Both UTEP and Rice were expected to be somewhere near the top of the C-USA West in 2015. And while it hasn't worked out to plan for both teams, they each a have a chance at turning into the right direction Friday night.
The Owls have won eight of the last nine matchups against UTEP including a 33-24 victory in the Owls last trip to the Sun Bowl a season before Sean Kugler took over.
UTEP controls their own bowl destiny per say. A win would tie the Miners and Owls for third place in the C-USA West, and give UTEP much needed momentum down the stretch of the season with long shot hopes of going to a second straight bowl.
After a solid 29 minutes of defense in the first half against Southern Miss. The issues of missed tackles and bad pursuit angles allowed Southern Miss. to torch the UTEP defense for an over 500-yards of total offense performance.
UTEP's senior defensive back Ishmael Harrison is questionable tonight with an undisclosed injury which will mean more playing time for freshmen Nik Needham, Michael Lewis and junior Dashone Smith in the secondary.
Stopping the run will be the main key for the UTEP defense, but has been an issue at times this year.
UTEP ranks 41st in success rate against the run, but ranks 126th in the nation in allowing explosive runs.
Rice's dual threat at quarterback in Driphus Jackson will be a guy the Miners have to keep grounded.
In Rice's last two wins, Jackson scored two fourth quarter touchdowns to rally the Owls for triumphant victories. With a player like Jackson, you throw away the stats due to the fact that the kid is just a gamer, and is experienced in executing the Rice offense.
Rice is second in the nation in time of possession thanks to Jackson's quarterback play and leadership, but also due to a pair of talented running backs as well.
Darik Dillard leads rice with 443 yards on the ground and boasts a 5.0 yard per carry average. Freshman Samuel Stewart has been inserted into a big role and is right behind Dillard with 321 yards with a 4.5 yard per carry average.
Surprisingly, the Owls have a +3.9 adjusted offensive pace which ranks 32nd in the nation. So while they do run a quick tempo on offense, its been more of an efficient, methodical tempo rather than a full out NASCAR tempo.
Rice's rushing success rate on the season sits at an impressive 48.5% which ranks 17th in the nation, if UTEP doesn't tackle well or allows yards after contact, Rice will have their way all night.
Where their offense has struggled is in protecting Jackson. Rice has a 12.4% sack rate on passing downs, which could mean heavy production from UTEP's rush ends.
Nick Usher and Roy Robertson-Harris, along with defensive tackle Sky Logan could benefit with Rice's young and struggling offensive line. This could be a game in where UTEP is able to dial down the blitzes, and allow the front four to do their thing.
On the offensive side for the Miners, its possible UTEP can steal a few big plays against a struggling Rice defense.
But how will the Miners go about setting that up is the biggest question Sean Kugler answered on Monday.
"Number one, you've got to dial them up. I talked to the staff about minimum two chunks a quarter. We have to dial those up." Sean Kugler said. "If it's off the play action, you've got to be running the ball well. Kind of like we did against FAU, we were running the ball well and the play action worked. If the running game isn't going solid, the play actions don't work. But we've got to manufacture shots down the field because I still do believe with guys like [Tyler] Batson and Autrey Golden and Cole Freytag, Jaquan [White] and Warren [Redix], they do have the ability to stretch the field and we've got to dial those up and execute them when they are dialed up."
Getting sophomore wide out Tyler Batson involved should be a main priority in this one. Batson is averaging 11.7 yards per target this season, but only had two catches against Southern Miss. a week after he recorded UTEP's lone 100-yard receiving game on the season.
UTEP has seen an increased production in the run game with LaQuintus Dowell finally passing the injured Aaron Jones for UTEP's rushing leader honors. Dowell mixed with Jeremiah Laufasa has been a physical tandem to deal with, but UTEP needs the pass game to generate big plays off the run since right now UTEP's run game is a three-to-four yard per attempt attack.
Keeping tight end Hayden Plinke involved should be another key component of the UTEP offensive gameplan. Plinke is second on the team in targets, but only has a 55.8% catch rate, and we have all seen what happens when he has the ball in his hands.
Rice ranks in the bottom 90's nationally when it comes to havoc rate on the defensive side, and have a rushing success rate on defense of 28.1% which ranks 114th in the nation. They also only have two interceptions on the season and rank 123rd when it comes to allowing explosive plays.
What that means is Rice hasn't played in the other team's backfield, which also means UTEP should be able keep themselves in manageable down distances minus penalties or other self-inflicted wounds.
Both team have the equal amount of strengths and weaknesses, and have endured a tough non-conference slate.
Bowl hopes, pride, and some C-USA West bragging rights will all unfold under Friday night lights as UTEP plays their 300th game in the Sun Bowl.