Throughout the rest of the month leading up to the 2008 season, I'll be looking at key storylines for each Mountain West Conference program. Today I am looking at Long and New Mexico's quest for the Mountain West title.
When Sonny Lubick retired at the end of last season, Rocky Long became the dean of Mountain West coaches. Yet in his 10 years as New Mexico's coach, the Lobos have failed to win the conference. For all their accomplishments -- and there have been many -- the Lobos still can't claim that elusive championship and that has been the real lone blemish on Rocky Long's rather solid resume at New Mexico.
Long took over the Lobos in 1998 when Dennis Franchione left for Texas Christian. He inherited a fractured, but successful program and slowly built on the foundation, however weak, Franchione left in Albuquerque. Though his first three seasons were rather poor -- the Lobos failed to finish with a winning record -- by 2001, New Mexico began its steady rise and from there to 2006, they finished above .500 each year. These just one of many steps in the right direction, all of which eventually led to last season's successful 9-4 campaign. That season marked the first time Rocky Long won 9-games and also gave New Mexico their first bowl win in over 60 years, as they blanked Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl.
For Long, though, the next step may be the hardest of his career, building on the past ten years and using it as a springboard to that difficult to win Mountain West title. For all the success he has seen, the Lobos rarely have contended for the conference championship, and when they have, they always wound up shooting themselves in the foot. As was the case in 2003, when New Mexico found the inside track to the championship after shocking the Utes in Salt Lake City, only to lose a week later to a mediocre UNLV team. That was the closest they got to winning the conference under Long, but they hope that is something they can change this season. However, it won't be easy.
The Lobos take a hit on offense, as they have to replace some key receivers, but they should make up for it with their solid backfield. With Rodney Ferguson returning as running back, New Mexico could have the best ground game in the Mountain West. Quarterback Donovan Porterie should fill more at ease with the Lobos offense, since he's had time adjusting to the changes made by Rocky Long over the past couple of years. He's also a junior who started last year, where he passed for over 3,000 yards, besting every New Mexico quarterback since Stoney Case in 1994.
Porterie is a stable passer, but for him to put up 2007-like numbers, he will need solid production from an inexperienced core of receivers. The Lobos lose Travis Brown and Marcus Smith, which is a big blow, since both combined for 2,156 yards, compared to only 814 yards for the rest of the offense. Replacing those two will not be easy, which means the return of Ferguson is a huge plus for Long and the Lobos, since it will provide them another offensive weapon. Expect Ferguson to be the star of the offense, especially early, but if New Mexico can get solid production from its receiving core, they will have a multidimensional attack and that could be devastating for opponent defenses.
Of course, one of the big weaknesses on offense is the inexperience of their line, as the Lobos will have to replace four of five starters from last year. This could be a concern, especially with how they struggled running the ball in 2007 and most likely will rely on that running game this season. It will take time for the line to get the kinks out and they should be performing better later in the season, but it could be a huge problem in the early months, which unfortunately might be the difference between a title and another good, but far from great, finish.
On defense, there will be some changes, with the most important one coming at the top. Former defensive coordinator Osia Lewis left for UTEP and was replaced by Troy Reffett, who will keep the familiar 3-3-5 Long defense. The Lobos also have to replace Michael Tuohy and Tyler Donaldson on the defensive line. That could cause some problems in the pass rush, but the Lobo front three should help in stopping the run, which has been a staple for Long's defenses at New Mexico since he arrived.
Along with a decent defensive line, the Lobos also will have a strong secondary, with their corners especially dominating. Seniors DeAndre Wright and Glover Quin are two of the best corners in the conference and will give receivers fits all season.
So the question for the defense is not their talent, but how long it takes to adjust to Reffett. If the transition is seamless, New Mexico will be deadly early on with their defense and that could help compensate for possible offensive struggles. If, however, there is some gelling that needs to be done, coupled with some early offensive struggles, the Lobos might have a shaky first month or so. Unfortunately for them, their first few weeks could be the toughest and most important of the season.
New Mexico's 2008 schedule:
Aug. 30 TCU
Sept. 6 Texas A&M
Sept. 13 Arizona
Sept. 20 at Tulsa
Sept. 27 at New Mexico State
Oct. 4 Wyoming
Oct. 11 at BYU
Oct. 18 San Diego State
Oct. 23 at Air Force
Nov. 1 Utah
Nov. 8 at UNLV
Nov. 15 at Colorado State
New Mexico has a tough schedule and their opener will almost surely make or break their championship hopes. If they lose to TCU, at home, to kick off the season, they'll probably be knocked out of the title hunt early and it could set off a chain reaction that ultimately leads to an extremely disappointing season. If, however, New Mexico does open the season with a win over TCU, it's very likely they're playing for a share of the conference championship come November.
The path to the title is not easy for New Mexico, especially if they get off to a slow start. But it's not impossible and if they get a few breaks to go their way, Rocky Long could very well take that next step and win at least a share of the Mountain West.
Will Long take his first step to the MWC title this season?