UTEP football damaged, but progress is possible

By Pablo Villa

The dust has settled on a lackluster weekend for UTEP football, and a trip through social media reveals angst and worry from Miner fans after they witnessed their team get dropped 32-13 by UTSA on Saturday at Sun Bowl Stadium.

The loss is UTSA’s first-ever Conference USA win. It is also the Roadrunners’ first win on the road against a university from Texas. UTEP will forever be emblazoned on a plaque somewhere in the UTSA football offices along with the game ball from Saturday. Recruits from Plano, Killeen, Cedar Park, Refugio and elsewhere will see that shrine to UTSA’s first step toward football legitimacy — perhaps even after a visit to El Paso — and their decisions on where to spend their next four years will be made that much easier.

I don’t think you’re being honest with yourself if you don’t see this scene playing out numerous times in the run-up to national signing day in February. San Antonio has better facilities, a bigger media market and (arguably) a more vibrant city. The only thing UTEP could’ve had going for it in the battle for these recruits is winning. Everyone wants to be on the side of a winner. Recruits are no different. And if their choice comes down to playing for an up-and-coming program gaining momentum or a 100-year-old school with waning attendance that can’t beat a fledgling team, where will they go?

Yes, this was only Round 1. Yes, these schools will play again next season. Yes, UTEP is rebuilding. Yes, players are taking time to acclimate to coach Sean Kugler’s system. Fine. But what’s the story gonna be next year if this happens again in the Alamodome?

The Miners won’t have an advantage in this series until 2015 at the earliest. That’s a long time to go without a single edge in the fight for recruits deciding between San Antonio and El Paso.

Now, this season isn’t unsalvageable. The Miners are 1-2 and bowl eligibility isn’t out of the question. But a tough stretch lies ahead against Colorado State, Louisiana Tech, Tulsa, Rice, Texas A&M and North Texas.

Based on history, UTEP must win three of those six games to set up a three-game run at the end of the year in which it must win two to qualify for a bowl. Where do those three wins come from in that tough schedule? The Miners’ final three games — against FIU, Tulane and Middle Tennessee — are all very winnable. But I wouldn’t count on UTEP beating Middle Tennessee in the season finale. The Miners haven’t won a finale on the road since a 41-24 victory over Hawaii in 1991, more than 20 years ago.

The race to a bowl begins this week. And UTEP opens as a 13-point road underdog against Colorado State. If Jay allows it, we’ll look at some keys to the game later this week. (Editor’s note: Jay will allow it.)

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