Texas-El Paso (0-0) at New Mexico (0-0) (ET)
FACTS & STATS: Site: University Stadium (39,224) -- Albuquerque, New Mexico. Television: Mountain West Network. Home Record: UTEP 0-0, UNM 0-0. Away Record: UTEP 0-0, UNM 0-0. Neutral Record: UTEP 0-0, UNM 0-0. Conference Record: UTEP 0-0, UNM 0-0. Series Record: New Mexico leads, 43-31-3.
GAME NOTES: A couple of teams resume a heated rivalry to kick off the 2014 campaign, as the New Mexico Lobos host the Miners of Texas-El Paso at University Stadium on Saturday night.
Both of these squads are coming off disappointing 2013 seasons, with the Lobos winning only three of their 12 dates, and UTEP finishing a mere 2-10, including a mark of 1-7 in Conference USA action which left the Miners, under then first-year head coach Sean Kugler, last in the West Division standings.
Under the direction of third-year head coach Bob Davie the Lobos, who were fifth in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference at 1-6, are expecting to make some improvements this season even though the schedule doesn't necessarily play out in their favor.
Coach Kugler heads a program that has a season-opening record of 41-50-5, but in season openers played on the road, the Miners are a mere 9-31-2, although they have won two of their last three road openers after suffering a 12-game slide in such affairs.
As far as the all-time series is concerned, the Lobos are ahead by a count of 43-31-3, and won the most recent meeting last season in overtime, 42-35, on the road. New Mexico has been the season-opening opponent for the Miners six times previously, with the teams evenly splitting those meetings.
One of 17 schools to return their entire coaching staff from 2013, UTEP may have some consistency in that department, but it really only matters how that translates to the action on the field.
Although he is coming off a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the final five games of 2013, quarterback Jameill Showers is ready to get back under center for the Miners. The signal caller, who previously played at Texas A&M, has completed just over 58 percent of his passes for 1,622 yards and 13 touchdowns in 18 career outings.
Like Showers, the running back position also has a couple of injured players on the mend and preparing to make an impact. Nathan Jeffery and Aaron Jones accounted for 61 percent of UTEP's rushing, producing a combined 1,343 yards and nine touchdowns. Because of the injuries to key players, UTEP generated only 347.9 ypg last season, 103rd in the country.
On the defensive side of the ball, there are many aspects that need to be addressed, not the least of which is the pass efficiency defense which had a value of 169.62, ranking them near the bottom of the FBS. Because opponents could readily attack over the top, the Miners were charged with permitting 39.3 ppg (115th in the nation in 2013). The secondary brings back as many as nine players who saw action last year and while that could be seen as a positive, it also means that there is still much work to be done in that area.
The linebackers appear to be much more stable for the Miners, with Anthony Puente, Trey Brown, Jimmy Musgrave and Alvin Jones prepared to patrol the middle of the field.
Like the secondary, the defensive line is also a work in progress with youth (Gino Bresolin and Nick Usher) and upperclassmen (Maurice Chavis) who have little experience since joining UTEP.
Cole Gautsche appeared in only nine games at quarterback last season, throwing for 639 yards and seven touchdowns, but he completed a mere 44.9 percent of his attempts, and yet he is still considered the starter for the Miners this season.
The team will be trying to make a more concerted effort to get the passing attack off the ground this season, after placing 11th in the conference and 120th nationally with a woeful 113.0 ypg through the air. Jeric Magnant tied for the team lead with 19 catches, leading to 294 yards, matching Marquis Bundy who turned his receptions into 261 yards and a couple of TDs.
Carlos Wiggins, who posted 13 catches for 163 yards and two scores, was much like everyone else on offense that simply watched the rushing attack bull its way to 308.0 ypg and 40 touchdowns. However, this year the team no longer has Kasey Carrier (1,122 yards, nine TDs) to shoulder the load in that department and instead will be breaking in David Anaya (11 carries, 110 yards), while leaning on Jhurell Pressley and Teriyon Gipson who combined for 11 TDs in 2013.
The Lobos have quite a bit to work on defensively this season. The team ranked last in the MWC and 118th nationally with a staggering 42.8 ppg allowed a year ago, and much of that had to do with the fact that the run defense was almost non-existent. The squad was 11th in the league and 120th in the country with 257.2 ypg allowed on the ground, so for as well as the Lobos themselves ran the ball, the defense simply turned around and gave it all back.
The unit has a pair of returning starters at linebacker in Dakota Cox and Javarie Johnson, the former being the top overall tackler for the squad a year ago after making 99 stops. However, for as much action as Cox saw, very little of his play involved signature stops of any kind. In fact, Cox had just a single tackle for loss and only one pass breakup.
Luckily, the group also brings back Brett Bowers, the defensive end who in just 11 games led the Lobos in tackles for loss (9.0), sacks (6.0) and forced fumbles (three).
Even though the Miners have gotten better in road openers over the last few years and the team has revenge from last season as a motivating factor, this is one of the games that UNM has penciled in as a victory this year and it would be a waste to let that opportunity slip away.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: New Mexico 33, Texas-El Paso 24Game Date and Time
Saturday, August 30, 8:00 p.m. (ET).