The University of Texas at El Paso's recent football history is largely notable for two things: (1) it gave disgraced itinerant, would-be Alabama coach Mike Price a soft landing zone when he had to rebuild his career after the "It's rollin', baby" incident that forced the Crimson Tide to hire Mike Shula way back in 2003, and (2) its home stadium has a picturesque hillside where fans can watch goings-on from afar, and an ESPN game a few years back featured a shot of a couple engaging in some pretty tawdry behavior on that gorgeous bluff while taking in a Miners game against the University of Texas.
OK, that's belittling the program a bit. UTEP has a fair pedigree as a mid-level type of place, where the Prices of the world can bring some recognition and where transfers from larger programs can find safe haven. Since 2000, the Miners have been to five bowl games, but have lost all of them. They're in Conference USA, which is not one of the old "automatic qualifier" leagues from the BCS era. They wear a lot of orange and blue, but that's where the similarities with upstart, onetime mid-major Boise State pretty much end.
As they travel to Fayetteville to open the 2015 season against the Arkansas Razorbacks, UTEP has a second-year coach named Sean Kugler who looks like he could develop a reasonably successful program there. The Miners are coming off a 7-6 campaign and they flourished as the season wore on. There's a legacy of losing around El Paso, sadly, but the Sun Bowl is a pretty spiffy stadium and tailback Aaron Jones is one of the better-kept secrets in the highest level of college football, a powerfully built tailback who churned out 1,321 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore and landed himself on the Maxwell Award Watch List as a result.
The issue for the Miners is that the quarterback position, while robust with depth, is completely without game experience, and the defense is not highly regarded. UTEP will accordingly need to rely on Jones and its offensive line Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, which is not expected to lend itself to that kind of grind thanks to late summer temperatures and a midafternoon kickoff time.
For the Hogs, the formula seems so simple, but with Bret Bielema delaying the release of the depth chart until the start of the week, there are some areas demanding urgency. At the outset, how will the Hogs' tailbacks fare with Jonathan Williams shelved? Nobody could grind out yards better than the now-injured tailback, and Alex Collins has never had the burden of being a 30-carry type of guy. Fortunately, he won't have to shoulder that sort of workload this weekend, either, but he has to demonstrate endurance in tough conditions, too. Expect 15-20 carries for him, but it's more likely that Rawleigh Williams gets the ball for much of the second half. The true freshman has impressed in camp to such an extent that even before the elder Williams' foot surgery, he was already being hyped as a potential impact guy and the word "redshirt" was nary uttered about him.
On the other side of the ball, Arkansas has a defensive line that is as skilled and deep as it has been since the program migrated from the Southwest Conference, but there are unknowns there. Trey Flowers was the unquestioned leader and brought hell upon opposing quarterbacks, and now it's time for Deatrich Wise, Tevin Beanum and JaMichael Winston to demonstrate the same type of tenacity. All are capable of doing so, but someone has to emerge early as the threat, and UTEP's a seemingly easy target, what with its lack of seasoning at signal-caller. Someone like Beanum, who has exceptional size and strength, appears to be a viable candidate to shine under all the impending circumstances. He can take advantage of a mismatch on talent alone, and should be able to stay fresh with so many players likely to see action this weekend.
In the defensive backfield, there's an even bigger opportunity for someone to seize early spotlight because of the pressure that defensive coordinator Robb Smith will be bringing. Safety Rohan Gaines has cleaned up his act and may be on his way to an all-conference-caliber year if he casts aside the disappointing way he ended last year, and he's an essential component of the secondary given his leadership and physical play. That said, we anticipate that a newcomer will get an opportunity to stand out, and Pearls thinks it will be onetime walk-on Kevin Richardson, who showed persistence in becoming a special teams contributor last fall and has moved up the depth chart so far.
Special teams questions have to be answered as well. Redshirt freshman Cole Hedlund will do the placekicking over Adam McFain, who will handle kickoff duties, and as highly touted as Hedlund was, he never could emerge last year when the chance was there and McFain stole it and did so admirably. If all goes smoothly Saturday, Hedlund will mostly get extra-point duties, but do not be surprised if Bielema deliberately passes on some fourth-and-short chances to let Hedlund get some shots from middle to long range. Last fall, John Henson wasn't tested until a critical kicking opportunity arose at Arlington, Texas, and when he faltered, the Hogs ended up on the wrong side of the score against Texas A&M.