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Gameday Preview: UTEP Miners at New Mexico Lobos

The Miners take on the New Mexico Lobos in the season opener tonight at University Stadium in Albuquerque. Kickoff is slated for 6:00 p.m. MT.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

In what should prove to be an intriguing matchup, old Western Athletic Conference foes meet up on the gridiron for the 8th time since parting ways back in 1998.

UTEP holds the slight 4-3 advantage in those contests, but the Lobos own a 2-1 advantage in games played in Albuquerque, with the Miners' lone win coming in their last trip out in 2010 (38-20).

The last meeting between the teams came in El Paso a year ago, also in the season opener. That one turned out to be a back and forth affair, with both teams holding fourth quarter leads before overtime was needed to decide a winner. New Mexico prevailed 42-35.

That game will likely be the closest thing to a preview that we have for Saturday, and the winner will likely be determined by who is most improved on the defensive side of the football. In 2013, both these teams ranked near the bottom of the FBS in almost every major defensive category.

As far as total defense was concerned, the Miners gave up 468.3 ypg (109th), while conceding 7.43 yards per play (123rd). The Lobos gave up 516.2 ypg (121st), and 7.42 (122nd)yards per play. However, both teams will look to improve on those dismal numbers in 2014.

The Lobos say goodbye to defensive leader and leading tackler Dallas Bollema, as well as a pair of interior linemen, but bring back virtually everyone else, giving them the depth they've lacked over the first two years of coach Bob Davie's tenure.

Blooming star defensive end Brett Bowers and middle linebacker Dakota Cox will lead the way for the Lobo defense, giving them a pass rushing presence and a defensive stopper in the middle. However, whether or not this unit will be able to stop the run is still yet to be seen.

A year ago, the Lobos ranked 122nd in the nation, giving up well over six yards per attempt. Considering the weapons that the Miners return in the backfield, that average will have to be significantly better for this team to put themselves in good position for a win.

The story is much the same on the opposite of the ball. UTEP said goodbye to four seniors in the front seven of the defense, but brings back the majority of the secondary in their 4-2-5 scheme. Again, much like the Lobos, run stopping hasn't been a bright spot.

UTEP actually ranked just one spot better, 121st, giving well over six yards a rush attempt themselves. With the Lobos running an offense focused around a triple option that has always given the Miners fits, they simply will not be able to do a repeat of a year ago if they're going to pick up the win on the road.

The Lobos triple option offense is led by junior quarterback Cole Gautsche. While not much of a passer (by design), just 35 of 78 passes completed for 639 yards, Gautsche makes the offense go by getting it done on his feet. He happens to be the Lobos leading returning rusher (872 yds, 8 tds - 2013).

One can assume the Lobos won't pass the ball a ton, as they attempted just 14.8 passes per game a year ago. That worked out just fine for them though as they ranked 4th nationally, racking up better than 300 rushing yards per game. A similar offensive gameplan should be in line.

Offensively, the Miners should be a bit more balanced, but will also find comfort in pounding the rock. Senior quarterback Jameill Showers will look to build on a season that started out with much promise a year ago, and he'll have plenty of help in the backfield.

Sophomore Aaron Jones, who turned plenty of heads last season by compiling 811 rushing yards and a 5.2 ypc average as a true freshman, will look to build on those numbers in his sophomore campaign. Look for stud junior Nathan Jeffery to be a big factor as well.

But, the Miners will not (hopefully) be so one dimensional. Look for Showers to get the 6'4 Ian Hamilton into the mix on the outside, as well as senior tight end Eric Tomlinson.

The bottom line, as previously stated, is that both these teams will be extremely similar to those that we saw in week 1 a year ago. The only questions are, who will be more improved on defense, and who will come up with more big plays?

Both teams take pride in being able to run the football, which means a few things. Battles must be won on the line, offenses must keep their defenses off the field, and the ball must be protected. Whichever team is able to succeed in doing those things, will almost certainly come away with the win.

MinerRush Prediction:

UTEP 31, New Mexico 27