North Texas vs UTEP Preview 11.26.16

What are we supposed to make of UTEP this week? College football is funny for a number of reasons and one of those is the quirkiness of the 18-22 year old college student.

There is a lot on the line for we, the adults who follow this program, but we are still relying on kids.

This is a trap game.

  1. North Texas is slightly favored.
  2. UTEP is playing at home.
  3. Aaron Jones is really good.
  4. UTEP was projected to be pretty decent this season.
  5. They are playing for their coach’s job.
  6. NT is down Jeff Wilson (probably), Mason Fine (probably), Tee Goree, Willie Robinson, and one or two other guys who are a little banged up.

As you have likely heard, North Texas is likely going bowling. It would take a miracle situation for North Texas to be left out at 5-7. That miracle situation would mean at least 15 of these not including NT won this week:

That leaves 18 teams having an opportunity to win their way into the postseason before 5-7 teams are become eligible. Their records and remaining schedule:

Akron (5-6) – at Ohio
Arizona State (5-6) – at Arizona
Boston College (5-6) – at Wake Forest
Indiana (5-6) – vs. Purdue
Louisiana-Lafayette (4-6) – vs. Arkansas State, at Louisiana-Monroe
Northwestern (5-6) – vs. Illinois
Maryland (5-6) – vs. Rutgers
Miami (Ohio) (5-6) – vs. Ball State
Mississippi (5-6) – vs. Mississippi State
North Carolina State (5-6) – at North Carolina
North Texas (5-6) – at Texas-El Paso
South Alabama (5-5) – at Idaho, vs. New Mexico State
SMU (5-6) – vs. Navy
Southern Mississippi (5-6) – vs. Louisiana Tech
TCU (5-5) – at Texas, vs. Kansas State
Texas (5-6) – vs. TCU
Texas-San Antonio (5-6) – vs. Charlotte
Vanderbilt (5-6) – at Tennessee

According to Erik Smith of the USA Today, a 6-6 team with two FCS wins would get in over a 5-7 team with one FCS win (us).

This is good for us, but probably bad for college football. There are probably way to many bowl games, but then again, there are probably way to many college football teams.

Bowls do matter, in the way that everyone’s particular experiences are important to them. So if you feel like the Cure Bowl is unwatchable, don’t watch it. That’s fine.

End of Bowl Rant

UTEP is coming off a drubbing at the hands of Rice. Rice. While Sean Kugler has discussed continuing the fight to improve, it is hard to see how that loss to Rice was anything other than the team losing interest in the message.

NT’s bad losses this month came against two of the conference’s best — WKU and La Tech — and Rice is neither of those. Still, Kugler said playing spoiler is its own motivation:

Spoiling North Texas’ bowl bid is a major motivation factor

“You never want to see a team celebrate on your field. They have an opportunity to go to a bowl and go 6-6 – which would be a great accomplishment for them. They’ve done a great job this year, coach [Seth] Littrell has done a great job with that program. But it is our Senior Day and it is our home turf and it is the Sun Bowl. Our kids have a chance to defend it one last time. And certainly we don’t want to see [them celebrating] at the end of the game. Yeah it is a motivation factor. And another motivating factor is bouncing back from the game we just played. The competitiveness comes out in you and you want to wipe that stench out.”

Predictions

SRS: #105 North Texas vs #126 UTEP
S&P+: #98 North Texas 32.9 – 23.9 #124 UTEP. Win probability 70%.
ESPN FPI: #116 North Texas vs #126 UTEP. Win probability 58.9%
Sagarin: #134 North Texas 29.26 – 21.69 #173 UTEP
FEI: #101 North Texas 34 -22 #127 UTEP. Win probability .778.
Massey: #136 North Texas 27 – 21 #213 UTEP. Win probability 66%.

UTEP

I vividly remember the Lance Dunbar years. He was quite literally the entire offense for a couple of seasons. Aaron Jones at UTEP reminds me of that time. He might be better than Lance was, but is certainly a different style.

He carries so much of the Miner offensive load despite little help. He is the Miners’ fourth leading pass catcher — which is not altogether unusual — and he can catch it in a variety of ways. UTEP can swing the ball out to him the way NT does with Jeff Wilson, but also likes putting him in wheel routes — like NT and Ivery. What has caught my eye is Jones’ mini-highlight reel of incredible catches. The guy has great hands for back.

Some highlights:

It is unsurprising that UTEP is ranked first in Rushing IsoPPP (1.43) because of Jones’s abilities. Outside of his penchant for breaking 50-yarders, there is nothing much else to fear from UTEP’s attack. QBs Ryan Metz, Zack Greenlee, and Kavika Johnson have combined for pedestrian numbers throwing primarily to the TE Plinke. When it is working as intended, Kugler’s offense is a power run team with complementary throws deep. This season UTEP has been unlucky and bad. Outside of one or two games, they have not been able to capitalize on the attention paid to Jones.

You might recognize these problems as ones NT has had this season, also. Simply put, they are very similar to North Texas except in one very crucial aspect: They are not nearly as good defensively.
NT could very well play a great game and still lose.

Kugler switched from the 4-2-5 to the 3-4 and blames a lot of the issues on the learning curve involved in making that switch. Sure.

Defensive woes noted, we should also remember our offense isn’t exactly the 2005 USC Trojans out here.

Before NT had injuries and suspensions, I figured this matchup would be a battle of one-dimensional teams. It still is that, but with NT having a better defense, and a reason to play.

UTEP Five Factors:

NT Five Factors:

Anything can happen in college football and especially so in CUSA so they should be taken very seriously. Under Littrell, this team has not had a hard time showing up to big games and playing hard.

NT

While the coaching staff has his team playing hard, they do not always have them play well. The defense ran into good teams — La Tech and WKU — and came away bruised and a little embarrassed. The offense showed some nice things against Southern Miss but still has not put together a complete, consistent game.

UTEP likely will be the last winnable game on the schedule, and probably the last chance to put together that elusive Complete Offensive Game. Willy Ivery will need to do the things he did last week, and probably a little less fumbling. We are still waiting for a Morris start that does not include an interception. This might be the day. Might. He is much more calm and decisive with the ball now than he was against SMU, but he is missing Goree and Robinson, who are suspended.

Goree, in particular, has not produced to the level we hoped he would, but he was still productive. For all of Turner Smiley’s production last week, he has yet to live up to the preseason expectations, also. The trio of Thadd Thompson, Turner Smiley, and Kenny Buyers is enough to get points and first downs against this UTEP defense.

We are looking for NT to play to average — not potential — after all. So 24 points and five scoring trips is what we can expect to see. If we get more we’ll be excited and less would disappoint us. Here at the twelfth game of the year, the team is the team. This team, however injured and suspended, can produce that against this UTEP defense.

The future will hopefully hold more important, and more pressurized games than this one, but playing for (official) bowl eligibility on the road, against a tough team is a good place to start. The program is still at a place where we look more at the way they played than the result — especially here. UTEP is not playing well but they are not significantly worse than our guys. Littrell has repeatedly made that point in the press conference and MGN has made this point on the podcast. The range of quality from top to bottom in CUSA is not that great.

NT could very well play a great game and still lose.

I think NT wins this going a way, though. Prediction: NT 31 – UTEP 21