They are no longer a member of the Sun Belt Conference, but the New Mexico State Aggies might have the league on their minds as they face UL-Lafayette.
The Ragin’ Cajuns host the Aggies for homecoming at 4 p.m. Saturday at Cajun Field — and for the first time in five years the meeting won’t have an impact on the Sun Belt standings. NMSU, after a four-year run in its second stint in the Sun Belt, had its football-only membership terminated by a conference vote two seasons ago and played its final Sun Belt campaign last fall.
The Aggies (2-4) are now in the purgatory of NCAA football independent status — one of six in the nation, along with Notre Dame, BYU, Army, Liberty and Massachusetts. NMSU took a 49-41 win over Liberty last weekend in an all-independent matchup and in the first of two games between the teams this season. The rare “home-and-home” will wrap up the Aggies’ season Nov. 24.
Saturday’s game will be the first of three straight for NMSU against Sun Belt teams, with the Aggies hosting Georgia Southern next week and going to Texas State on Oct. 27. Despite his freshman status, that fact isn’t lost on new Aggies starting quarterback Josh Adkins.
“There’s a chip on our shoulder to go play a Sun Belt team, now that we’re not in a conference,” Adkins said. “Just like any game, we’re there to win, but maybe there is a little more of an edge.”
In his second college start, Adkins threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns, completing 34 of 51 passes with no interceptions, in the Liberty win. Those numbers would likely have Adkins under consideration for conference player of the week honors ... if the Aggies were in a conference.
NMSU went 2-1 against those three teams last year, losing only to the Cajuns 47-34 in UL-Lafayette’s 2017 Homecoming game. The Aggies went on to finish 7-6 overall including a win over Utah State in the Arizona Bowl, one of five Sun Belt bowl tie-ins. The Sun Belt went 4-1 in its five bowl games last year.
“It helps that we are very familiar with all three of these teams,” coach Doug Martin said. “I hope that our guys do have an edge about playing a Sun Belt team. I know I do.”
Cajuns coach Billy Napier wasn’t in the Sun Belt last year, having taken his job in December.
But he knows the background.
“They’re going to have a little something to prove,” he said. “But we’re more concerned with who they are as a team. You can see that they’re playing better and better, they’ve just had the injury bug on defense. They present a number of challenges for you, they understand what they’re doing.”
Last weekend’s 42-27 win at Texas State evened the Cajuns’ record at 1-1 in Sun Belt play, and that’s good enough to put UL-Lafayette atop the West Division, thanks in part to the East’s early dominance.
“I don’t follow any of that right now,” said running back Elijah Mitchell, who is coming off a 191-yard, three-touchdown performance at Texas State. “I just worry about what we’re doing.”
South Alabama (1-2) is the only other West team with a win this year, while Arkansas State, UL-Monroe and Texas State are all 0-2. A-State, the runaway preseason favorite to win the West, was humbled 35-9 by Appalachian State on Tuesday night.
“We talked about the conference situation,” Napier said, “but in general that doesn’t matter right now. We want to prepare a certain way regardless of who we play. The key for us is how you go about that, and so far this group has done exactly what we’ve asked them to do.”
The Cajuns will face the Sun Belt’s toughest gauntlet over the next three weekends when they travel to Appalachian State on Oct. 20, host Arkansas State on Oct. 27 and head for Troy on Nov. 3. Those three teams were universally picked as the league’s top three teams in all preseason polls.
“If I were voting, I’d vote for Troy (5-1, 3-0) and App State (4-1, 2-0) in my top 25,” Napier said. “I think they’re both legitimate and playing at a high level, and they have a history of playing at a high level. It’s not like they just came out of nowhere. They’re legitimate contenders. I think they’d feel good about matching up with anybody right now.”