The FBS level of college football is home to seven programs who played as independents this season. Four of them (Notre Dame, BYU, Navy and Army) have made the conscious decision to forgo conference affiliations while another (Old Dominion) must play as an independent as they reclassify from the FCS level.
The remaining two independents (Idaho and New Mexico State) were forced into this situation when the WAC disbanded and they were not immediately picked up by any other conferences. Although they will join the Sun Belt Conference next year as football-only members, the Vandals and Aggies have had to spend this season as the most outcast teams in the FBS.
With the odds already stacked against them, both teams have predictably struggled. Each comes into their final game of the season with only one win apiece. Idaho defeated Temple while New Mexico State defeated FCS team Abilene Christian.
For the final game of the season, the teams are finally on equal footing with their opponent, as they play each other. So let's take a look at a game that actually means quite a bit to the two most downtrodden teams in the FBS.
When: Saturday, Nov. 30, 3:30 PM ET
Where: Aggie Memorial Stadium; Las Cruces, NM
Major Storylines For The Game
Will it be the offenses or the defenses that step up?
Both teams have struggled on both sides of the ball. NMSU is 108th in the country in points scored while Idaho is 116th. On defense, the Aggies are 125th in the nation in points allowed while the Vandals are 126th.
Obviously something has to give. Either the offenses will spring to life, or the defenses will finally crack down. Each unit has its chance to finally shine for their respective teams this season. Who will seize that opportunity?
Will Idaho use multiple quarterbacks?
The Vandals thought they had their QB of the future in redshirt freshman Chad Chalich, a dual-threat from nearby Couer d'Alene. Halfway through the season, Chalich was the most effective offensive threat the team had, as he accounted for over 1,400 yards passing and rushing combined and had a gritty performance in the team's lone win.
Unfortunately for Idaho, Chalich went down in the beginning of the Arkansas State game and was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Senior Taylor Davis has stepped in for Chalich and done an admirable job, accounting for 10 touchdowns in five games. However, he has also been turnover-prone and in last week's blowout loss to Florida State, junior Joshua McCain came in and had a more efficient performance than Davis against the Seminoles.
Will McCain figure into Idaho's strategy more this week than usual as a result?
Can the Aggies limit the turnovers on offense?
New Mexico State's offense isn't as anemic as their points-scored ranking would indicate. They are actually 50th in the country in passing yards per game. Unfortunately, senior QB Andrew McDonald has thrown 10 interceptions to go with his 13 touchdowns, causing the Aggies to be kept out of the end zone more often than they should be. If McDonald can limit the turnovers, the Aggies have a very good chance to overpower the Vandals.
Key Players To Watch For Idaho
Dezmon Epps, junior wide receiver
Regardless of who has been throwing him the ball, Epps has been a matchup nightmare. On an otherwise listless team, Epps has been a true standout. While the 5'10", 170-pound receiver may not be very large, he certainly plays big. Epps has hauled in 73 receptions for 937 yards and four touchdowns, while also figuring into the kick return and punt return game heavily. He has a chance to break 1,000 yards receiving for the season against NMSU, and having a player accomplish that feat would be a minor victory for an Idaho team that has had an otherwise unimpressive season.
QuayShawne Buckley, senior defensive tackle
While the Vandals may have struggled to stop opposing offenses overall, QuayShawne Buckley cannot be pointed to as one of the reasons for those defensive woes. The senior from California has had the type of production that most teams can only dream about getting from the middle of their d-line. On the season, Buckley had 39 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss, five sacks and a forced fumble. If formidable teams such as Ole Miss and Florida State weren't able to neutralize Buckley, how can New Mexico State be expected to? Make no mistake about it, Buckley has a real shot at making it to the NFL, and that type of talent is rare for these teams.
Key Players to Watch For New Mexico State
Austin Franklin, junior wide receiver
Last season, Franklin shocked the nation by totaling 1,245 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on a one-win NMSU team. He has not been able to match those numbers this season due to an academic eligibility issue that sidelined him for most of the first half of the season. In just half a season though, Franklin has already hauled in 46 passes for 606 yards and five touchdowns. Franklin is easily the most dynamic player on the roster of either of these teams, and could have a huge effect in the final game of the season.
Davis Cazares, senior free safety
After racking up over 100 total tackles for the Aggies last year, Cazares picked up right where he left off. His 98 total tackles so far this season lead the team, and he has added two interceptions and a forced fumble to go with those impressive tackle numbers. The former walk-on is one of the top ball-hawking safeties in the country, even if he doesn't get the credit that his performances deserve.
Prediction: New Mexico State 35- Idaho 24
While Idaho has a few standouts, New Mexico just has more dynamic playmakers on their roster. Look for Idaho to hang tough for a while, but just not be able to stay with the Aggies.