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Examining three candidates which could take a UTEP-like leap in 2022

UTEP showed it can be done in the snap of a finger. So which team breaks out of the cellar and into bowl eligibility in 2022?

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most fascinating stories of the 2021 college football season was the rapid ascension of the UTEP Miners. From 2017-19, captivating sunsets and scenic mountain backdrops at the Sun Bowl were the only thing working in the program’s favor. But after faring 2-34 across those three seasons, head coach Dana Dimel utilized the 2020 pandemic-riddled season to teach the team how to win regardless of the schedule, and the Miners finished 3-5 with two FCS victories.

In 2021, the winning culture he manifested finally came to fruition as the sport’s scheduling returned to normal. UTEP rattled off seven victories to claim its first winning campaign since 2014, and the Miners qualified for the New Mexico Bowl — where they came within a touchdown of a heavily-favored Fresno State squad.

Yes, UTEP’s strength of schedule ranked 125th out of 130, but it was evident this program made a significant leap. Four of the Miners’ six victories against FBS competition were by double-digit margins and the other two wins were by seven points apiece. Also, UTEP lost a pair of contests by a field goal, demonstrating how close this team was to a potential eight or nine win season.

After roughly a half decade of navigating in the cellar of the FBS, the Miners’ rise back to respectability and bowl eligibility was expeditious. As the 2022 season swings around, we examine several other perennial cellar dweller teams — with 4+ year bowl droughts — which are looking to follow suit.

ULM Warhawks

2021 record: 4-8

Last bowl game: 2012

Making the case for bowl eligibility: The Warhawks’ 2020 campaign was one of the worst college football seasons ever. ULM took the field 10 times that fall and lost 10 times by an average of 25.7 points. Only one defeat came within 17 points, and worst of all, ULM did not lead once the entire season.

ULM responded to the unmitigated disaster by swapping out head coach Matt Viator for Terry Bowden and the program saw immediate improvement. At the same time UTEP captivated the nation by attaining bowl eligibility in mid-October, ULM looked to be on a similar track. The Warhawks jumped to a 4-3 record highlighted by a stunning win over Liberty (where they outscored the Flames 28-0 in the third quarter alone), despite entering the matchup as 32.5-point underdogs. Even though winnable contests against Texas State and Arkansas State loomed on the schedule, ULM couldn’t deliver and remained at four wins to conclude 2021. Still, the Warhawks showed promise in November by hanging tight with overmatched opponents — coming within 13 of LSU and 5 of Louisiana.

Making the case for bowl eligibility: In 2022, ULM returns its fleet-footed starting quarterback Chandler Rogers, who posted efficient numbers by completing 64 percent of passes for nine touchdowns and three interceptions. The offense will work under the direction of ULM’s 2015-19 offensive coordinator Matt Kubik, who rejoins the program to replace the departed Rich Rodriguez. Kubik receives a solid cast of skill position players to work with. Alongside Rogers is the team’s star wide receiver Jeremiah “Boogie” Knight who corralled a team-best 45 receptions for 588 yards in 2021. With wide receivers Will Derrick and Malik Jackson returning to the mix, this passing attack has the potential to develop rapport and elevate to another level.

ULM’s defense was more of its calling card in 2022, but the unit hits the reset button after losing its leading tackler Traveion Webster and leading pass rusher Ty Shelby to the NFL. Also, the unit is now under the direction of Vic Koenning, who replaces Zac Alley after one season. Koenning hopes to keep the run defense sturdy after exemplary front seven play allowed the Warhawks to limit each of their final four opponents under 28 points.

The schedule — which features Alabama and Texas — is difficult, but Bowden worked wonders before on a similar program. He inherited an Akron program fresh off back-to-back 1-11 seasons in 2012. By 2015, he qualified for the Zips’ second-ever bowl game at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and cashed in at the opportunity to claim Akron’s first bowl victory in program history. Two years after the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl triumph, the Zips won the MAC East and competed in a conference championship game. Just like pre-Bowden Akron, ULM only has one bowl appearance to its name, so the parallels can certainly be drawn for the veteran coach.

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Kentucky
ULM has one bowl appearance to its name. Head coach Terry Bowden similarly inherited an Akron team with only one bowl appearance and guided the program to its first-ever bowl victory.
Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

What’s stopping them: In Kubik’s second stint as OC, the main focus involves generating some form of rushing attack. The 2020 ULM squad ranked third-to-last in the FBS by racking up 76.7 yards per game on the ground. While that number nearly doubled in 2021, the rushing average remained rather stagnant at 3.2 yards per carry. Sacks are counted in rushing numbers at the collegiate level, and allowing free lanes to opposing rushers was a recurring theme for the Warhawks in 2021. Cutting down those 3.33 sacks per game while improving the run blocking should be the team’s main focus on offense. Defensively, shoring up that 127th-ranked passing defense is essential, as a porous secondary cost ULM those November contests to Texas State and Arkansas State. Losing Josh Newton as a transfer to TCU could be detrimental to an already-struggling secondary as he was the Warhawks’ clear No. 1 corner last fall.

Verdict: ULM will likely improve this year, but that doesn’t mean bowl eligibility is a given. The presence of Alabama, Texas, and Army likely signifies three non-conference losses in a grueling slate, and conference wins might be hard to find against established Louisiana, Coastal Carolina, and Georgia State programs. The Warhawks should learn from last November that they must pick the lower hanging fruit, so the goal of 2021 is to separate themselves from the Texas States, South Alabamas, and Arkansas States of the Sun Belt.

Rice Owls

2021 record: 4-8

Last bowl game: 2014

In each of the last two seasons, Rice picked up a signature victory which gave the guise that Owl football was on the come-up in the C-USA. In 2020, that win was a 20-0 shutout against a ranked Marshall team in Huntington, WV. In 2021, that win was a 30-24 stunner in Birmingham against the most consistent C-USA contender in UAB.

However, building those victories into sustainable progress has been an issue for the Owls, and both of those aforementioned victories were followed up with letdown defeats. Throughout the Mike Bloomgren era, Rice has been able to muck up the game and remain close against worthy opponents — coming within one score of a Sugar Bowl-bound Baylor squad in 2019 and holding a 17-7 third quarter lead against Arkansas in the 2021 opener. But last fall, there were times where the team was completely manhandled, notably in the 58-0 shutout to Texas and the 45-0 curb-stomping at UTSA.

Making the case for bowl eligibility: Defense has been the identity of this Rice team for the last half decade, and six of the nine FBS victories in the Bloomgren era involved holding the opponent to under 20 points. Many established forces on the front seven return, including the team’s leader in sacks Ikenna Enechukwu and nose tackle De’Braylon Carroll who missed the entire 2021 campaign due to a preseason injury. Also noteworthy on defense is the potent safety tandem of George Nyakwol and rising star Gabe Taylor, the latter of whom recorded a takeaway in each of the final three contests in 2021. The collection of ballhawks allowed Rice to rank in the top 20 in interceptions per game by registering 14 in 12 outings.

Offensively, despite heavy turnover, the receiving corps could be promising. The Owls lost Jake Bailey to SMU, Andrew Mason to Memphis, and August Pitre III to Ohio. However, those outgoing receivers were replaced by West Virginia’s Isaiah Esdale and Tulsa’s Sam Crawford. Additionally, quarterback Luke McCaffrey converted to receiver this offseason and the position change looks natural. He shined in the spring game with team-highs in seven receptions and 98 yards. McCaffrey is complemented by emerging deep threat Cedric Patterson III as well as Brad Rozner, who led the team in receiving yards in 2019 before missing essentially two consecutive seasons due to injury — completing Rice’s most formidable offensive position group.

Rice v Arkansas
Luke McCaffrey, who started three games at quarterback in 2021, is making the most of his athleticism in a position change to wide receiver.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

What’s stopping them: Remember those late 2000s Chase Clement teams that handled opponents with a ferocious aerial attack? It’s been a while since we’ve seen Rice dominate the passing game in a similar fashion. Yes, the offense is stylized like the early 2010s Stanford offenses Bloomgren used to direct — a pro style scheme that emphasizes “pounding the rock and controlling the clock.” However, a degree of verticality could work wonders for Rice’s offense, and it seemed the Owls made some progress in that facet under first-year offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo last fall. A quarterback battle between longtime veteran Wiley Green and T.J. McMahon — the hero of the 2021 finale — is taking place. Whoever wins will be tasked with elevating this aerial attack higher than 80th in passing yards per game for the first time since 2015. If that hint of explosiveness is added to the offense, roaring back from deficits will become easier, thus, avoiding situations like last year’s UTSA rout.

The aerial attack is also an issue on the other side of the ball. This was a bottom 10 passing defense a year ago and increased cornerback play is a must for this team. Some of the key corners such as Jordan Dunbar and Sean Fresch shed their freshman status, so experience could go a long way in solving Rice’s 274 passing yards allowed per game.

Verdict: As of June 15, the 2022 season is officially Rice’s final in the C-USA. Early C-USA departures including former West division rival Southern Miss modified the schedule, but conference play is still pretty manageable for the Owls. After all, they fared 3-5 against C-USA foes last year with a pair of overtime losses which could have swung them to bowl eligibility. Non-conference play will certainly be challenging with a trip to USC looming and a crosstown matchup against a likely-ranked Houston squad, as well as a home clash versus reigning Sun Belt champion Louisiana. Thus, collecting five wins in the C-USA seems to be the easiest route to the postseason. Overtime losses cannot be afforded for a team which has been eyeing to finally take the leap in 2022.

South Florida Bulls

2021 record: 2-10

Last bowl game: 2018

728 days. Until Oct. 23, 2021, that is how long South Florida’s marinated in a drought without an FBS win. Almost two seasons separated the Bulls’ 2019 rout of East Carolina toward the tail-end of the Charlie Strong era and the 2021 manhandling of Temple under second-year head coach Jeff Scott. The former Clemson assistant enters his third year as South Florida’s head man, and while tangible progress hasn’t been made in the standings, the Bulls proved to be a dangerous loomer on several occasions in 2021.

South Florida was within five points of 12-2 Houston with under three minutes remaining. The team fell to 10-3 BYU by eight points in Provo. Lastly, the annual Black Friday showdown against archrival UCF — which finished 9-4 — came down to a botched play from the 3-yard line. Those were three of the four best teams on South Florida’s 2021 schedule, and the Bulls also played a College Football Playoff participant in Cincinnati within 17 points.

Making the case for bowl eligibility: Scott’s recruits are finally developing and proven transfers are traveling down to Tampa as well. One of them is projected starting quarterback Gerry Bohanon, the No. 1 quarterback for the 2021 Big 12 and Sugar Bowl champion Baylor Bears. The Bears’ defense was the guiding force in the spectacular season, but Bohanon put up solid numbers including an 18-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 2,200 passing yards. Additionally, his mobility gives the Bulls an extra dimension of playmaking. Even Oklahoma’s defense took notice after he posted 107 rushing yards and two touchdowns on nine attempts in the win over the Sooners.

Running back Michael Dukes, wide receiver Ajou Ajou, and safety Ray Thornton are a handful of Clemson transfers in Scott’s pipeline from his former stomping grounds, all of whom could make an immediate impact. Dukes will join an already-formidable backfield of Jaren Mangham, who recorded 15 rushing touchdowns in 2021, and Kelley Joiner, who averaged 6.2 yards per carry as the second fiddle. And best of all for this running back room — it will be operating behind one of the AAC’s most veteran offensive lines as all five starters return.

NCAA Football: Houston at South Florida
Kelley Joiner posted back-to-back 100-yard rushing games last November, averaging 8.8 yards per carry across those contests.
Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

When looking at Bohanon’s targets, Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn Jr. receiving duo could make this offense extremely fun and explosive downfield. When it comes to manufacturing explosive plays, not many players in college football are more lethal than kick returner Brian Battie. After sending three kickoffs back to the house in 2021, he became the Bulls’ second-ever consensus All-American selection.

What’s stopping them: Defense. South Florida completed its second consecutive season ranked in the bottom 15 in points allowed per game. While the offense demonstrated marked improvement in November, the defense only got worse, allowing 45+ points in three straight contests to start the month. Plenty of these issues appeared to be amended in the regular season finale against UCF, but South Florida has to prove sustainability in those areas beyond one game.

Opposing offenses can pick their poison against a unit which ranked 118th in stifling the run and 115th in containing the air last year. Pressure and coverage go hand in hand, and all of this defensive improvement starts with generating a pass rush. South Florida shared a spot with Vanderbilt as dead last in the FBS in sacks last season with nine in 12 contests.

Verdict: Last year’s Bulls squad was similar to many East Carolina teams in the late-2010s. A dynamic offense gave the guise of competitiveness against quality opponents, but the lack of defensive fortitude prevented such efforts from showing up in the win column. East Carolina finally got over the hump in 2021 with a revamped defense, and that is what South Florida needs the most to return to the postseason. This offense has the potential to be electric, and the Bulls will generate several wins off that alone. Four or five wins certainly feels on the table, but the ability to produce stops determines if Scott’s rebuild is ahead of schedule.