Sean Kugler's UTEP Miners will welcome former FCS power Old Dominion into the Sun Bowl in early October, and will look to get their home league slate off on the right track.
ODU enters their first full year as a member of the FBS, coming off an 8-4 campaign that saw them fall to ECU (52-38), Maryland (47-10), Pittsburgh (35-24), and North Carolina (80-20), while knocking off Idaho (59-38) in five games against FBS opponents.
The truth of the matter is that while this is a program that has seen nothing but success since its (re)inception in 2009 (haven't won less than 8 games in a season), there's no telling how they will transition into playing at the FBS level.
Offensively, the Monarchs will return star quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who passed for more than 4,000 yards and 33 touchdowns, while completing better than 70% of his passes, and throwing just 8 interceptions in 2013.
Heinicke has done nothing but improve, and impress, throughout his college career. Now, as a senior, he'll look to lead Old Dominion to their first ever bowl game.
As a team, the Monarchs threw the ball about 45 times a game in 2013, which would have ranked them 7th in the nation. We should expect more of the same as they enter Conference USA.
For Heinicke, he'll have several top targets back on the outside, but gone is senior Larry Pinkard (68 catches, 1020 yards) who was dismissed from the team a couple weeks ago. Stepping in to fill the void will likely be senior Antonio Vaughn (60 receptions, 843 yards) as well as a pair of other wideouts who totalled better than 500 yards a year ago.
The Monarchs will have to look for a replacement in the backfield with the departure of running back Colby Goodwyn. And despite the team being such a high paced, air it out offense, the running game (159 ypg) still plays a big role.
Senior Cam Boyd, who rushed for 450 yards on 76 carries last year, as well as sophomore Gerard Johnson, will look to take over the lead roles in the Monarch backfield.
Now, who will be opening the holes for those two is a completely different question. Gone are left tackle Jack Loney, left guard David Born, and right tackle D.J. Morrell. The two returners, center Josh Mann and right guard Connor Mewbourne have a combined 33 starts, but no one beyond those two has more than 6 career starts.
Couple that with that fact that only four total linemen have any career starts at all, and you could have an area of concern. This is a team that thrives on the play of its quarterback, and is able to open up the run with the pass, but a lack of experience up front could throw a wrench in the system as the program steps up to a bigger stage.
Old Dominion, defensively, will return 10 of 12 starters, but that might not necessarily be a good thing. That unit gave up a total of 408 points in 2013, good for an average of 34 points a game, and that average ballooned to over 50 points a game against FBS opponents.
Up front, the Monarchs will return sophomore end Terrell Reid and senior tackle Preston Smith, along with every other started from a year ago. Reid and Smith should lead the way though, and combined for nearly 50 tackles, better than 10 for loss, and 5 sacks in 2013.
In the middle, ODU will return senior Andre Simmons and sophomore Richie Staton, who combined for nearly 120 tackles, but there's no guarantee they'll assume their starting roles in 2014. A trio of JUCO transfers battled it out during the spring for all three spots in the middle, and could find themselves in the mix for starting roles.
As far as the secondary goes, junior Fellonte Misher returns as the leader of the group, totaling a team leading 74.5 tackles to go along with a pair of interceptions and fumble recoveries.
He should assume the starting role at strong safety with guys like senior Reggie Owens and sophomore Sandy Chapman filling the corner slots, and sophomore Rob Thompson filling the free safety role.
Special teams remains a huge question for the Monarchs heading into 2014. Graduated are punter Jake Walsh, placekicker Jarrod Brown, and the team's top three returners.
An interesting note though, Heinicke happened to punt 13 times in 2013, for an average of 41 yards a kick. While we probably shouldn't assume he'll become a full time punter, it is something to keep an eye in certain situations.
All in all, the Monarchs are a team that are primed to make a smooth transition into the FBS level of play. That is, if their defense can find a way to become more consistent.
The offense, led by Heinicke, is one that has shown they can put up points against just about anybody, but that defense has also shown it will give up points to just about anybody.
Still though, the Miner defense will have to be primed and ready to take on a record holding QB, and a high powered offense that could easily cause them trouble. If this one becomes a shootout, I'm just not sure we'll be able to put up 40-50.
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