The Arizona Wildcats will take on the New Mexico Lobos in the 10th iteration of the Gildan New Mexico Bowl next Saturday. Though Arizona and New Mexico have a long history, this will be the first time the two have played each other since 2008, when the Lobos beat the Wildcats 36 - 28 in Albuquerque. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, so after seven years, let's direct a bit of love towards the 2015 version of the New Mexico Lobos football program.
Wildcat fans would do well to empathize with the plight of the Lobo faithful. 2015 marks the first year of bowl eligibility for this New Mexico program since 2007, similar to Arizona's drought from 1998 to 2008. Oddly enough, the last bowl appearance for the Lobos was in the 2007 version of the New Mexico Bowl, when they shut out Nevada 23 - 0. This again evokes similarities to Arizona, who washed the taste of back-to-back bowl losses out of their mouths by stunning Nevada in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl. It's been a long road back for New Mexico, but noticeable strides were made by this year's team.
With a seven win season, the Lobos have returned to the ranks of the bowl eligible. If you think like me, you may have assumed New Mexico was not interested in playing a postseason game in their home stadium, much like Arizona seemed remiss to stay home and play in the inaugural Arizona Bowl. However, it appears that New Mexico head coach Bob Davie was lobbying for a home bowl berth as soon as his team earned 6 wins to become bowl eligible.
In retrospect, this is an interesting revelation; the win that gave New Mexico bowl eligibility was on the road against the Boise State Broncos, which may arguably be the most significant win of the Bob Davie era. At that point, one would assume the aspirations of the team would be much higher. The Mountain West Conference has postseason agreements with the Poinsettia, Hawaii, and Las Vegas bowls, all which seem to offer a more illustrious destination than your own back yard.
The victory also gave New Mexico a conference record of 4 - 2 at the time, which tied the Lobos with the perennial favorite Broncos for first in the Mountain division, along with Air Force. But a bowl is a bowl, especially after an eight year dry spell, so proximity to home aside, the Lobos do appear to be motivated to come out and win on their home turf.
In addition to the aforementioned Boise State victory, the Lobos also posted an impressive win over the eventual MWC Mountain division champion Air Force Falcons in their last game of the year. In fact, had New Mexico not lost to the Colorado State Rams in a close 28 - 21 game, the Lobos would have won the Mountain division and played the San Diego State Aztecs in the Mountain West Conference championship game.
As it stands, New Mexico still posted wins against four out of five division rivals. Only losses to non-divisional conference foes Nevada and San Jose State prevented the Lobos from a better finish in the Mountain West.
This year has not been without its rough patches for New Mexico. The loss to Colorado State was particularly devastating, as it killed any chance of a division title. Losses to the 6 - 6 Nevada Wolf Pack and 5 - 7 San Jose State Spartans also did little to help their cause. The Lobos hung surprisingly tough with Arizona State for two quarters before falling apart in the second half of a 34 - 10 loss. New Mexico seemed to have a penchant for losing to teams they had chances to compete with, and pulling out victories against teams who should have blown them out.
The New Mexico Lobos season is not all that dissimilar to Arizona's Jekyll and Hyde performance in 2015. There was enough of a spark to keep you hanging on, but not enough to actually make a difference when it mattered most. When Arizona couldn't stop the UCLA Bruins, Washington Huskies, and ASU from hanging 49+ points, New Mexico struggled to score against San Jose State and Nevada. When, on paper, Arizona should have been beat into the ground by the then-No. 10 Utah Utes, New Mexico should have been laughed out of Idaho by the Broncos.
Where the similarities end is in expectations. Where Arizona should be disappointed with a 6 - 6 outcome after a Pac-12 South division title in 2014, New Mexico has to be ecstatic about posting big wins against conference rivals and getting back to the postseason.
Win or lose in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl, it would be hard to count this season as anything but a success for the Lobos.