UTEP Football vs. Jacksonville State: Preview and Prediction for Season Opener
It's the middle of summer, and that means football season is right around the corner. At this time last year, we were talking about UTEP selling out the Sun Bowl for their season opener against North Texas and possibly going to their second straight bowl for the first time since the beginning of the Mike Price era. The Miners would end up losing to UNT and going 5-7.
The disappointment of the 2022 season seems to have left a sour taste in Miner fans' mouths, and the hype around this year's team is nowhere close to last year's, despite the Miners returning stars like Tyrin Smith and Praise Amaewhule. UTEP is tasked with a week 0 matchup against FBS and CUSA newcomer Jacksonville State. The Miners are actually underdogs on some betting sites against the newcomers.
UTEP at Jacksonville State week 0 preview
Jax. State is making the jump with Sam Houston State to the FBS from the FCS, and both found success at that level. The Gamecocks made the FCS national championship in 2015. They have made the FCS playoffs 7 of the last 10 years, and most recently made it in 2020. They went 9-2 last season under new head coach Rich Rodriguez. If that name sounds familiar, it's because it is. Rodriguez coached at West Virginia, Michigan, and Arizona before ending up at Jax. State, where he replaced longtime head coach John Grass. Grass had previously led the Gamecocks to 6 playoff appearances in 8 seasons as the team's head coach. But back to Rodriguez, who began his FBS head coaching career at West Virginia. Prior to his arrival at West Virginia in 2001, the Mountaineers had only 3 AP top 10 finishes in school history. Rodriguez would lead the Mountaineers to three top-10 finishes in his seven years at WVU. His electric, high-pace offense was a staple of college football during the 2000's, and he had the Mountaineers as high as second in the AP poll in 2007. Led by Pat White, WVU was 10-1 entering their rivalry game against Pitt, who was 4-7 at the time. WVU had scored over 30 points in all but one of their games that season. They would end up getting upset by the Panthers, 9-13.
Rodriguez would depart to Michigan after the 2007 season, where he struggled to find his groove. He would be let go following the 2010 season. Rodriguez would find himself at Arizona a couple of years later, where he would build a consistent winner in his six seasons in Tucson. He would lead the Wildcats to three bowl wins and a ten-win season prior to being let go amid sexual harassment allegations.
Now at Jax. State, Rodriguez has a team with experience going into the Gamecocks first FBS season. They return 16 starters, nine on offense and seven on defense. The offense, as is the case for most Rich Rodriguez teams, is the strong point of that team. Last season, the Gamecocks finished 27th in yards per game in the FCS. The Gamecocks love to run the ball, and have a dangerous one-two punch in the backfield. Anwar Lewis averaged over 7 yards per carry last season and put up well over 800 yards on the ground. ULM transfer Malik Jackson is going into his sixth season of FBS football following a solid season at ULM that saw him garner over 500 yards on the ground. Those two aren't the only ones that can run in the backfield, and 7th-year senior quarterback Zion Webb is one of the better dual-threat QB’s in CUSA. He averaged 58.8 rushing yards per game and had 13 rushing TD's this past season. Their offensive line returns 4 solid starters who are now accustomed to this Rich Rodriguez offense. The Gamecocks have a star at tight end in Sean Brown, who comes in as one of the best run blocking TE's in CUSA.
Jacksonville State is going to run the ball a whole lot. That is what they're built for. And they're going to dare UTEP to stop the run. If the Miners get too aggressive, look for Webb to go to the air with a run-pass option. Their high-tempo offense will test the Miners, especially in the late-August Alabama heat.
But here is where one of the bigger problems lies with this Jax. State team. When you have an offense that is so up-tempo, your defense is on the field, a lot. The Gamecocks lose a bulk of their tackle production, returning only two of their top six tacklers from last season. They have some depth on the defensive line, but their size is something to be concerned about. Their secondary is the strength of the defense, and last season, that secondary totaled 6 interceptions. They return Jamari Jemison and Jabari Mack who will be one of the better CB duos in CUSA. At safety is Kolbi Fuqua, who is a converted receiver that started his career at Auburn. He will lead the safety position for the Gamecocks.
Jax. State allowed 389 yards per game on the defensive side of the ball, which good for 66th in the FCS this past season. They were 81st in rushing defense last season as well. It'll be interesting to see how this defense transitions to the FBS. That is by far the weakness of this team.
UTEP 28 - Jax. State 24
UTEP usually doesn't fare well against teams with an up-tempo offense, but that's because a lot of those teams were pass-heavy, and Jacksonville State is not. The Gamecocks are going to run the ball. And the Miners are much more fit to stop the run, with 3 of the best run stoppers in CUSA upfront with LB Tyrice Knight and D-Linemen Praise Amaewhule and Keenan Stewart. It also helps when you have one of the most physical safeties in CUSA, Kobe Hylton. On the offensive side of the ball, UTEP should be able to control the clock and win in the trenches. On paper, the Miners offensive line is not only much more experienced than Jax. State's defensive line, they're also much more physical. If UTEP is able to control the clock and keep the Gamecocks defense on the field as they did last year against Boise State, the Miners should win. Obviously, there will be other factors to this game, such as Jax. State having home field advantage for their first ever FBS game. But on paper, this is a game UTEP matches up nicely in. The Miners have a run defense good enough to slow down Webb and company. This is a must win for UTEP. They have to set the tone early for this season and take care of business. Will it happen? Time will tell.