The Lobos will not be viewed as a Mountain West bully in 2016, but they will have gained a lot of respect from their upsets of 2015.
BY RICHARD STEVENS
But in the end, that’s something you really had to like about this scrappy band of Lobos. Because a huge step to a program digging itself out of the mud created by Mike Locksley and Paul Krebs is to field a team that can win when it’s not the best team on the field.
Bob Davie’s Lobos did that in a big way in the 2015 regular season with signature statement wins over Utah State, Boise State and Air Force.
Were the Lobos fortunate in carving out a 7-5 slate and advancing to the New Mexico Bowl? Of course. Had Hawaii run an off-tackle play and set up a chip-shot field goal, the Lobos season might have gone in another direction. The Lobos found energy and a future in a bad coaching decision from the Hawaii staff. The Lobos benefited from a mediocre Mountain West Conference.
The Lobos also ran into a Utah State team and a Boise State team that were clearly better than the Lobos, but probably failed to take the Lobos seriously. By the time those teams woke up the Lobos were taking themselves seriously, and that’s another huge step for a program. The Aggies and the Broncos outplayed New Mexico but they also overlooked New Mexico.
The Lobos won the scoreboard battle and that is something Davie’s program needed to do. His program that sprouted from a horrid 3-33 stretch (2009-11) had finally beaten some marquee teams – well, marquee teams from a marginal Mountain West.
Air Force might or might not have been better than the Lobos, but the Falcons already had clinched a spot in the Mountain West Championship game and were coasting toward San Diego State.
The Lobos got a few early Christmas gifts and had what it took to open them. The Lobos avoided the lump of coal and they were rewarded with post-season play. It’s also obvious that Davie should have been handed Mountain West Coach of the Year honors, which he did not receive.
Davie’s runaway ego probably was damaged by that snub, but his stock with the Albuquerque football community went up. The season began with grumblings about the “Old Man’s” ability to push this program around the corner. The Lobos now have a clear view of life on the other side of that corner.
But will 2016 be a tougher year for the Lobos and maybe not as productive on the scoreboard – and in the win column? Possibly. The Lobos will not be viewed as a Mountain West bully in 2016, but they will have gained a lot of respect from their upsets of 2015. A few victims from 2015 will be looking for payback in 2016.
It also will be interesting to see if the Lobos can improve their appeal at the gates of University Stadium. The crowds were still an embarrassment and the empty seats at the Air Force game shouted out a community’s preference for big-time football on the tube. You also couldn’t hide the fact that the Lobos were not an exciting team to watch.
There are still many gaps to fill in this program, but while Davie might be quick to pat himself on the back, he also is wise enough to see the holes. “We are not yet there,” Davie admitted at the end of the season.
Still, the Lobos are at a place on the Mountain West hill they did not appear capable of reaching heading into the season. They were a win away from playing in the MW Championship game. They reached the postseason. They also should now reach a lot of recruits that they were not capable of reaching before – before wins over Boise State, Utah State and Air Force.
Winning breeds winning, but it also opens doors and young minds. It’s fair to say that a lot of football players over the years came to New Mexico because their first, second and maybe even their third choices were not interested in them. The Lobos have climbed that ladder, too. The credibility meter at UNM has pushed the needle higher while also pushing itself into a few more living rooms.
And if the Lobos can make the same steps in recruiting that they did on the scoreboard in 2015, the luck factor might be fortified by better Lobos. Really, this is the step the Lobos need maybe more than anything.
Richard Stevens is a former sports writer for The Albuquerque Tribune. More recently he was an insider at the Lobo athletic department. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org