Exhale. The college football season is here. And with the arrival of a new campaign, what better way to usher in 2022 than with one of the surprises of 2021 kicking things off in Week 0?
UTEP emerged as one of the best stories of last season, earning a bowl bid and the program's first winning record since 2014. The Miners' seven victories in 2021 matched UTEP's total over the previous five seasons combined.
Dana Dimel's squad aims to build off of last year's memorable campaign, but the Miners open 2022 with a tough matchup against Conference USA counterpart North Texas.
The Mean Green scored a 20-17 late-season win over the Miners last November in Denton, sealed with Ethan Mooney's field goal in the closing seconds.
North Texas at UTEP
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 27 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: North Texas -1
When North Texas Has the Ball
Mean Green head coach Seth Littrell broke into coaching during the early days of the Air Raid's proliferation into what's now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision. Working with Mike Leach at Texas Tech, Sonny Dykes at Arizona, and Larry Fedora at North Carolina, Littrell came to Denton with a bevy of exposure to different implementations of the scheme. North Texas reaped the rewards with a top-20 scoring offense in 2017 and top 30 in 2018, while quarterback Mason Fine pitched the ball all over the yard.
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell left for the same post at USC in 2019 (a job he now holds at West Virginia), and Tommy Mainord stepped in as co-OC. Mainord's wide receivers in his dual role as positions coach have been solid, with Roderic Burns stepping up to fill All-American Jaelon Darden's void last season.
Burns is back along with Damon Ward, but it won't matter if North Texas can't find consistent quarterback play. Co-offensive coordinator Mike Bloesch moved from coaching the offensive line to quarterbacks in the offseason; how that impacts the Mean Green's lack of efficiency in the passing game a year ago could be the difference in them contending for the C-USA West title and scraping to reach bowl eligibility.
UNT lost an outstanding running back in DeAndre Torrey, but Ikaika Ragsdale and Ayo Adeyi offer a nice thunder-lightning combination.
When UTEP Has the Ball
When Mike Stoops hired Seth Littrell to coach running backs and tight ends at Arizona, he did so to replace Dana Dimel, the current UTEP head coach. Dimel flourished in the role, aiding in the rise of a player you've perhaps heard about in the last 15 years, Rob Gronkowski.
Dimel parlayed his successful tenure in Tucson into a return to Kansas State, where he worked as offensive coordinator under legendary Bill Snyder. Dimel was something of a mad scientist, finding success through unusual means — including the conversion of a tight end into a Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback with Collin Klein.
The unconventional, multifaceted approach Dimel oversaw at K-State shaped UTEP last season, evident in the two-way production of ball carriers/pass catchers Reynaldo Flores and Ronald Awatt. Awatt is a conventional, every-down back, but enough of a receiving threat that defenses have to account for him coming out of the backfield.
And when it comes to receiving, it'll be all-hands-on-deck as UTEP seeks to replace the production lost with Jacob Cowing's transfer to Arizona. The 1,354-yard receiving leaves a gaping hole in quarterback Gavin Hardison's rotation of targets.
An evening kickoff in the Sun Bowl is a perfect cap to the first(ish) college football weekend. It's made all the more rewarding when a good matchup is on deck, which this C-USA showdown should deliver.
Both teams have question marks as a result of transfers — Gabriel and Grayson Murphy exiting the UNT defense for UCLA leaves a major hole for the Mean Green — and Cowing's production is difficult to replicate. But that should only contribute to the likelihood of a nailbiter akin to last year's contest decided on the final possession.
Prediction: North Texas 24, UTEP 21
Podcast: Complete Week 0 Preview, Predictions, Fall Practice Updates, the Big Ten's New TV Deal and Favorite Over/Unders for 2022
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break.