The Aggies of New Mexico State have a harsh reality to face.
Western Athletic Conference football is all but confirmed as dead from 2013 onward. The WAC is not going to be able to entice anyone from the Big Sky to join the conference, and if they do attempt to expand eastward, those teams would probably leave as soon as they got a better opportunity.
The football program at NMSU has not had historical success. The last time the team got through a season with fewer than five losses was 1967. The team has only had a double-digit win total once in its entire history, in 1960, which was also the last time the Aggies appeared in a bowl game.
Despite all of that, I think it is entirely possible for New Mexico State to live on as an FBS independent. It won't be like the life of Notre Dame or BYU—it will probably be closer to the existence of the Army football program. But there is hope if the folks in charge do what is needed.
The state of New Mexico simply doesn't have enough talent from which to recruit a competitive FBS team. While it currently gets many recruits from California, it may also be time to look east towards the state of Texas for additional help.
Texas high schools pump out an insane amount of talent every year. Obviously, much of that talent will head to FBS schools in Texas (and there are quite a few). But there are also plenty of players that go elsewhere. Bring some of them to Las Cruces.
New Mexico is obviously closer to Texas than it is to California. While the Aggies should continue to recruit in California, the team may be able to increase its prospects for success if it also focuses more on Texas.
Schedule Games Against Other FBS Independents
One task that is obviously tougher as an independent is creating a schedule. Fortunately, there are some options for the Aggies.
NMSU already has annual rivalries with both New Mexico and UTEP, and as long as NMSU remains at the FBS level, those rivalries are likely to continue. With that in mind, there are ten more games that need to be scheduled.
There are other independent schools out there. While Notre Dame is unlikely to take an interest in the Aggies, and Navy is moving into the Big East, Army and BYU are still potential opponents. Each of them could take another team onto its schedule for the 2013 season.
If NMSU can schedule a long-term home-and-away series with each of them, it will already have four out of 12 games for its schedule complete.
Schedule Games Against Teams in Areas Targeted for Recruiting
Texas and California should be the primary targets for recruiting, and therefore should also be the primary targets for scheduling games.
In Texas, the most likely teams with which the Aggies might be able to schedule home-and-away series would be Rice, North Texas, Texas State and TX-San Antonio. While not as likely (since they are now Big East members), a home-and-away series with SMU and Houston would also strengthen Texas ties.
In California, the best options for home-and-away series are Fresno State, San Jose State and perhaps San Diego State. Since it will be an outpost in the Big East, SDSU may be more willing to schedule a hom-and-away series so that it has another game on its own side of the country.
For both Texas and California, NMSU should attempt to schedule one road game against a power-conference opponent each year. They are unlikely to bring a return game to Las Cruces, but they could receive a financial payout that would help them continue their existence as an independent.
California has four Pac-12 teams. Texas has four Big 12 teams and one SEC team. Having one road game against a power-conference team in each of these states will not only help with recruiting but help complete the schedule.
If none of the California or Texas teams are available, consider teams in Arizona and Oklahoma. There are certainly numerous options against power conferences (the current NMSU future schedule includes games at Florida, Ole Miss and Minnesota), but games that are closer would be preferred.
Schedule Geographically Sensible Games to Complete the Schedule
For the remaining spots to be filled on the schedule, stay as close to home as possible. It will save on travel costs and be better for the student-athletes.
From the Sun Belt and from Conference USA, consider Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State and Tulane. From the Mountain West, consider Wyoming, Colorado State, Utah State, UNLV and Hawaii. The other teams in those conferences may also be options, but these may be the best bets (and most likely options) overall.
If necessary, games can be scheduled against Big Sky opponents (FCS) or perhaps against MAC teams. While perhaps not ideal, they are certainly worth considering if the schedule needs an additional spot filled.
Consider Long-Term Options for Joining a Conference
Ideally, of course, NMSU would prefer to have a conference for its football team.
While being in the same conference as New Mexico would be nice, it may have a better shot attempting to join the same conference as UTEP. It is less than an hour away from UTEP, but over three hours from UNM. If New Mexico State and UTEP were together in the same conference, it would make scheduling for Olympic sports easier for everyone. Teams visiting the area could play two games per visit and not just one. As of now, UTEP is a member of Conference USA.
If New Mexico State plays more games against and develops rivalries with Conference USA opponents (those listed above include UTEP, Rice, North Texas, TX-San Antonio, Tulane and LA Tech), it may increase its chances of receiving an invitation from Conference USA in the future.
The football team needs to have at least five home games per year to stay at the FBS level. It may not be easy, but it is possible. If they begin work on future scheduling, they can survive as an independent and perhaps place themselves in a better position to receive an invitation from another conference in the future.