak.
Both teams entered Saturday’s game in Las Cruces, N.M., with matching 1-10 records, nothing at stake but school pride and no conference or league to call home. That’s because New Mexico State (NMSU) and Idaho are two of the six schools in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision that aren’t part of a conference.
This happened because their previous league — the Western Athletic Conference — disintegrated in 2012 after most of its schools left for other conferences. Suddenly left with no other options, NMSU and Idaho were forced to play as independents during the 2013 season.
Both programs will join the Sun Belt Conference for 2014, saving them from another season with no tangible (but not necessarily realistic) goals or rewards, such as a league championship or all-conference nominations.
Their season finale on Saturday was, in some ways, a Bizzaro-style Iron Bowl. This game would involve none of the following: a rivalry, good football, media attention, fan interest, or trophy.
ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?
If so, why?
An abbreviated history lesson on these two football programs: They’re both bad at football.
In 120 years of football, the University of Idaho is 136 games below .500 and has won only 10 conference championships — its last came in 1998. If the Vandals had anything resembling a Golden Era, it would have been when they went 119-51 from 1982–1995 and twice advanced to the national semifinals of the Division I-AA playoffs.
Those good times came to an end soon after Idaho moved to Division I-A (now called the Football Bowl Subdivision) in 1996. Since then, the Vandals have returned to their old losing ways, going 78-144 and earning only two bowl berths in an era where nearly every major program can rig their schedule in such a way to achieve bowl eligibility.
A notable exception was the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl, which seemed a precursor to a long and awesome Robb Akey Era.
Of course, Akey went 9-24 over the next three years and was fired midway through the 2012 season. Bummer.
It could be worse: Idaho could be New Mexico State.
The Aggies haven’t appeared in a bowl game since 1960, the longest postseason absence for a current FBS program. That 46-year drought includes four winning seasons and conference championships in 1976 and 1978. This streak of futility has been blamed on the so-called “Woodson Curse,” a reference to former coach Warren Woodson, who went 63-36-3 with the Aggies from 1958–67. According to the legend, university administrators forced Woodson out at the end of the 1967 season, invoking a clause that required state employees to retire at the age of 65.
The Aggies have been a virtual doormat ever since. Consider that in 1992, Sports Illustrated tabbed New Mexico State as the nation’s worst college football program, saying, “over the years New Mexico State fans have learned to follow football the way physicists once watched the first A-bomb test at nearby Alamogordo — from a safe distance.”
However, some people never learn.
Anyway, Idaho made the nearly 1,500-mile trip to Aggie Memorial Stadium for the season-ending showdown against New Mexico State. Kickoff was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. As expected, it was something less than a highly anticipated matchup: Idaho’s official athletic department Twitter account didn’t make a single mention of the game that day.
Both teams were coming off lopsided losses — New Mexico State suffered a 55-10 defeat to Florida Atlantic (a team playing out the string with an interim coach) and Idaho was humiliated in an 80-14 rout at then-No. 2 Florida State (the Vandals’ Twitter feed stopped tweeting updates after they fell behind 42-7 in the first half).
With so much good football on television last Saturday, it’s hard to imagine why 14,661 fans — that’s reported attendance, which has little in common with how many people actually filled their seats — showed up to watch a game featuring two teams with no conference ties and whose only wins of the season had come against Abilene Christian of the Football Championship Subdivision (NMSU) and Temple (Idaho).
Those who made it to the stadium witnessed the home team clinch its second victory of the season, rallying from a 13-10 deficit at halftime to take a 24-16 win.
Typical of a team unfamiliar with being in the lead, the Aggies were unable to pull away and allowed Idaho to stay in the game until the very end. It could even be argued that they were outplayed; Idaho outgained NMSU by 88 yards, racked up four sacks and forced three turnovers.
NMSU was unable to put together a drive that would run out the clock in the fourth quarter, and twice allowed the Vandals to drive deep into their territory. That final Vandals’ scoring threat was set up after they blocked a 45-yard field-goal attempt with 1:30 left in the game (field goal play was big last weekend, huh?).
Idaho managed to get as far as NMSU’s 14-yard line with but a few seconds left in the game. Here’s how the Vandals ended their season: incomplete pass; illegal procedure penalty; incomplete pass, incomplete pass. That last pass attempt, according to the game log, sailed out of the back of the end zone. In other words, it was a fitting ending.
In their final game as Aggies, quarterback Andrew McDonald totaled 263 yards of offense and threw two touchdowns and running back Germi Morrison rushed for 118 yards.
“It was huge,” NMSU head football coach Doug Martin told the Las Cruces Sun-News in a statement that wasn’t at all hyperbolic (to him, probably). “To finally win one … That’s a footprint that our seniors put down that our young guys can carry into the Sun Belt next year.”
In a world far removed from the major college football glamor of BCS berths and national TV appearances, yes, even the Sun Belt sounds better than nothing.
This despite the fact that nothing in the recent history of either program suggests anything other than a future of more bad football in the Sun Belt. But at least they’ll have each other.
In the meantime, #AggieUp.
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