- The story of how two teams almost 2,000 miles apart came to play an in-season home-and-home offers a unique window into life as an FBS independent, the challenges of scheduling and the strange connections that can arise from college football realignment.
The most unusual matchup of the 2018 college football season was born of desperation, facilitated by a longtime ESPN executive and announced to the world during a speech by the President of the United States.
On Oct. 6, New Mexico State will host Liberty in Las Cruces for the Aggies’ Homecoming game. Seven weeks later, on Nov. 24, Liberty will host New Mexico State in Lynchburg, Va., the season finale for both teams. As far as any of the parties involved can recall, it’s the first time two Division I football teams have played twice in the regular season since 1998, when UMass and UConn met on Oct. 24 and Nov. 21. (UConn won both of those games, but the Minutemen went on to claim the FCS national championship.) And as part of the scheduling agreement, it’ll happen again next year, with New Mexico State hosting on Oct. 5, 2019, and Liberty hosting on Nov. 30—a veritable home-and-home-and-home-and-home, four games between two teams located over 1,800 miles apart in a span of just 420 days.
New Mexico State and Liberty are both in year one of life as independent members of the Football Bowl Subdivision, although the two schools enter this fall without conference affiliations through unique sets of factors both in and out of their control. The Aggies learned in March 2016 that the Sun Belt would be parting ways with them and Idaho after the ’17 season, at which point they had to decide whether to drop down to the FCS or make their own way in the FBS as an independent. For New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia as well as his coaches and donors, the choice was clear.
“I and the football coach and a lot of the donors were certainly pulling to remain FBS,” Moccia says. “One of the big reasons was New Mexico and UTEP. You know, out in this corner of the world, there’s not a whole lot of schools we’re in direct competition with for virtually everything. I just thought that would colossally hobble us if we were playing football at a lower level.”
That left Moccia in a scramble to pull a 2018 schedule together, reaching out to his former Sun Belt colleagues about NMSU staying on as a non-conference opponent and booking some of the other independents, who also need to fill the eight to nine dates per year most schools use to play their conference schedules.
Enter Liberty, which announced in February 2017 that it was reclassifying to the FBS without a conference, an unconventional, aggressive and risky move that gave athletic director Ian McCaw and senior associate AD Mickey Guridy just 18 months to cobble together 12 games from scratch in time for Week 1.
“There were not that many schools looking for games, and so if we found someone willing to play, we pretty much had to take the game, whether it was something we preferred to do or not,” McCaw says.
Liberty officials pitched Moccia and New Mexico State on the idea of playing twice in one season, with an assist from scheduling guru Dave Brown, who spent nearly 28 years at ESPN, where he played a central role in booking the network’s early-season marquee matchups before leaving in August 2015 to start his own scheduling consulting company, Gridiron. Both schools are Gridiron clients, and Moccia and McCaw were familiar with each other from the days of the old Big 12, when Moccia was the second-in-command at Missouri and McCaw was the AD at Baylor (he resigned in May 2016 in the wake of an investigation into the school’s handling of sexual assault cases), which helped grease the wheels.
“To get a schedule done in 18 months is a pretty remarkable feat—that’s probably the bigger story versus having to play somebody twice,” says Brown, whose software platform allows schools to perform advanced searches for opponents to fill open dates on the schedule years and years in advance. “I mean, the fact that [Liberty was] able to get this done is a testament to their creativity and willingness to do a few things that they had to do to get it out the door. I still marvel at it.”
As an independent, building a schedule gets trickier as the season wears on; by late October and November, most teams are buried in their conference schedules, and on Thanksgiving weekend almost everyone is tied up in a rivalry game, leaving sparse options outside of scheduling other independents. That sealed one of the dates in each year of Liberty and New Mexico State’s arrangement.
“Basketball, whatever other sports, and you’re also starting to see some rematches in conference football championship games, so it’s certainly not unprecedented, but it is unique,” McCaw says. “It was a situation that we probably are not going to do again, but I would say the desperation of the timeframe is really what led to us suggesting the home-and-home.”
“Man, if you can slot in two games, you got two buy games [in which Power 5 schools pay NMSU to play them at their home stadiums], you’ve got an FCS game, and then for us, we’ve got that longstanding New Mexico and UTEP rivalry, hell, you’re kind of on your way, you know what I mean?” Moccia says. “You got seven games right there. So it’s been a little bit of a godsend for us to make our lives easier.”
There was another deadline hanging over the school’s discussions, approaching faster than Week 1 and carrying even more national interest. President Trump was to deliver the commencement address at Liberty in May 2017 by invitation from school president and staunch supporter Jerry Falwell Jr., and McCaw was racing to lock down the Flames’ ’18 schedule so that Trump could formally announce it during his speech. (“Would you like me to read the names, just came out? Would you like to hear them?” Trump asks the graduates at around the 2:47:30 mark of this recording of the ceremony, adding, “I’m a little bit concerned.”)
According to a Liberty athletic department spokesman, all of the schools on the 2018 schedule had been informed that President Trump was set to announce the matchups before the ceremony.
“He didn’t mention New Mexico State, but I’m like, ‘Dang it!’ He went through a lot of the opponents on the schedule,” Moccia says. “That’s why they were really desperate. I didn’t think Trump was going to unveil game-by-game, but he talked about a lot of the games.”
Those focused on the football side of the arrangement weren’t too fazed by the unorthodox in-season series. New Mexico State coach Doug Martin reached out to his coaching friends in the NFL to see how the pros adjust to playing divisional opponents twice in the same year, and he says the Aggies spent the same amount of summer prep on Liberty as they did on the 10 opponents they are only planning to play once.
“I think the best advice I got is that yeah, you do need to change some things when you play somebody twice because they’re going to have a better bead on you, especially your offense,” Martin says. “But don’t overthink it. There’s really a fine line to walk there because you don’t want to try to change your whole offense, but you need to have enough in there where the second time around, you don’t get stale.”
After leading the Aggies to their first bowl game in 57 years last season, Martin is embracing life as an independent and the occasional oddities that come with it. As a member of the Sun Belt, New Mexico State rarely played conference road games within its primary recruiting areas. And having worked as an assistant at East Carolina in the mid-1990s before the Pirates were invited to Conference USA, Martin appreciates the importance of independent schools securing some sort of bowl tie-in on their own, as New Mexico State did this summer with the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl and Liberty did with the Cure Bowl.
Of course, McCaw says, there’s always the outside chance the two schools are paired up by necessity in one of the next two postseasons, making it five meetings in two years. For now, Martin’s Aggies can’t think that far ahead after being held to just 135 yards of offense in a 29–7 season-opening loss to Wyoming, and Liberty has its own high bar to clear in its FBS debut after last year’s stunning season opener.
“The first game last year, when [Liberty] beat Baylor, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what have I done? They just beat a Big 12 opponent on the road!’” Moccia says. “But you know, that’s football. We’ll see how it goes.”