Post-season conference championship games are relatively new to college football.
When some of the Power Five conferences grew big enough to have two divisions, the conferences set up a big money game between the two division winners.
It was never an issue for New Mexico State University. First of all, they had not even been in a conference since 2017, their last year in the Sun Belt Conference. And most years, the Aggies didn’t have a good enough record to qualify anyway.
Well, now in their first year in Conference USA, the Aggies are in a conference championship game.
For the third time in 53 weeks, NMSU travels to Lynchburg, Virginia, to face the Liberty Flames, and this time it’s for Conference USA bragging rights. The game kicks off at 5 p.m. Las Cruces time, and will be televised on the CBS Sports Network, and broadcast on 99.5 FM with Jack Nixon and Cory Lucas on the radio call.
Last Nov. 26, the Aggies went to Lynchburg and shocked Liberty 49-14. The game propelled NMSU to the Quick Lane Bowl, which they also won.
Earlier this season, on Sept. 9, the Aggies went back to Lynchburg, and this time, the Flames weren’t taken by surprise. They defeated NMSU 33-17.
The Aggies were 1-2 at that point, and have since won 9 of their last 10 games, and are currently sporting a 10-3 record. It’s the first time an Aggie team has had double-digit victories since 1960.
Liberty comes into the game 12-0, and ranked 20th in the nation. NMSU has a signature victory with its 31-10 win at Auburn. As it turns out, the most significant victory on the Liberty schedule is NMSU, which though still unranked, received five votes in the Nov. 26 AP Top 25 poll.
The Aggies’ eight-game win streak was in peril Saturday, Nov. 25, in their last home game of the season, against Jacksonville State.
After jumping out to a 14-0 in the first half, NMSU only scored six more points the rest of the game. However, three of those points came from the foot of Aggie kicker Ethan Albertson, who booted a 52-yard field goal as time expired to give NMSU a 20-17 victory, their eighth consecutive win. Albertson had also ended the first half with a field goal as time expired, giving NMSU a 17-3 halftime lead.
One of the keys to the Aggies’ eight-game win streak had been avoiding turnovers. But two costly turnovers in the third quarter helped Jacksonville State stay close in the game.
As the Aggies were on the Jax State one-yard-line about to score, they fumbled and it was recovered by the Gamecocks. Later in the third, Aggie quarterback Diego Pavia threw an interception that was returned to the nine-yard-line of NMSU. Only Pavia’s tackle prevented a touchdown. Jax State would be held to a field goal on the subsequent drive, a point differential that would prove fateful.
Another Pavia interception in the fourth quarter stalled another drive, and a sack stopped the next one.
Jax State then drove to the Aggie 10-yard-line, and the NMSU defense again held, and Jax State hit a field goal to tie the game at 17 with 43 seconds left.
In the Aggies’ final drive, a rush by Pavia for 10 yards, and a huge 37-yard completion from Pavia to Trent Hudson left the Aggies close to Albertson’s range. Pavia made three yards on another rush, and zero on the next and the Aggies called timeout with three seconds left in the game, resting the outcome on Albertson’s right foot, and he delivered.
Bowling for guesses
In this week’s bowl projections, Athlon Sports has the Aggies going to the Dec. 16 New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque to play James Madison, currently 11-1 and ranked No. 24 nationally. One ESPN writer has the Aggies going to New Orleans to face South Alabama in the Dec. 16 New Orleans Bowl. Another ESPN writer has them in the New Mexico Bowl against Air Force.
Bowl projections are just speculation, and they won’t be announced until Sunday, Dec. 3. And the Aggies still have the C-USA title game to play. But more and more outlets are picking the Aggies to go to the New Mexico Bowl. In addition to New Mexico and New Orleans, the Aggies have previously been mentioned in conversations including the Dec. 16 Bahamas Bowl (played this year in Charlotte, North Carolina) and the Frisco Bowl, played north of Dallas on Dec. 19.