- Time and Date: Saturday, August 27 at 9:00 p.m. ET
- Network: Stadium
- Location: Sun Bowl — El Paso, TX
- Spread: EVEN
- ESPN FPI: North Texas has 60.1% chance to win
- All-time series: North Texas leads, 19-8-3
- Last meeting: North Texas 20, UTEP 17 — November 13, 2021
- Current streak: North Texas, 5 (2017-21)
Setting the scene
The smell of tailgate food, the clicking of pads, the over-analyzing of preseason polls. Everything great about the tail-end of August is back, signifying the true return of college football.
This year’s Week 0 is set to be the most expansive one yet with 11 matchups involving FBS teams all occurring in one all-day slate. Two of these August games already come with conference title implications. The C-USA scheduled two intra-league contests Saturday, including a battle between two of its Lone Star State squads.
The North Texas Mean Green travel to one of the most scenic settings in college football to battle the UTEP Miners. The C-USA West rivals begin their quest for a 2022 conference title in the confines of the Sun Bowl, accompanied by the venue’s breathtaking mountain backdrop and a fiery sunset which is set to transpire 30 minutes after kickoff .
North Texas Mean Green
North Texas’ 6-7 record from a season ago suggests an ordinary, middle of the road journey. But it was anything like that for head coach Seth Littrell and his squad. The Mean Green stumbled to a 1-6 start, and when all hope of a postseason berth seemed lost, a historic turnaround commenced.
North Texas became one of three teams in college football history to transform a 1-6 record into bowl eligibility by winning each of its final five contests. No greater obstacle lurked on the schedule than a matchup against an undefeated UTSA squad on the final week of the regular season. But the ranking next to the Roadrunners’ name did not intimidate the Mean Green in the slightest, and North Texas prevailed in 45-23 fashion to clinch its sixth win.
The storybook ending came to a halt after that loss, as the Mean Green fell short in the one-off bowl pegged as the Frisco Football Classic — resulting in the program’s fifth bowl loss in six years. But after gaining belief during that midseason turnaround, the 2022 iteration of North Texas has greater aspirations, hoping to crash the C-USA title game and take home its first bowl victory since 2013.
The Mean Green flaunt an identity as one of the nation’s rushing juggernauts. Last season, the unit ranked fifth in the country in rushing yards per game, accumulating a blistering 235 yards per game. Despite losing the program’s fourth ranked rusher of all-time in DeAndre Torrey (1,215 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2021), North Texas remains loaded at the position.
Four sophomores, all accustomed to earning reps on gameday, are set to form a diverse backfield to sustain the dominant run game. Ikaika Ragsdale contributed 534 yards and five touchdowns, Ayo Adeyi amassed 496 yards and six touchdowns on an extraordinary 5.9 average, and Isaiah Johnson added 359 and five. During North Texas’ 5-game win streak, the trio led a ground game which averaged 282 yards and 3.8 touchdowns over that span — generating six rushing touchdowns against a top 15 UTSA run defense.
The high-powered running back room also returns Oscar Adaway III, who missed the entirety of 2021 after a preseason ACL tear. Adaway was a highly effective runner in 2020, racking up 572 yards and three touchdowns in seven contests.
With four viable options, North Texas should expect a relatively even spreading of the wealth in terms of touches. But the Mean Green have a fifth option who is also a proven runner — quarterback Austin Aune. The junior was one of five players to exceed the 300-yard rushing threshold last year, gaining 4.1 yards per carry.
Aune’s offensive line paved plenty of impressive pathways for the run game and North Texas also dominated the trenches in pass protection. The Mean Green ranked first in the C-USA and 10th in the FBS by allowing as few as 1.15 sacks per game, and the line returns four of five starters, including All-C-USA center Manate Mose. The lone vacancy is at right tackle, where the Mean Green must find a new blocker to control UTEP’s dominant defensive end Praise Amaewhule.
Aune was named the No. 1 quarterback on North Texas’ depth chart, besting Arizona and Memphis transfer Grant Gunnell for the starting role. In the Mean Green’s rushing-oriented offense, 300-yard passing barrages are not commonplace. In order to further improve offensive output, Aune aims to make major strides in his third season as the primary starter, with specific emphasis on boosting his 51.2 completion percentage and 1-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio from a season ago.
The main targets to watch in an aerial attack which ranked 98th a year ago are Roderic Burns, Damon Ward, and Jyaire Shorter. Burns led all members of the receiving corps in receptions and yards by a country mile in 2021, generating 802 yards on 58 snags. Ward tacked on 311 yards and two touchdowns in his first season featuring on-field action, while Shorter missed most of last season due to injury. However, Shorter (career average of 19.8 yards per reception) proved to be an explosive member of the offense in 2019, earning All-C-USA honorable mention in the midst of a nine touchdown campaign.
North Texas’ defense received alarming news in late June. First Team All-C-USA inside linebacker K.D. Davis entered the transfer portal. But to the delight of the Mean Green, the star defender backed out of the portal several days later, remaining committed to playing in Denton, TX.
Davis’ impact on the defense cannot be understated. He was already a star entering 2021, but last season, he amplified his production to an otherworldly tier with a C-USA-best 120 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and two fumble recoveries. Davis closed the season with a 14-tackle performance in the bowl against Miami (OH) and enjoyed a career-high 18 tackles in a crucial Week 9 win over Rice which preserved North Texas’ bowl eligibility.
Davis loses his similarly-named partner in crime, outside linebacker Tyreke Davis who ranked second in tackling last year. But Larry Nixon III is back to provide veteran experience in the linebacking corps as the only other returning roster member with 70+ tackles in 2021. Kevin Wood, the lone defender with multiple interceptions last year, should also split time with Nixon at weakside linebacker as a seasoned member of North Texas’ strongest defensive position group.
Even with a talented linebacking crew, North Texas was essentially the median defense in 2021 — ranking in the 60s in run defense, pass defense, and total defense alike. Even the Mean Green’s turnover numbers were around the national average, but they were much more superior in forcing and recovering fumbles than recording interceptions.
Thus, the defensive backs hope to step up their contribution to the turnover battle. Names to watch in the secondary include safety Sean Thomas-Faulkner, who led all returning defensive backs in tackles last year, and cornerback John Davis Jr., a former Texas Tech transfer who broke up five passes in each of his two seasons in Denton.
The Dana Dimel era launched at UTEP following an 0-12 campaign in 2017, and the results have progressively improved with each passing year. After initially stringing together a pair of 1-11 seasons, the Miners demonstrated marked improvement during the 2020 pandemic-riddled season by faring 3-5. That progress skyrocketed to another level in 2021 as UTEP attained its first winning record in seven years.
UTEP’s 7-6 record from a season ago transpired in an asymmetrical manner to that of North Texas. The Miners raced to a 6-1 start, becoming one of the first FBS teams to qualify for bowl eligibility. They dropped five of six to close the season, including a tough-fought, one-score defeat to Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl.
Still, attaining bowl eligibility has been a rare feat in El Paso for quite some time. Prior to last fall, the Miners hadn’t experienced the postseason since 2014, and last year’s New Mexico Bowl marked the program’s third bowl appearance in the last 16 seasons. After a stellar year, Dimel aims to sustain his annual progress in 2022, as UTEP hopes to be in the mix of a C-USA title conversation it has not been involved in since joining the league in 2005.
After years of exhibiting passing attacks situated well below the FBS median, UTEP suddenly constructed a top 50 aerial offense last season. The conductor of the offense remains in El Paso, as quarterback Gavin Hardison hopes to make the typically-noticeable progression from year two to year three as a starter. In 2021, Hardison posted the first 3,000-yard passing season in a Miner jersey since Trevor Vittatoe in 2009, and he delivered 18 touchdown strikes — the most for the program since Vittatoe in 2010.
Hardison is redefining UTEP’s offense after years in dormancy. How does he take the next level? Similar to Aune of North Texas, improving upon his 55.5 completion rate is certainly an area of emphasis. Hardison takes plenty of downfield shots, but the inability to connect with receivers plagued UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl against Fresno State, as the team finished with a sub-50 percent success rate on passing attempts.
Last season, Hardison was loaded with one of the C-USA’s premier receiving crews, but his set of cards considerably changed this offseason. Jacob Cowing ranked ninth overall in receiving yards last year, but the dynamic deep target elected to transfer to Arizona in January. The team’s second leading receiver Justin Garrett is currently vying for an NFL roster spot, leaving Tyrin Smith as the new No. 1.
Smith served as a reliable tertiary threat last season, picking up 570 yards and four touchdowns on 17.3 yards per catch — which demonstrates Hardison’s affinity for launching it deep. After one season at UTEP, the redshirt sophomore now looks to slide into the leading receiver role that Cowing occupied, and the two possess similar size and speed. Stepping into the other starting receivers spots are Reynaldo Flores (fourth in receptions and yards in 2021) and junior college transfer Kelly Akharaiyi.
From a rushing standpoint, UTEP ranked 87th offensively last year with an accumulation of 141.7 yards per outing. Repetitions were divided between incumbent starting halfback Deion Hankins and emerging option Ronald Awatt. Considering the success both have seen in El Paso, a split backfield should be the expectation for Week 0, with Dimel ultimately riding the hot hand in the second half. Last year, that hot hand was Awatt who chipped in 85 yards and a touchdown in the loss at North Texas.
UTEP’s sudden jump from a perennial cellar dweller to a bowl eligible team required vast improvements on both sides of the ball. The Miners allowed just 25.2 points per contest last year marking their best defensive season since 2004, ranking in the FBS top 55 in the category for the first time since 1991.
The Miners built an intimidating defensive presence primarily by way of their front seven. One can’t-miss name on their defensive line dons an unconventional number for his position in No. 23. That is Praise Amaewhule, one of the premier candidates for the 2022 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year. The reigning first team all-conference selection often requires multiple linemen to contain, and he still registered 12 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and six deflections with active hands around the line of scrimmage.
Amaewhule may be the most unblockable defensive lineman in the C-USA, and even when not bringing down ball carriers, he still shows immense impact by forcing QB hurries and drawing enough attention to allow teammates to feast in the backfield. One of the teammates that benefits from this pairing is fellow defensive end Jadrian Taylor. The senior led all Miners with 6.5 sacks last year, tallying 3.5 of them in a defensive-oriented 19-3 win over Louisiana Tech. While Amewhule and Taylor bring a lot to the table on the edges, UTEP’s pass rush could use additional support from the interior line, linebacker, and safety positions. Collectively, the Miners tied for 82nd with 1.92 sacks per game in 2021.
The overwhelming defensive end production also led to a stellar run defense. UTEP fielded a top 40 unit in terms of stifling the run, allowing under 139 yards per game. The Miners also countered the ground game by trotting out an All-C-USA linebacker in Breon Hayward. The middle linebacker led all defenders with 108 tackles and collected 7.5 tackles for loss in 2021. Lining up beside Hayward was another talent with a similar résumé, as outside linebacker Tyrice Knight contributed 101 tackles and an identical 7.5 takedowns in the backfield. With the returning talent at defensive line and linebacker, UTEP certainly has a claim to the conference’s best front seven.
UTEP’s 2021 defense was well-rounded when factoring in the secondary too. The Miners were 37th in opponent passing yards per game and they forced the nation’s sixth lowest completion percentage of 54.9 percent. Free safety Dy’vonne Inyang graduated after leading the group with three interceptions. Still, UTEP retains the secondary’s leading tackler in nickelback Dennis Barnes, as well as Torrey Richardson, a cornerback who broke up a team-high eight passes in 2021.
What to watch and game prediction
North Texas and UTEP converge to form the most evenly matched game in a Week 0 slate filled with FBS vs. FCS matchups and double-digit spreads. Both teams posted similar records last year and have a wealth of returning talent to build around in 2022.
While offenses usually draw the attention, this matchup’s main calling card is that it features arguably the top two defenders in C-USA in K.D. Davis and Praise Amaewhule. Defenses should reign supreme for the most part in this one, so don’t expect the Sun Bowl to host a high-octane shootout Saturday.
The main matchup to keep an eye on involves Amaewhule pitted against the new right tackle North Texas breaks in, which is set to be Jett Duncan or Kaci Moreka. If UTEP can expose this matchup, the heralded rushing attack of North Texas may have a viable counter. On the other side of the ball, the potential matchup of Tyrin Smith against John Davis Jr. should draw some eyeballs. UTEP excelled with the deep ball against North Texas last year as Jacob Cowing obtained 174 yards on five receptions, so quarterback Gavin Hardison should test his Smith downfield early and often.
UTEP is more adept at limiting the run than most C-USA opponents, but North Texas still found ways to pick apart some of the conference’s better units last year. If the Mean Green pick up where they left off with the rushing attack, they should sustain the success from last October and November and open Week 0 with a coveted conference victory.
Prediction: North Texas 26, UTEP 17