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New Mexico State Football: 2018 Aggies Preview and Prediction

Terrill Hanks, New Mexico State Football

Terrill Hanks, New Mexico State Football

In its final year in the Sun Belt, New Mexico State ended the nation's longest bowl drought at 57 years with a thrilling overtime victory over Utah State in the Arizona Bowl. The Aggies begin play as an FBS independent in 2018. Aggies coach Doug Martin, also his team's offensive coordinator, will have to replace a three-year starter at quarterback, a four-year starter at running back and an NFL prospect at wide receiver in 2018.

Previewing New Mexico State Football's Offense for 2018

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Senior QB Nick Jeanty has five career starts and has passed for 1,028 yards with six TDs and six interceptions in 14 games. The Aggies added Matthew Romero in the 2018 recruiting class. Romero passed for 5,489 yards with 49 touchdowns in two seasons in junior college. Freshmen Cameron Matthews, Josh Adkins and Jeremy Hodge also competed during spring practice, but Martin won't name a starter until fall camp.

Fortunately for the new starting QB, the Aggies return six offensive linemen with starting experience, including center Jamin Smith, who was granted a sixth year after missing most of 2016 with an injury. The Aggies finished 2017 sixth in the country in passing offense with 340.2 yards per game.

Junior running back Jason Huntley was a dual threat in 2017 with 420 yards rushing to go along with 39 receptions for 363 yards. Senior wide receiver Johnathan Boone and slot receivers OJ Clark and Anthony Muse -- each with more than 30 receptions last season -- lead an experienced receiving corps that is never short on opportunities in Martin's wide-open attack.

Previewing New Mexico State Football's Defense for 2018

In his second year at New Mexico State, defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani -- a former head coach at Boston College -- turned one of the nation's worst defenses into a unit that finished second in the NCAA in sacks (43, up from 11 in 2016) and seventh in third-down stops. The Aggies led the Sun Belt with 27 forced turnovers as Spaziani played four linebackers for the majority of the season and cranked up the pressure. The Aggies also did a better job limiting big plays in 2017, something that has plagued the program for years. Seven starters return from that unit, which could be even better in 2018.

Junior defensive lineman Cedric Wilcots II was a first-team All-Sun Belt pick after recording 8.5 sacks; strong-side linebacker Terrill Hanks is the Aggies' leading returning tackler (111, including 15.0 for a loss); and junior safety Shamad Lomax, who forced eight turnovers last season, has moved from cornerback to safety. The secondary should get a boost from junior college transfer Ray Buford Jr., a cornerback who began his career at Minnesota.

Previewing New Mexico State Football's Specialists for 2018

Huntley emerged as a weapon in the kickoff return game, returning two kicks for TDs, including a go-ahead score early in NMSU's win over Utah State in the Arizona Bowl. The Aggies have two experienced placekickers in Dylan Brown and Parker Davidson. Brown converted 13-of-17 field goals last year, and Payton Theisler averaged a respectable 41.5 yards per punt in 2017.

Final Analysis

The schedule is not daunting, with two games against fellow independent Liberty and matchups with familiar Sun Belt teams Louisiana, Texas State and Georgia Southern. If NMSU receives quality play at quarterback and the defense takes another step forward, the Aggies have a realistic opportunity to enjoy a second straight winning season -- something that hasn't happened since the late 1960s.

College Football Rankings: New Mexico State