Pageantry, possibility and a hefty paycheck: Saturday was supposed to hold all these things in store for the New Mexico State University football team.
Before COVID-10 turned the sports world upside down, the Aggies were scheduled to open the 2021 season Saturday at the Rose Bowl vs. UCLA – a Week Zero matchup with plenty of upside for the visiting team.
Sure, NMSU would have been a prohibitive underdog, but with relatively few games on the weekend’s college football schedule, coach Doug Martin’s team would have enjoyed high visibility with relatively low risk.
Keep things close or, heaven forbid, pull off a shocking upset and your program receives a major national boost. Get blown out and you still head home with a $1.2 million paycheck that helps float your school’s athletic department for 2020-21.
But instead of opening-day positivity, NMSU football faces a pandemic predicament.
The Aggies’ fall schedule was canceled because of coronavirus concerns, and spring football remains a murky undertaking at best. With some FBS conferences pushing ahead with fall schedules and others focused on conference-only matchups in the spring, independent NMSU is in an unhappy limbo.
“There’s a lot of disappointment among our players and coaches,” head coach Doug Martin said in a phone interview this week. “They know this is out of our control, and they’ve been very mature about it, but it’s going to hit harder when they see other teams start playing. This is the first time in 50 years I’m not preparing for a game at this point. I don’t know what to do with myself.”
What Martin and the Aggies are doing now is training as much as NCAA policy allows – 12 hours per week including 5 hours of on-field work, helmets only, no pads and no contact drills. Players receive COVID tests every other week in accordance with school policy. They can request additional tests at any time and are required to undergo testing if they develop symptoms, Martin said.
What NMSU players will be doing come spring remains anybody’s guess, but neither Martin nor athletic director Mario Moccia envisions anything resembling a full season. Finances, logistics and player safety concerns, they say, would be too much to overcome.
Financially, NMSU is taking a combined $2.75 million hit by having this fall’s scheduled games at UCLA and Florida canceled. Spring games, with or without fans in attendance, would add either travel expenses or guarantee costs for visiting teams to the school’s ailing athletic budget.
There’s also the reality of scheduling. Proposed conference-only schedules leave only so many potential opponents available for NMSU. Rival UTEP is set to play this fall, while rival UNM may be constrained by Mountain West scheduling.
“I’ve reached out to schools like (FBS independent) Army and (FCS independent) Tarleton State,” Moccia said, “just to throw out the possibility of playing us in the spring. There are not that many independent teams out there. It would be a huge bonus if we could play UNM or UTEP but at this point I’m not counting on it.”
Even if a full, cost-effective spring schedule could be cobbled together, Martin doesn’t see it as a good idea.
“I don’t want to play seven, eight games in the spring, then come back with 12 more in the fall,” he said. “That’s too much for kids to deal with, just from a safety perspective.”
Ideally, Martin and Moccia would like to schedule three to four spring games against a combination of FBS and FCS opponents. Martin called the limited schedule a sort of “glorified spring camp,” that would give players something to anticipate and build toward during the coming months.
A limited spring schedule would be particularly beneficial for an Aggies team loaded with new faces. That influx includes the quarterback position, where junior college transfer Jonah Johnson and redshirt freshman Weston Eget are battling to replace since-transferred starter Josh Adkins. NMSU has numerous holes to fill on the defensive side as well.
“From the standpoint of having a new quarterback and basically a whole new secondary, extra time together in the spring can help us,” Martin said. “With no games this fall, guys need something to stay excited about, too.”
Still, any spring football plans NMSU might make are contingent upon the pandemic. Current New Mexico restrictions require a 14-day quarantine period for anyone entering the state or for residents who leave and return. Such a policy effectively prevents college sports teams from competing in the state.
“We’ll have to see how much different things are in the spring,” Martin said. “Will we have a vaccine? If not, how will playing in the spring be any different than playing now?
“All I know is it’s tough to plan anything too far ahead right now. All we can really do is keep taking things day by day.”