- Time/Date: Saturday, August 26 at 5:30 p.m. ET
- Network: CBS Sports Network
- Location: Burgess-Snow Field — Jacksonville, AL
- Spread: UTEP (-1)
- Over/under: 54
- All-time series: No previous meetings
UTEP Miners Outlook
2023 represents year six of the Dana Dimel era, and while the Miners stayed put in their conference (holding the title for longest tenured CUSA program, dating back to 2005), their competition certainly takes on a new form this year.
UTEP fielded a middle-of-the-pack offense last year with a balanced attack, but an onslaught of turnovers prevented the unit from reaching their full potential. The group is headlined by a familiar cast of characters, starting with quarterback Gavin Hardison who returns for his fourth consecutive year as the primary starter. The senior looks to recapture some of the magic from 2021, where he eclipsed the 3,000-yard mark with 18 touchdowns. Hardison is the epitome of a high-risk, high-reward passer, consistently targeting the home run ball at the risk of his completion percentage and interception total. But when in a rhythm, his deep ball is spectacular and provides a lethal degree to UTEP’s offense.
Other familiar contributors on offense include running back Deion Hankins, who should see an expanded role after splitting carries with Ronald Awatt the prior two seasons, and wide receiver Tyrin Smith. Smith was Hardison’s go-to target last year, stretching defenses vertically with 1,039 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 71 receptions. Receiver Kelly Akharaiyi is also set to fill into an expanded role after the departure of Reynaldo Flores.
The offensive line retains notable continuity as well, as four of five starters return. The Miners lost First Team All-CUSA right tackle Jeremiah Byers, but UTEP can fulfill that vacancy with the experienced Zuri Henry, who has 25 starts at tackle for the program dating back to 2018.
UTEP boasted a top 40 defense last season in yards allowed per game. The Miners were adept at penetrating the backfield with 2.3 sacks and 6.3 tackles for loss per game, and that success in the trenches will be required on the road Saturday.
The Miners may have the best defensive player in the conference. Defensive end Praise Amaewhule is a three-time All-CUSA selection, attaining First Team honors in 2021. The 6’3”, 250-pound senior enters his sixth season in El Paso, hoping to add to a loaded career stat-line which features 111 tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, and a whopping 19 pass breakups. As suggested by that last number, Amaewhule provides an active set of hands to the pass rush which can be highly disruptive to opposing quarterbacks.
He loses his partner-in-crime Jadrian Taylor who earned First Team All-CUSA status at defensive end last year. However, there’s still all-conference talent within the unit given the presence of outside linebacker Tyrice Knight. Knight tied for the team-high with 95 tackles last year in addition to gathering 6.5 tackles for loss and forcing a pair of fumbles. He excels in pass coverage as well, giving another dimension to the UTEP defense.
One other name to watch on this unit is strong safety Kobe Hylton, who is responsible for wreaking havoc all over the field. He notched 10 tackles for loss while operating from the secondary last year, complemented by two forced fumbles and 92 tackles.
Jacksonville State outlook
So who are the Jacksonville State Gamecocks? The program plays in Jacksonville, AL instead of Jacksonville, FL which could be a common misconception for those familiarizing themselves with the FBS newcomer. Additionally, they are coached by former West Virginia, Michigan, and Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez enters year two at the helm after leading the Gamecocks to a 9-2 record last fall.
Jacksonville State won the Atlantic Sun conference championship, but the program was ineligible for postseason play due to the upcoming transition to the FBS, and it will also be ineligible for a conference championship and bowl game this season. Last year’s team took one stab at one FBS opponent, but fell to Tulsa in 54-17 fashion on the plains. Their only other loss came at the hands of Southeastern Louisiana, an FCS playoff participant who finished No. 15 in the country.
In 2022, Jacksonville State ranked 27th in total offense and 66th in total defense among 123 FCS teams. The run game was the team’s primary strength, and it ranked fifth in the entire subdivision in yardage at 251 per contest. Conversely, the run defense was one of the team’s greatest heels, checking in at 81st in the nation with a per game allotment of 174 yards.
The Gamecocks unveiled their initial depth chart, but decided not to name a starting quarterback for the moment. The candidates are Zion Webb and Logan Smothers. Webb is the incumbent starter who delivered 1,737 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, and nine interceptions on a 55.2 percent completion rate a year ago. Smothers is a Nebraska transfer who completed 33-of-51 passes for 413 yards over the past two years with the Cornhuskers. But both quarterbacks are renowned for their rushing capabilities, as Webb concluded 2022 with a pair of 100-yard outbursts and Smothers chipped in 64 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Iowa in 2021.
Quarterback isn’t the only position with an “or” listed on the depth chart. At running back, Ron Wiggins and Malik Jackson both occupy the starting spot for now. Wiggins averaged a ludicrous 7.7 yards per carry for Jacksonville State last year while Jackson served as the workhorse for Louisiana-Monroe, converting 141 carries into 507 yards and six touchdowns.
One other starting role is occupied by an FBS transfer, and it’s another former ULM contributor. Outside linebacker Quae Drake arrives from Sun Belt country after posting 47 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss for the Warhawks in 2022, and the redshirt senior should be one of the key cogs promoting the pass rush. That was one of Jacksonville State’s stronger facets last season, as the defense picked up 2.45 sacks per game.
Safety Jeremiah Harris, the leading returner in tackles, and defensive end Chris Hardie are other playmakers UTEP should be wary of when Jacksonville State is on defense. When the Gamecocks possess the ball, expect the team to lead with the run game. But when dropping back to pass, Sterling Galban should collect a fair number of targets as the Gamecocks’ reigning receiving yards leader and only player with more than one receiving touchdown in 2022.
FBS vs. FCS games are typically easy to predict, as the FBS team often possesses the clear upper-hand. But FBS vs. first-year FBS teams have produced some wild results as of late. Look no further than last year’s matchup between James Madison and Middle Tennessee. James Madison clobbered Middle Tennessee in a 44-7 rout, and that was a solid Blue Raiders team which went 8-5, defeated San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl, and even beat Miami (FL) by 14 on the road.
In 2012, FBS newcomer Texas State stunned Houston on the road in a 30-13 victory, and that Houston team was fresh off a season finishing No. 18 in the AP Poll.
The spread is already cautious, as UTEP currently holds the status of favorites, but only by a point. One thing the Miners will carry to Jacksonville, AL is excellence within the trenches. UTEP ranked above FBS average in rushing yards per carry and fewest sacks allowed per game, and the Miners return four starters from the line which paved those pathways. Praise Amaewhule and Tyrice Knight should cause immense havoc on the defensive side of the ball, which is ideal for the Miners since Jacksonville State is a run-heavy team.
However, the Miners must prepare to play contain on the quarterback as both Gamecock starting candidates are proven runners. That’s the element of the game which could help Jacksonville State start their FBS tenure 1-0. But UTEP not only counters with a strong front seven — the Miners also possess explosiveness on offense with the Gavin Hardison to Tyrin Smith connection. Expect a few lethal plays between the two, which help UTEP emerge victorious in a closely contested finish.
Prediction: UTEP 26, Jacksonville State 21