The UTEP Miners and Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks will meet for the first time ever on Saturday night inside the freshly renovated Sun Bowl Stadium.
The UTEP football program, which seems to be in a perpetual state of rebuilding, hasn't had a winning season since 2014. The Miners are just 2-34 over the last three seasons and enter the 2020 campaign looking to snap an 11-game losing streak that dates back to last year's season opener against Houston Baptist. Third-year head coach Dana Dimel hopes to right the ship with what looks to be his most talented roster to date. But experience will be in short supply with just seven starters returning from a squad that had just one victory in 2019.
The last couple of seasons have been a nightmare for Stephen F. Austin as well. The Lumberjacks had just two wins in 2018, followed by an unspectacular 3-9 record last season playing out of the Southland Conference in the FCS ranks. To make matters worse, SFA was forced to vacate all 29 of its wins dating back to 2013 due to NCAA violations. The Lumberjacks also face a postseason ban, which played a role in their decision to opt out of the proposed spring 2021 FCS season in order to play a limited schedule this fall. For second-year head coach Colby Carthel, nothing would help ease the pain of NCAA sanctions more than an upset victory over an FBS team on the road, even if that team is UTEP.
Stephen F. Austin at UTEP
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 5 at 9 p.m. ET
When Stephen F. Austin Has the Ball
The Lumberjacks return a solid nucleus on offense at the skill positions. That includes their top two rushers from last season in senior running backs Josh McGowan and Da'Leon Ward, who combined for 921 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground last season. However, SFA is more likely to turn to the air against UTEP with the return of junior quarterback Trae Self and sophomore wide receiver Xavier Gipson. Self will look to improve on an up-and-down 2019 season in which he completed 53.4 percent of his passes for 2,550 yards, with 12 touchdowns to go along with 12 interceptions. He will lean heavily on Gipson, who led the Lumberjacks in receptions (52), receiving yards (934), and receiving touchdowns (7) en route to FCS Freshman All-American honors last season. Gipson may also be the best player on the field on Saturday night. For that reason, expect a UTEP secondary to throw everything they have at the star wide receiver. That effort will be led by a talented trio of defensive backs in Josh Caldwell, Duron Lowe, and Justin Prince.
The big question mark for the Lumberjacks lies up front with the offensive line. UTEP's defensive front isn't exactly scary, but the Miners did add several junior college transfers in the offseason to bolster the defensive line. And rising sophomore Praise Amaewhule, who led the Miners in sacks and TFLs last season, could pose a major problem for SFA on the edge.
When UTEP Has the Ball
The Miners will be tasked with breaking in a new starting quarterback this season in sophomore Gavin Hardison. While that doesn't exactly bode well for a UTEP passing game that has ranked among the worst in college football over the last three seasons, there is reason for optimism. Despite completing just 27 of his 61 passes in limited action as a reserve last season, Hardison did show flashes en route to 335 passing yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. The Miners' new signal-caller also has a strong group of wide receivers to rely on in Devaughn Cooper, Justin Garrett, and deep-threat Jacob Cowing. That being said, Hardison and company will be put to the test against a talented SFA secondary — led by All-Conference cornerback Willie Roberts, along with last year's leading tackler Trenton Gordon and Oklahoma State transfer Kris McCune manning the safety positions.
It will be important for the UTEP passing game to show improvement in the season opener. However, Dimel will likely leave most of the heavy lifting on offense to the run game. It should be the strength of the Miners' offense in 2020, and you can fully expect to see a heavy dose of running backs Quardraiz Wadley, Joshua Fields, and Deion Hankins on Saturday night against the Lumberjacks. The Miners also look to have a slight advantage up front against a lackluster Stephen F. Austin defensive line.
Stephen F. Austin is not without weapons on offense and should be able to find some success against a UTEP defense that gave up an average of 35.9 points per game last season (119th nationally) and lost nine of its top 15 tacklers. The problem is that the Lumberjack defense wasn't any better in 2019, giving up an average of 453.0 yards and 34.9 points per game against even worse competition at the FCS level.
That doesn't mean that SFA can't give the Miners a run for their money on Saturday night. After all, we are talking about a UTEP program that has a grand total of two wins over the last three seasons and struggled mightily to get its lone victory last season against Houston Baptist (36-34). But the Miners do have the edge in overall talent and depth, and they should be able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football. That will be the difference.
Prediction: UTEP 34, Stephen F. Austin 24
&mdash Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo courtesy of @UTEPAthletics)