Ever ask yourself what could have been? When it comes to UTEP Miner football, that question swims in my head quite often.
At UTEP, success in football can be measured in bowl appearances, nonetheless bowl wins. After a 45-year drought, the Miners have not lived up to that success but maybe one player could make that difference and move them over that hump.
The majority of UTEP's "success" has come in the past 12 years and by success, I mean multiple bowl appearances but no bowl wins, still. The 1970s were not kind to the Miners, as were the 1990s. No team in either decade made a bowl appearance. In the 1980s, one team made a bowl, in 1988, in which they lost to Brett Favre's 10-2 Southern Miss Golden Eagle team.
That 1988 team holds the Miners' best record since 1956 at 10-3 but were blown out by Southern Miss 38-18. I could go on and say how I wished Barry Sanders, the 1988 Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma State, played for that team, hoping for a shootout between two possibly high-profile offenses but I'm going to go back not too far and keep things within the last decade.
My favorite Miner team since I've been alive has been the 2000 team with the duo of quarterback Rocky Perez and wide receiver Lee Mays. Then there was All-American (and UTEP's first consensus All-American) tight end Brian Natkin who led the nation in receptions and receiving yards for his position.
The offense was unreal that year. The defense, not so much. Defensive tackle and future NFL-er Menson Holloway was the driving force for that side of the ball but gave up 371 yards of offense each game. They went on to finish 8-4 overall, win a share of the WAC-regular season title and play Boise State at their own blue turf in the Humanitarian Bowl against All-American QB Bart Hendricks. Boise State went on to drub the Miners 38-23 in the bowl.
However, you just cannot simply take away or downplay the toughness of Perez. Would Chris Weinke, the Heisman winner that year for Florida State have been a better QB for the Miners that year? Possibly, but out of respect for what he did for UTEP, I would never want a replacement for Perez.
So that brings me to my next favorite team: the 2004 UTEP Miner squad.
That team may be a little more fresh in fans' minds with it being quarterback Jordan Palmer's breakout season, another monster year for wide receiver Johnny Lee Higgins and the promising beginning for the Mike Price era (or so we assumed).
That was a team I felt in my young mind that they'd have a great chance to finally win a bowl game. I remember actually making it out to the EV1.net Houston Bowl game, feeling the energy of a true UTEP-proud crowd in Reliant Stadium and really feeling the sting of that loss to a Colorado Buffalo squad I really felt they should not have lost to. My most vivid memory of the game actually occurred after the game, when I saw the Miners on SportsCenter for what I believed was the first time all year. With UTEP down five and the ball, facing a fourth down so their last chance, too, Jordan Palmer missed a slanting Higgins down the middle that would have put them in field goal range (although they obviously needed the touchdown). The SportsCenter announcer stated at that point (paraphrased) "Palmer, who's had a great year, this being his sophomore year only, misses an open receiver down the middle and Colorado held on..."
At that moment, I really sat down and thought to myself, "did Palmer really have that great of a year?" I remember UTEP fans jumping on his bandwagon because he was former-USC QB's (and 2002 Heisman winner) Carson Palmer's brother, because of the great year and because they finally made a bowl appearance, but I never bought into him.
Jordan would have never been Jordan had it not been for Higgins. That year, 700 of Palmer's 2,800 passing yards went to Higgins, 10 of the 28 passing touchdowns went to him, too. Also, running back Howard Jackson had over 1,000 yards rushing and 10 TDs that season, too.
Palmer began to show his true colors the next two years, as he began relying on Higgins more, where he contributed to 22 of Palmer's last 55 touchdown passes.
That 2004 year, with UTEP's best outcome at a bowl since winning one in 1957, USC's Matt Leinart followed in Jordan's brother's footsteps and won the Heisman.
If I could switch one Heisman for anyone of the Miners' teams, it would be that year, especially given the fact the UTEP would have enjoyed another year of the great college QB. Leinart could have brought out even greater things in Higgins, made better decisions in the huddle and in the pocket, such as better utilizing Jackson, and even brought better use to the rest of his receiving corp (Jason Boyd and Chris Francies were both 500+ yard receivers with Palmer, anyways).
In the new NCAA College Football 2013, those are probably my intentions to better revamp that special UTEP team as that option is possible. But what do you say Miner fans and readers? Which team would you like to see with a Heisman winner? Would you tweak an existing bowl team such as 1988, 2000, 2004, 2005 or 2010? Or mess with other teams that just missed bowl eligibility such as last year's?
This post was sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 13. Check out the video for the game below.
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