Over the last two weeks, we've broken down the UTEP football non-conference schedule, and the conference home slate. Now, with 86 days until the September 1st kickoff, its time to break down the conference road games. So far, my optimism has projected the Miners to go 5-3 in the games already covered, but what will happen on the road?
Week 5: UTEP Miners @ ECU Pirates - 9/29/12 - Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium - Greenville, NC
The Miners open up the conference slate on the road, in perhaps the most hostile football venue in C-USA. To make matters worse, UTEP knocked off ECU last year in the Sun Bowl, in a year when the Pirates entered the season as one of the better teams in C-USA East. Look for that loss to still be on the minds of the Pirates come late September.Offensively, ECU brings back 7 starters from a unit that was one of the most efficient passing units in C-USA. But, the biggest piece to that puzzle was QB Dominique Davis, who completed nearly 70% of his passes in 2011. And, unfortunately for the Pirates, Davis is a now a member of the Atlanta Falcons. The good news is they get back their top two rushers, and four of their top five receivers, all of which had 400+ yards in 2011.
Defensively, the Pirates return 7 starters, including inside LBs Jeremy Grove and Daniel Drake, who ranked 1 and 3 in tackles last year for ECU, combining for over 200 between them. The Pirates also bring back both outside LBs, as well as FS Damon Magazu (4th in tackles in 2011, 4 ints), DE Matt Milner and DT Michael Brooks.
Prediction: The Pirates are in their 3rd year in the Ruffin McNeil era, and both of the previous two seasons have been mediocre at best. They do lose a huge part of their team in star QB Dominique Davis, but they return a lot of key players in 2012. While I would like to think the Miners will hang tough in this game, I just don't see them coming out with a win in such a hostile environment.
Pirates 31, Miner 21
Week 7: UTEP Miners @ Tulsa Golden Hurricane - 10/13/12 - Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium - Tulsa, OK
The Golden Hurricane are another team in Conference USA that will have to replace a star QB in 2012. Last year, GJ Kinne and company managed an 8-4 regular season, even while playing a schedule much like the Miners face this year. In week 12, Tulsa rolled into El Paso, and rolled over the Miners, nearly putting 60 on the Sun Bowl scoreboard. Hopefully the outcome this year will be a bit different.
Offensively, Tulsa brings back a slew of starters (6), and other reserves, who accounted for a big portion of the production in 2011. Key returning players include: RBs Ja'Terrian Douglas and Trey Watts (880 yards plus each on the ground), HB Willie Carter (860 yds rec), and WR Bryan Burnam (850 yds rec). Considering that, if they can find someone to put the ball in their hands, they shouldn't have too much trouble moving it.
Defensively, the Hurricane bring back 7 starters, including three on the line, and three in the secondary. Also returning is LB Shawn Jackson who was second on the team in tackling (97) in 2011. This unit will have to figure out a way to sure up that LB group, but with so many returning starters, it shouldn't be too hard.
Prediction: While I wish I could say that the Miners will find their first conference road win in week 7, I just don't see it happening. GJ Kinne was no doubt a huge reason this team was so successful in 2011, but with so many key pieces returning, its hard to believe they will fall off very much.
Golden Hurricane 27, Miners 20
Week 9: UTEP Miners @ Houston Cougars - 10/27/12 - Robertson Stadium - Houston, TX
The Miners and the Cougars have really established a pretty good C-USA West rivalry over the last years, playing some close and competitive games more often than not. Last year was no different. Even with Houston being a huge favorite, the Miners gave them all they could handle. A Nick Lamaison pass in the closing seconds fell short of Mike Edwards in the end zone, and the Cougars escaped 49-42.
Offensively, the Cougars will only return 5 starters, and like the other teams on this list, they will have to replace a star QB. On top of that, Kevin Sumlin bolted for Texas A&M, leaving UH to replace their coach as well. Needless to say, it will be extremely tough for them to match the production of 2011, as that squad ranked first nationally in multiple offensive categories.
The good news for Houston fans is that they return nearly their entire offensive line. But, the only skill position starter that's back is RB Charles Sims (820 yds, 9 TDs). Besides Sims, no other Houston player that returns had more than 200 yards rushing or receiving.
Defensively, the Cougars will welcome back 6 starters, including LBs Derrick Matthews and Phillip Steward. Those two combined for 180 tackles last season. Both starting corners also return, as do two players on the defensive line. The leader of this team, Marcus McGraw (141 tackles), is no longer around, and that's a huge hit to a front 7 that was far from stellar a year ago. The Miners exposed that unit for 270 yards on the ground in the last matchup.
Prediction: There's no doubt that on paper, the Miners should be able to hang with this Houston team. That's not to say this will be a down year for the Cougars, but it will be nearly impossible to live up to what this team was a year ago. That said, the Miners may need this win badly, and I think they come up with it.
Miners 37, Cougars 31
Week 12: UTEP Miners @ Southern Miss Golden Eagles - 11/17/12 - M.M Roberts Stadium - Hattiesburg, MS
The Miners wrap up perhaps that toughest road slate they've faced in C-USA with a road trip to Southern Miss in week 12. Last year, the Golden Eagles knocked off the Miners in El Paso, midway through an 8 game win streak that ended at UAB.
Offensively, Southern Miss brings back 6 starters, but will have to replace, you guessed it...their star QB. And like Houston, they also will have to replace their coach, Larry Fedora, who took the head spot at UNC. Rbs Jamal Woodyard and Tracy Lampley will likely be leaned on heavily as this offense transitions, as the two combined for over 1,100 yards in 2011, and Lampley enters as the top returning receiver.
The defense will only return 4 starters from a unit that was easily in the top tier in Conference USA. The secondary remains almost entirely in tact, but the front 7 will have to be completely rebuilt. LB Jamie Collins (76 tackles) is the only member of that front 7 back in 2012.
Prediction: Considering what we know; is it really that crazy to think that the Miners could go out and pick up another road win in C-USA?? I don't think so. But, it's EXTREMELY hard for me to choose the Miners again. After all, no UTEP team in the Mike Price era has won more than 2 road games in a season. I really hope I'm wrong, but I just can't pick the Miners.
Golden Eagles 28, Miners 27
In three weeks, we've broken down the entire UTEP football schedule. My predictions have the Miners finishing 6-6, and in all honesty I think that's pretty reasonable. Here's a recap of the breakdown:
|2||at Ole Miss||Win||1-1|
|3||vs New Mexico State||Win||2-1|
|5||at East Carolina||Loss||2-3|
|12||at Southern Miss||Loss||5-6|
Of course, many people are extremely skeptical, and they have every right to be. But, don't write this team off before the season even starts. As I've been saying for weeks, it will all come down to how the Miners make it through the non-conference slate. A win at Ole Miss would be huge, but just coming out of the three big games healthy will be a win all on its own. If they can manage to do that, I would really expect the Miners to make a return to a bowl game. What do you think?