Finally; football season is here. The months have turned to weeks, the weeks have turned to days, and soon the days will turn to hours. This Saturday, at 8:30 p.m. MT, our UTEP Miners will open up the season as we take on the 4th ranked Oklahoma Sooners in the Sun Bowl.
Leading up to the game we here at MinerRush will have plenty of coverage beginning with this game preview, as well as Q&A's with the guys at Oklahoma's SB Nation site CrimsonandCreamMachine.com, and also Podcast segments with those guys as well.
Make sure to stay tuned to both sites over the coming days for tons of info on the game, and as always, don't forget to tune into MinerRush's Gameday Open Comment Thread via the the full website, the mobile website, or the SB Nation App. Chime in!!
Saturday's season opener for the Miners marks the second time in the CMP era that we have opened up against a Power 6 conference opponent. In 2004, the Miners opened up at Arizona State, a 41-9 loss. Overall Coach Price has a 5-3 mark in openers at UTEP, with two wins coming against Non-BCS opponents, two coming against NMSU and UNM, and one coming against San Diego State.
The Miners and the Sooners have squared off two times before, with the Sooners taking both games by a total score of 123-14. Both of those games though have come in Norman, OK. Oklahoma and UTEP last met on September 14th, 2002 in Norman. That game was a 68-0 loss for the Miners.
The Miners are also 0-11 versus Big 12 teams including losses to Texas (2), Texas Tech (3), Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, and Texas A&M. Overall, UTEP is 4-47 versus AP top 25 teams, and 3-17 in games versus top 25 teams played in the Sun Bowl. The last win against a top 25 team was back in 2009 against 12th ranked Houston.
The Sooners come into the 2012 season ranked 4th in both the AP and Coaches' Poll, and also received one first place vote in the AP rankings. They are led by senior quarterback Landry Jones, and coach Bob Stoops who enters his 14th year as the head man, and owns an overall mark of 139-34 (.803).
Jones, who decided to return to Oklahoma for his senior year, is certainly one of the top quarterbacks in the land, and could be in the running for the 2012 Heisman. In fact, he was already considered a first round prospect for the 2012 NFL draft, but he decided to return to make one more run at a National Championship.
In his college career, Landry Jones has completed better than 60% of his passes, and has amassed more than 12,000 yards through the air. In 2011, Jones went for 4,400 yards to go along with 29 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions.
Behind Jones are a couple of talented running backs in senior Dominique Whaley, and junior Roy Finch. Whaley was the starter for the first half of 2011, and he racked up 627 yards and 9 touchdowns on 113 carries, but a broken ankle forced him to the sideline for the remainder of the year.
Finch took over from there, and was arguably the more productive back. While his yardage (605 yards on 111 carries) wasn't better, he did play the tougher part of the schedule. Its still unclear which back will take the lead role in 2012, but at least to start, it'll probably somewhat of a timeshare.
The wide receiving corp was a big area of concern for the Sooners heading into Summer, but all of those concerns have now been addressed. Kenny Stills, the second leading receiver from a year ago, is back at work, and OU also added Penn State transfer Justin Brown and juco transfer LaColton Bester.
Throw in a couple of talented freshman, and the Sooners are now looking as strong as ever at the wide receiver position. Granted, most of these guys have never caught a ball from Landry Jones in a game, but the talent and ability is certainly there.
The one area of uncertainty for the Oklahoma offense may now be the offensive line. Over the last weeks, the team has lost three guys to injury, as well as a freshman and former high school All-American who left the program due to personal reasons.
Up front, the Sooners are left with a group of guys who do have some starting experience, but after the loss of so many, their depth is definitely in question. Much like the O-Line, the tight end position is a question as well. The top two guys from 2011 are gone, and now a three man battle that includes a transformed defensive end is ongoing.
Defensively, Oklahoma is led by former Arizona head coach Mike Stoops, who takes over the defensive play calling after an 8 year break. Mike Stoops was the defensive coordinator from 1999-2003 when he left to take over the head gig at Zona.
On the line, the Sooners lose both starting ends, who also happened to be All Conference players. But, the interior is in much better shape. The top three defensive tackles return, and there's another couple players who could see action this season as well.
At linebacker, the team returns junior Tom Wort, who had 71 tackles and 2 interceptions a season ago, as well as junior Corey Nelson (59 tackles). Beyond those two though, there isn't a ton of experience. This unit, at this point, isn't a deep one.
The secondary for the Sooners is the deepest of the defensive units with five players returning who have starting experience. The group is led by senior Demontre Hurst and junior Aaron Colvin at the corners, and sophomore Tony Jefferson and senior Javon Harris at the safety spots.
Overall, the Sooners have plenty of experience returning on the defense, but its not a truly deep unit. Questions in the front seven are still yet to be answered, but at the same time, how much of a question that group actually poses, is still yet to be determined.
On special teams Tress Way returns as the starting punter, and sophomore Michael Hunnicutt will take over kicking duties. Way was an All Big 12 honorable mention in 2011, while Hunnicutt earned his starting role in spring training.
The Miners enter the 9th season with Coach Mike Price at the helm. While Price is only two wins away from becoming the second winningest coach in UTEP history, it'll take a lot more than those two to keep CMP around for any more than this season.
On offense, the Miners are led by senior quarterback Nick Lamaison. While the QB hasn't exactly had a stellar offseason, he is clearly the leader for this team. After passing for more than 7,500 yards at the juco level, and winning back to back National Championships, Lamasion is certainly seems capable of a breakout senior year.
Gone from 2011 is the three headed monster of running backs in Joe Banyard, Vernon Frazier, and Leilyon Myers, but in is a solid group of talented youngsters led by Nathan Jeffery, Josh Bell, Autrey Golden, and Xay Williams. All should find their way onto the field in one way or another in 2012.
The wide receiving group welcomes back senior Mike Edwards and sophomore Jordan Leslie who were Lamasion's top two targets in 2011. Tack on the addition of 6'5 220 lb juco transfer Ian Hamilton, and the Miners' receiving group will certainly be an asset.
More than just receivers though, the Miners also boast a crew of tight ends led by junior Kevin Perry and sophomore Eric Tomlinson. Behind those two are sophomores Craig Wenrick and Katrae Ford. Much like the running backs, all of these guys are likely to see plenty of action this season.
The offensive line is easily the most experienced group for the Miner offense, and they are led by a Rimington Award Candidate in senior center Eloy Atkinson. While this group has both depth and experience, injuries have been an issue, as has protection. But, if the group can stay healthy, they should be much improved from a year ago.
Up front the Miners are led by a group of guys with plenty of starting experience. On the outsides are junior Horace Miller and senior Greg Watkins, and on the interior are high motor guys in juniors Germard Reed and Marcus Bagley. The front four also happens to be a unit with plenty of depth as there are a handful of capable reserves behind these starters.
The linebackers are anchored by senior Jamie Irving. He was the leader in tackles for the linebacking group in 2010, but was out for 2011 due to a shoulder injury. Irving will occupy the middle, while guys like senior Aubrey Alexius and senior Josh Fely should start on other side of him. Expect junior A.J. Ropati to be in the mix as well.
The secondary is another talented and experienced group that welcomes back one starter at corner, and one at safety. Senior Drew Thomas is the corner, and senior DeShawn Grayson is the safety. Starting opposite of Thomas will be senior Darren Woodard, and occupying the other safety spot is senior Richard Spencer. Again, this is a unit with plenty of experience and depth. Look for the secondary to be a big strength for the Miner D.
Special teams will also be a strength for the Miners. Senior punter Ian Campbell is easily one of the best punters in conference, and really one of the best in the nation at that. He has already been named to the Ray Guy award watch list. And, senior kicker Dakota Warren is looking like he's back to him old form after struggling a bit in 2011. He should resume his role as the main FG kicker for the Miners.
When comparing the two teams, its easy to just write the Miners off as the inferior squad. And, while that may or may not be the case, this is certainly the most experienced and deepest team that Mike Price has ever fielded at UTEP. The same can't exactly be said for the Sooners.
In my opinion, this game will ultimately be decided up front. Can the UTEP offensive line give Nick Lamaison time in the pocket, and can they open up holes for these young but talented running backs? Can the defensive line break through and get pressure on Landry Jones to disrupt the rhythm of the Sooner offense?
Of course those aren't the only questions for this game, but the way those are answered will speak volumes to the outcome of this game. This will undoubtedly be a tough test for our Miners, and while we shouldn't EXPECT a win, we should expect for this team to be competitive.
While many have been quick to sell this team short, there is no question that the feeling within the team is much different than that on the outside. This team truly feels they have the ability to make a run at the Conference USA championship, and to be honest, who is to tell them otherwise?
More than anything, for the game on Saturday, we just need for our team to stay healthy. The game against Oklahoma is only the start of a campaign that stretches over the next 13 weeks. If we can just come out of this one healthy, that will be a victory in and of itself.