by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It hasn’t happened often, but college sports conferences have died in the past. The old Pacific Coast Conference, wrought with scandal in the late ‘50s, comes first to mind. More recently, the Southwest Conference disappeared in the mid ‘90s, its members scattering to three different leagues. Other conferences have re-branded, especially on the basketball side (such as when the old Metro melded into a newly-formed Conference USA in the mid ‘90s, and when the Eastern Eight morphed into the Atlantic Ten in the early 80s). Leagues have also been known to merge, as when the old Big 8 and a portion of the aforementioned, old Southwest Conference became the Big XII (and now they’re using “12" instead of “XII” as they again re-brand that league).

Another merger of note occurred in the early ‘60s, when various members of the old Border and Skyline Conferences, mostly represented by schools in the Rocky Mountain region and desert southwest, came together to form a new affiliation called the Western Athletic Conference. This new conglomeration, which made its debut in 1962, quickly developed an identity and personality of its own, featuring colorful coaches and high-powered offenses and lots of shoot ‘em up football representative of the roots of the region.

The remainder of the ‘60s were indeed an exciting time in the WAC, as schools such as Arizona State (under Frank Kush, left) and Wyoming (under Lloyd Eaton) emerged as national brands.

The progress continued into the ‘70s, and the league entered the true mainstream of college football with the introduction of the Fiesta Bowl in 1971 at ASU’s Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. The Fiesta would feature the WAC champion vs. an at-large opponent in an era in which bowl games had yet to proliferate. Sure enough, the Fiesta soon became a desired postseason destination. By 1974, the bowl had secured a major TV network contract with CBS after an early affiliation with the old independent, Mizlou Network, with Valley resident and play-by-play broadcast legend Ray Scott working the microphone in '74 for the BYU-Oklahoma State battle. The 1975 game (right) was a highlight as it featured Kush’s unbeaten and 7th-ranked ASU side against once-beaten and 6th-ranked Nebraska, when a late TD pass from backup QB Fred Mortensen to WR John Jefferson, and a subsequent field goal by Kush’s son Danny, gave the Sun Devils a memorable 17-14 win, still recalled fondly in the Valley of the Sun. Kush’s side subsequently ranked second behind only Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma in the final 1975 wire service polls.

Later in the decade, BYU emerged as the league’s flagship program under HC LaVell Edwards, whose high-powered offenses dominated the league and even helped the Cougs to an undefeated mark and national title in 1984.

(Yes, the WAC has produced a national football champion within the last 28 years!)

We’re taking this stroll down WAC memory lane because, as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, college conferences sometimes die. Which, unfortunately, appears to be the case with the WAC, which has undergone many transformations in the nearly four decades since ASU beat Nebraska in that ‘75 Fiesta Bowl but is on life support entering 2012. Although the league weathered the departure of the Sun Devils and sister school Arizona to the newly-named Pac-10 in 1978, and would become the first conference in the country to embark upon major and ambitious expansion plans in the ‘90s, it has been scrambling to stay afloat since 1999, when a rebel bunch of members, led by BYU and Utah, broke away from what was then a 16-member WAC to form a new conference called the Mountain West. Its membership thus cut in half, the WAC has gallantly attempted to survive in subsequent years, but like a sinking ship, it has taken on too much water and begun to list dangerously.

Recent defections of league cornerstones Boise State, Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawaii, and upcoming departures (effective 2013) of La Tech, Utah State and San Jose State, as well as even newer clientele who will align with the WAC for only the upcoming 2012-13 school year before bolting elsewhere (UT-San Antonio to CUSA, Texas State and UT-Arlington to the Sun Belt) appear to be the fatal torpedo shots to the bow of the WAC battleship. Most regional insiders do not believe what is left of the alliance, especially on the football side (there’s a slight chance the WAC could stay afloat as a non-football league), will survive into the 2013-14 season.

And therein is another difference about the WAC’s slow death from the past disappearances of the likes of the old PCC and Southwest Conferences, whose members merely dispersed and, in some cases, simply reorganized under a new name.

But those past conference deaths did not count individual programs among their casualties. Unfortunately, the demise of the WAC might also mark the end of the road for what at the moment are the last two remaining football programs in the loop beyond the 2012 campaign, those at Idaho and New Mexico State.

While the Vandals appear resigned to future life in a return to their roots in the lower-level Big Sky Conference (which will welcome back Idaho with open arms), the Aggies’ predicament is more disturbing, as the Las Cruces-based school has been desperately trying to forge another affiliation before the WAC likely ceases to exist, at least as a football league, next year. NMSU has made desperate overtures to the Sun Belt (where its programs competed not long ago), Mountain West, and Conference USA regarding potential membership, but to this point it has been to no avail. The dream scenario for the Aggies is alignment with the Mountain West and sister school New Mexico, but so far there has been almost zero interest from the Mountain (save for a push from the Albuquerque-based Lobos), and regional insiders don't expect that mindset to change. For the time being, that subject of NMSU to the Mountain West seems to be a non-starter.

So, while the clock continues to click until the moment the WAC flatlines, NMSU remains desperate as it looks for a future football home. Which has cast an ominous cloud over the program of 4th-year HC DeWayne Walker (left), whose Aggies made noticeable progress a year ago as they began to move away from punching bag into more-competitive status. Walker’s 2011 side won its third straight over the in-state UNM Lobos, prevailed on the road at a Big Ten school (Minnesota), and defeated Fresno State for the first time in program history.

Those successes, however, only helped the Ags climb to a 4-9 straight-up mark, an improvement upon Walker's first two editions but hardly rarified air. There’s still a long way to go for Walker’s Aggies to reach respectable status, but at least they’re getting a bit closer. Sadly, however, just as NMSU looks as if it could achieve that modest goal, the future of the program is suddenly in doubt.

Walker has also had to scramble (again) to fill spots on his staff after another round of coordinator departures. Last year’s o.c. Doug Martin, a former Kent State HC who presided over an improved strike force, has moved to the same role at Boston College, with protege Jerry McManus staying behind in Las Cruces as Walker’s o.c. for 2012. McManus thus becomes the fourth in Walker’s four seasons to hold that position. Meanwhile, d.c. Dale Lindsey (a former NFL LB in the ‘60s and early ‘70s with the Browns and Saints) has been replaced by ex-Western Kentucky HC David Elson. Moreover, only seven full-time starters return from that mini-breakthrough campaign a year ago.

Besides a revolving door with the coaching staff, manpower continues to be an issue in Las Cruces, were depth concerns have burdened the Ags for years. A disturbing defensive collapse in 2011, when NMSU allowed a staggering 42 points or more in six of its last seven games, sidetracked last year’s team that was sitting at 3-3 at midseason and seemed to have a chance to end the school’s 52-year bowl drought (since the 1960 Sun Bowl, when HC Warren Woodson’s NMSU team, with future NFL star Charley Johnson at QB and another future pro, RB Pervis Atkins, shown at left catching a ball in the bowl, beat John Ralston’s Utah State side featuring DT Merlin Olsen, 20-13).

For the Ags to break that bowl duck this fall, the “D” simply has to stop playing the roadkill role for opponents, which might be asking a lot after last year’s stop unit forgot about the red lights and kept flashing green to the opposition instead. Especially in November when NMSU allowed a whopping 48.5 ppg. When the carnage was complete last fall, the Ags ranked among the nation’s worst stop units against the rush (107th at 218 ypg), total (112th at 462 ypg) and scoring (112 at 37 ppg), hardly suggesting the defensive expertise that is supposed to be a speciality of HC Walker.

Now, Walker and new d.c. Elson (who would like to align the Ags in his preferred 3-4 looks, if available personnel can fit) will try to re-boot on the defensive side after losing the top five and seven of the top eight tacklers from a year ago to graduation. Only four starters return from last year’s stop unit, which might not be the worst news at NMSU considering the abject capitulation of the 2011 platoon.

Juco reinforcements are likely to play important roles this fall, as LB Trashaun Nixon (the star of the spring game with a fumble return for a TD as well as an interception) and DT Kevin Laudermill each expect to crack the starting lineup. There is other hope for improvement along the defensive front with the return of DE Donte Savage, who sat out 2011 due to academic issues but whose pass rush expertise (nine career sacks) will be a welcome addition after last year’s Ags managed only 18 sacks in 13 games, ranking a poor 98th nationally.

The LB corps will likely be the strength of the platoon (such as it is) with the addition of aforementioned juco Nixon on the weak side and the two other returning starters from 2011, Bryan Bonilla and R.J. Adolpho. Elson, however, doesn’t seem to have enough bodies at the LB spots to justify his desired switch to a 3-4 this fall. It’s also hard to believe that the Ags have had a DB taken in the past two NFL drafts (Jonte Green by the Lions last April, and Davon House by the Packers in 2011), and a pair of new corners will featured in the fall. Another juco, onetime Ole Miss Rebel Dele Junaid, is expected to claim the strong safety role.

Again, however, depth issues threaten to completely undermine the Ag defense if the injury bug hits this fall.

Meanwhile, WAC observers suggest that even minus departed o.c. Martin, the "O" might not regress much (if any) from its improved performance a year ago when it ranked a respectable 47th nationally in total offense, thanks to the presence of o.c. McManus, on staff a year ago and employing a similar pro-style set to the one the Ags used in 2011. NMSU was able to balance its attack more effectively last season with a much-improved aerial show after Walker's first two Las Cruces editions were more concerned with a misguided, suicidal resolve of smashmouth football that rarely worked as designed.

Walker and McManus will also swear they can’t have enough QBs on the roster after injury issues caused four of them to take snaps last year. That juggling was necessitated by an early ACL tear suffered by starter Andrew Manley (left), who had thrown for 6 TDs and nearly 300 ypg before suffering the knee injury in game three vs. UTEP. Now a senior, Manley, a classic drop-back passer, is back and healthy (knock on wood) after reclaiming the starting job in spring.

Just in case, Walker has added what he claims to be higher-caliber reinforcements with jucos Andrew McDonald and Nick Carey, plus well-regarded frosh King Davis III to back up Manley and skittery soph Travaughn Colwell, who flashed a little Colin Kaepernick last season before being sidelined by foot problems. If nothing else, Colwell provides a nice change-of-pace from the pro-style Manley.

Manley, however, won’t have the luxury of RB Kenny Turner, the former convict-turned-star who gained 1074 YR, 1600 all-purpose yards, and scored 13 TDs in 2011 before declaring for the NFL Draft. Senior Robert Clay, from the Texas hill country (New Braunfels) and a starter at RB before Turner stole the show last season, likely gets one more shot as the featured back, although he lacks Turner’s pop and extra gear. Look for another juco, quick-footed Akeelie Mustafa via Santa Ana College in California, to get plenty of touches this fall.

The Ags also must replace their top two receivers, Taveon Rogers and Todd Lee, with the former doubling as a lethal return threat (three KR TDs a year ago) as well as homerun wideout who gained nearly 18 yards per catch on his 59 receptions (with nine TDs). Sources say Rogers’ contributions are more likely to be missed in the return game, as there are plenty of speedy options ready to emerge as Manley’s favorite receiving targets, including sr. Kemonte Bateman (right) and soph Austin Franklin, who between them combined for 938 receiving yards and 7 scores in 2011.

Only three full-time starters, plus QB Manley, return on offense, although two of them are bookend tackles on the line, jr. Davonte Wallace and sr. Andrew Kersten. Sources also say to keep an eye on 315-lb. frosh G Isaiah Folasa, a Corona, CA product who was a late de-commit from UCLA before signing with the Ags instead. WAC scouts report that Folasa could eventually be one of the best lineman in NMSU annals, but it remains to be seen if he can provide help right away.

Making matters more daunting in Las Cruces is the reality that even if the Ags are postseason-eligible this fall, there’s no guarantee of a bowl prize as the WAC has only one guaranteed slot in 2012 (the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise). We’re trying to find some silver linings in Las Cruces, but they're hard to locate.

Pointspread-wise, note that Walker’s teams, routinely underrated, have mostly held their own lately vs. the number, covering 8 of 13 year ago and 10 of their last 16 away from Las Cruces and Aggie Memorial Stadium. The Ags also covered their last four as a host in 2011 after previous subpar home spread marks under Walker.

Summary...We had a sad feeling preparing this NMSU preview, feeling at times as if we were reading last rites to the Aggie program, whose future is completely up in the air after this fall. And we’re not overdramatizing the situation; with the WAC likely in its last football season, unless NMSU finds a conference willing to house it, its future options are independent status (good luck to AD McKinley Boston in such scheduling adventures) or a drop to FCS level. Moreover, HC DeWayne Walker has been targeted for desirable assistant roles the past few years (one interested suitor has been NFL Seahawks HC Pete Carroll) and might find one of those offers too good to pass up after this season. While the Ags are still alive in 2012, they likely stay moderately competitive vs. a modest schedule...at least as long as the gunslinging QB Manley stays healthy and in the lineup. But the losses of too many key components both offensively and defensively from a year ago makes it unlikely NMSU can break its 52-year bowl drought in what might be the program's last reasonable chance to do so.


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