Texas kicks off a 2020 campaign filled with heightened expectations when it hosts UTEP in its season opener on Saturday.
The No. 14 Longhorns turned more than a few heads when they dismantled Pac-12 South champ Utah in the Alamo Bowl to cap off a so-so 8-5 2019 season. They pack a punch on offense as the Utes found out the hard way. Texas ranked second in the Big 12 in scoring (35.2 ppg) and third in total (465.8 ypg) offense a year ago.
UTEP isn't expected to present much of a challenge. The Miners (1-0) earned a rare victory after beating FCS foe Stephen F. Austin 24-14 in its season opener. They have won just three games since the end of the 2016 season. Their only victory over an FBS opponent in that stretch was a 34-26 victory at Rice in 2018.
Texas leads the all-time series 5-0, most recently beating UTEP 41-7 in 2016. The Miners have not beaten a Big 12 team since the Power 5 league began play in 1996.
UTEP at Texas
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 12 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: Longhorn Network
Spread: Texas -43
When UTEP Has the Ball
The Miners won their season opener for a second consecutive season. Now the task ahead is to avoid losing the rest of the games on their schedule like they did a year ago. UTEP will have to play near-flawless football in Week 2 since Texas is the type of team that can expose even a minor flaw and turn it into a major problem.
Getting the running game going will be critical. Deion Hankins enjoyed a fine debut against Stephen F. Austin. The redshirt freshman rushed for 113 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Hankins took some pressure off quarterback Gavin Hardinson with his ability to move the chains. Hardinson threw for 212 yards and a touchdown, although he did commit a pair of turnovers.
Finishing drives was an issue for UTEP a year ago. The Miners averaged 19.6 points per game, ranking 12th in Conference USA. They scored more than 21 points only three times during the 2019 season. UTEP showed improvement in extending drives and punching the ball in the end zone in its opener. The Miners went 8-for-13 on third down and scored four times on six red zone trips.
When Texas Has the Ball
Describing the Texas offense as explosive is a massive understatement. Sam Ehlinger is an elite quarterback in every sense of the word. Stopping him will be a real burden for the UTEP defense.
Ehlinger threw for 3,663 yards and 32 touchdowns last season while completing 65 percent of his passes. He ranked 11th nationally in total passing yards and 13th in passing yards per game (281.8). The senior has accumulated 8,874 yards through the air and 68 passing touchdowns over three seasons for the Longhorns.
His top two downfield targets from last season are gone, opening a door for Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith to play even more important roles in the offense in 2020. Eagles averaged a team-high 16.3 yards per catch last season while hauling in 32 receptions for 522 yards and six touchdowns. Smith added 274 yards and six touchdowns on 25 catches as a true freshman, but his availability for Saturday night is in doubt after suffering a hamstring injury in practice earlier this week.
Even if Smith is unable to play, trotting out a balanced offense won't be a problem for Texas. Even with Daniel Young opting not to play this season, the Longhorn backfield is stacked with quality running backs. Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson both ran for 600-plus yards last season, as did Ehlinger.
UTEP already scored the victory it needed by keeping Texas and the $1.4 million payday coming to the Miners' athletic department on the schedule. The Miners football program is light years away from posing a serious challenge to a team as skilled at every position as the Longhorns. Texas won the five previous games in this series by an average margin of 32.8 points. What this means is the Longhorns can probably name the final score.
Prediction: Texas 45, UTEP 6
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.