UTEP blocking out distractions with important game at FAU on the horizon

UTEP

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – With five games remaining in the 2021 football season, everything is still on the table for Dana Dimel and UTEP.

At 6-1, 3-0 in Conference USA play, the Miners control their own path to a conference championship. A lot will be decided in the coming weeks with regards to that possibility, starting Saturday at Florida Atlantic. Kickoff is slated for 4 p.m. MT.

The college football nation is starting to take notice of the Miners, though . After KTSM initially reported the change on Sunday, UTEP’s Nov. 6 home game vs. No. 23 UTSA was officially moved on Monday from 2 p.m. to an 8:15 p.m. kickoff to accommodate a broadcast on ESPN2.

Its the first Miners home game on an ESPN network since the 2017 Arizona game and the buzz surrounding the program building.

On Monday, KTSM even obtained an email from an ESPN employee that said the Miners game against UTSA was “on the radar” of the network for a potential visit from College Gameday, ESPN’s premier traveling college football pregame show.

A grassroots campaign to get the Gameday crew to El Paso for the UTSA game has picked up a lot of steam in recent days and the fact that the Miners and Roadrunners are playing as well as they are (UTSA is 8-0, 4-0 in C-USA) no doubt is a big factor. There also aren’t as many big games in college football that weekend, meaning Gameday could make the trek to the Sun City for the first time.

First thing’s first for UTEP, though. To have a chance at welcoming College Gameday to the Sun City, it would seem as though the Miners would have to beat FAU on the road on Saturday first. For a UTEP team that is experiencing winning for the first time in awhile, staying grounded is the biggest key

“All of us haven’t really been in this situation before in our college careers,” said senior fullback Forest McKee. “We have to handle prosperity and if we do that we have a good chance to win out, go to the conference championship and get a really gnarly bowl game.”

That task could be easier said than done; UTEP is 0-25-1 all-time in the Eastern Time Zone and the Owls (4-3, 2-1 C-USA) possess a defense that ranks tied first in the nation in red zone defense.

The Owls are coming off of a big 38-9 win over Charlotte last Thursday night on the road and are currently 11.5-point favorites over the Miners. The Miners are hoping to use that to their advantage on Saturday in Boca Raton.

“Obviously as a coaching staff, there’s not any game more important game than this one,” said head coach Dana Dimel. “How can this game not be critical when we’re a huge underdog? For us that has to be a huge motivating factor.”

UTEP is coming off of a bye week riding a four-game winning streak, most recently knocking off Louisiana Tech at home, 19-3, on Oct. 16. The buzz has been picking up around them ever since and though they’ve already clinched bowl eligibility, they want even more than that.

“We’re attacking it with a chip on our shoulder,” said running back Deion Hankins. “(Running backs coach Barrick) Neely was talking about that in the film room, working harder and proving everyone wrong and continue to embrace the culture of hard work.”

If UTEP can continue to do that, a win could be on the table for them vs. FAU. The Miners’ defense is ranked ninth nationally in total defense and UTEP will need another performance like the ones Bradley Dale Peveto’s unit has put forth during the Miners’ four-game winning streak.

The Miners will also need a more consistent offensive showing than what they’ve put together in recent weeks. The Owls have proven to be explosive at times offensively, averaging 30.6 points and 436 yards per game, both good for fourth in C-USA.

UTEP, by contrast, is 10th in points (24.9 per game) and ninth in C-USA in yards (388 per game). The defense has stepped up throughout the season to the point that the offense hasn’t needed to be as explosive, but Dimel has acknowledged that there will be a time that the offense has to have the back of its defense and FAU could be that moment.

“The biggest thing for us is to try and match their athleticism and their speed they present to our football team and go on the road and get a road win,” said Dimel. “That’s the challenge for us right now as we prepare to have our best week that we’ve had all year. The challenge is out there for the guys to do that and really prepare themselves to come out and play well in a difficult road test.”

Dimel confirmed at his press conference on Monday that UTEP will be without safety Justin Prince vs. FAU. Prince has been in a walking boot at practice since last week with a foot injury suffered against Louisiana Tech.

KTSM has learned that Prince’s timeline for a return is 4-6 weeks and he’s expected back by the end of the season. Tyson Wilson will start in his place.

With the college football world potentially ready to descend on El Paso and Conference USA realignment rumors flying, there’s no better time for UTEP to showcase itself once again. If the Miners get past FAU, they could have every opportunity to do so.

“(UTSA) is a lot less big of a game if we don’t handle business vs. FAU,” said McKee. “The coaches have been telling us not to pay attention to social media or Twitter and its on us as seniors to keep everyone focused.”

On the Conference USA realignment front, it was a slower day again Monday. Southern Miss announced a Tuesday press conference, presumably to announce its move to the Sun Belt Conference that was reported last week. The Athletic is reporting that the other rumored teams from C-USA reportedly headed to the Sun Belt – Marshall and Old Dominion – could make it known officially later in the week.

Matt Brown of Extra Points also weighed in on the possible teams that C-USA could add as replacements, mentioning Missouri State as a possibility for the first time.

New Mexico State has also been brought up by numerous media outlets over the last few days. Aggie officials met on Sunday to discuss realignment, but the details of that conversation are not known. However, NMSU has long-said that its top priority is to return to an FBS conference from the ranks of the Independents. It would seem to be a no-brainer for NMSU to attempt to jump into C-USA.

However, according to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, the biggest hurdle to clear for Conference USA continuing on will be securing a media rights deal. If the league is too decimated, it could be difficult to convince television contractors to commit to broadcasting rights contracts.

Much is still up in the air regarding Conference USA realignment; there is no timeline for things to come together for the league.

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