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Toughest three-game stretch: UTEP

Can the Miners make their first bowl game since 2014?

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Texas El Paso Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Schedules in college football are huge. In most cases, besides the roster or coaching situation, the schedule is what sets expectations. With that in mind we take a look at the toughest three-game stretches in Conference USA with the UTEP Miners.

Previously: UAB, Charlotte

It’s hard to imagine a tougher schedule in C-USA than the one the UTEP Miners face. The Miners went 4-8 (2-6 in conference) last season and don’t bring back a great roster this year. UTEP returns experience on the offensive line and starting quarterback Ryan Metz will be back, but replacing the school’s all-time leading rusher Aaron Jones will be easier said than done. UTEP will also have to replace last season’s leader receiver, tight end Hayden Plinke. UTEP will have to rely on an experienced linebacker and secondary corps to get them through the offensive woes.

UTEP starts off the season at the Oklahoma Sooners, a team they are 0-3 against all-time. The Miners then face an early Conference USA game against Rice before welcoming the Arizona Wildcats on Friday, September 15th. To most people, that would seem like the toughest part of the season since it features two “Power 5” schools, but it isn’t the most consistently tough three-game stretch. After Arizona, the Miners will face the New Mexico State Aggies, a rivalry that UTEP has won the last eight years in a row.

Where it gets tough: @ Army, WKU, @ Southern Miss

UTEP will make a long trip to West Point, New York to face the Army Black Knights. Army defeated UTEP last year 66-14 and finished the season with an 8-5 record which included a Heart of Dallas Bowl victory over North Texas. Army returns eight offensive starters and seven defensive starters. UTEP only has one returning defensive line starter from last season, so this could be ugly.

UTEP will then face the defending conference champion in the WKU Hilltoppers on October 7th. The Hilltoppers are coming off of an 11-win season, including a Boca Raton Bowl victory over Memphis. WKU lost some firepower from their receiving corps this season after Nicholas Norris and Taywan Taylor graduated. WKU will also have to replace left tackle Forrest Lamp who started all four years in his time at WKU. The biggest threat is quarterback Mike White who returns after throwing for 4,363 yards last season and 37 touchdowns. The Hilltoppers will be coming off of a bye week before heading to El Paso.

The Miners will then head to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to face the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Southern Miss went 7-6 last season with a win in the New Orleans Bowl against UL Lafayette. Southern Miss will bring back a talented receiving unit as well as All-Conference running back, Ito Smith. Smith has over 3,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in his time at Southern Miss. While Southern Miss is breaking in a new quarterback, their weakest spots will be in the trenches. The Golden Eagles only return two offensive linemen and one defensive lineman. If UTEP can find their offensive rhythm, this could be a potentially winnable game.

The rest of the season

Unfortunately, the remaining games will not be any easier for the Miners. UTEP will host a scrappy UTSA squad who is looking to go back to another bowl game after their first bowl bid last season. UTEP will then head to back-to-back road games against the high powered MTSU Blue Raiders and the North Texas Mean Green, both of which went to bowl games last year as well.

The Miners will then face conference runner-up Louisiana Tech in the final home game of the season, a team they are 2-10 against all-time. The final game will be at the revived UAB Blazers in Birmingham, Alabama.

Final thoughts

In 2017, UTEP faces eight teams that went to a bowl game in 2016, six of which are conference opponents. Even with a great running back like Aaron Jones, UTEP finished 11th in the conference in total yards per game last season. UTEP will need leaders like All-American guard Will Hernandez to step up for a team that many have projected finishing near the bottom of the conference.