The UTEP Miners will host the Abilene Christian Wildcats in the newly renovated Sun Bowl Stadium on Saturday night, marking the first meeting between the two schools since 1959.
UTEP managed to snap an 11-game losing streak in its season opener with a 24-14 victory over Stephen F. Austin. But the celebration was short-lived, as the outmatched Miners made their way to Austin last week to face the Longhorns. As expected, No. 14 Texas made easy work of the Miners in a 59-3 blowout. Now 1-1 on the season, Dana Dimel's Miners will look to rebound against Abilene Christian on Saturday. A win would give UTEP its first 2-1 start to a season since 2011.
Abilene Christian is set to embark on its first game of the season. The Wildcats are one of four FCS teams hailing from the Southland Conference that decided to opt out of the proposed 2021 FCS spring season in order to play a limited schedule this fall. Led by fourth-year head coach Adam Dorrel, the Wildcats are coming off a somewhat disappointing 5-7 season. They now go in search of a signature upset win on the road against an FBS opponent to kick off their 2020 campaign.
Abilene Christian at UTEP
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: UTEP -4
When Abilene Christian Has the Ball
The Wildcats' top priority this offseason was finding a replacement for 2019 starting quarterback Luke Anthony, who left the program to compete for the starting job at Louisiana Tech as a grad transfer. Instead, it appears Dorrel has settled on a pair of quarterbacks to start the season in dual-threats Sema'J Davis and Iowa transfer Peyton Mansell.
Davis is the more experienced of the two signal-callers and will likely get the start. He had mixed results in a reserve role as a passer last season, completing 59 percent of his passes for 388 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions. However, Davis really shined as a runner, adding 621 yards (6.1 ypc) and four scores on the ground in 2019. Mansell appeared in five games for Iowa in 2018, completing 5-of-8 pass attempts for 83 yards, to go along with 31 rushing yards and a touchdown on eight carries. Both quarterbacks will play on Saturday, and both are dynamic athletes that could prove to be a handful for the UTEP defense.
Wide receiver Kobe Clark returns for the Abilene Christian offense after setting the school's single-season record for receptions last season with 87. Former Nebraska transfer, Branden Hohenstein, will provide another experienced pass catcher for the Wildcats at tight end. Meanwhile, Tyrese White (5.6 ypc in 2019) and true freshman Jermiah Dobbins are expected to do most of the heavy lifting for the ACU rushing attack on Saturday night. An experienced offensive line, anchored by senior Kade Parmelly, will help lead the way. The UTEP defense would be ill-advised to look past a potentially dangerous Abilene Christian offense.
When UTEP Has the Ball
Quarterback Gavin Hardison will make his third career start on Saturday. The sophomore signal-caller struggled mightily against Texas last week as expected. However, he did perform reasonably well in Week 1 against Stephen F. Austin, which is a much better measuring stick for the purposes of previewing this matchup. Despite committing a pair of turnovers, Hardison was efficient in completing 61 percent of his passes for 212 yards and a touchdown against the SFA defense. Wide receivers Jacob Cowing (11 catches for 165 yards) and Justin Garrett (9 catches for 110 yards, 1 touchdown) have provided Hardison with a pair of reliable targets so far this season, a trend that should continue against Abilene Christian. The strength of the UTEP offense lies in the run game, where redshirt freshman running back Deion Hankins stole the show in week 1, running for 113 yards and a pair of scores on 17 carries against SFA. He could be in for a bigger workload on Saturday night.
The Abilene Christian defense is somewhat of a mystery, but there appears to be talent in place with a host of FBS transfers on the roster. All-Conference linebacker Jeremiah Chambers, who led the Wildcats in tackles last season, will be missed after exhausting his eligibility. Kameron Hill, the team's top returning pass rusher, also will be missed after opting out due to COVID-19 concerns. However, senior linebacker Jack Gibbens is back to spearhead the ACU defense following an impressive 2019 season that included 104 tackles (8.5 for loss), 2.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions.
This is not a particularly safe game for UTEP, and an upset isn't out of the question. The Abilene Christian offense will feature a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks who could create problems for the UTEP defense. The Wildcats also have added a slew of FBS transfers to their roster in the offseason to go along with a solid group of returning starters.
On the flip side, UTEP should still be the superior team in terms of personnel, and the Miners have already had time to jell and knock off the rust with two full games under their belt. Abilene Christian has not been afforded that luxury, and with so many new faces in the Wildcats' lineup, mistakes could be plentiful. That will be the difference, as UTEP starts the season 2-1 for the first time since 2011.
Prediction: UTEP 31, Abilene Christian 21
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo courtesy of @UTEPFB)